Japan is known for its strong cultural values and traditions that emphasize group harmony and conformity. While these values have many positive aspects, they can also create social pressure that can lead to problematic behaviors.
Pressure is felt from an early age, with a highly competitive education system and a strong emphasis on academic achievement. In the workplace, long hours and strict hierarchical structures can create a stressful and demanding environment. Social pressure to conform to gender roles and to maintain a positive public image also contribute to this sense of pressure.
It is perhaps better not to see it as an inherent problem that should be rejected outright but as a natural byproduct of social interactions. For groups of people to have easy and peaceful interactions, agreed-upon rules and norms are necessary, so that each time you try to negotiate with one another, you have a foundation to work upon. Whether these are simple rules, such as wearing clothing in public and not killing another person, or more complex rules like gender norms.
In a way, conformity can foster a sense of social cohesion and unity. For example, when you follow certain fashion trends or express shared cheers at a sports game, you inherently feel a sense of cohesion and belonging to the group you follow. This also reinforces the importance of respecting and valuing others and can lead to a greater sense of empathy and social responsibility.
The problem is too strong of pressure. This can lead to high levels of stress, burnout, and mental health issues among individuals. We all perhaps know what dangerous conformity may look like, but an example of problematic conformity is when individuals conform to societal or cultural norms and expectations, even if they are harmful or unjust. For instance, gender-specific norms that restrict women’s rights, opportunities, and freedoms. Often women are expected to conform to these norms, even if it means sacrificing their aspirations, education, or autonomy. Another example could be the pressure to conform to certain beauty standards, which can lead to body shaming, low self-esteem, and mental health issues (Both of which are critiques you can make in Japanese culture, but that’s a different discussion).
In such cases, conformity can be problematic because it leads to negative consequences for those who do not conform. In Japanese society, the types of high pressure to conform to a perfect standard (like how I discuss in a past article titled “The Pressures that Shape Japan” lead to many major issues such as the phenomenon of “jouhatsu”, (蒸発) or disappearing from society. This is one extreme response to this pressure in which individuals feel they can no longer meet societal expectations and choose to cut ties with their previous life.
In this article I would like to explore Japan’s history of conformity, the concept of “face” in Japanese society, and how these things contribute to the phenomenon of “jouhatsu.”
Japanese Culture and Conformity
One of the main drivers of the jouhatsu phenomenon is the pressure to conform to societal expectations. In Japan, there is a strong emphasis on maintaining a good reputation and not causing shame or embarrassment to oneself or one’s family. This pressure can be particularly intense for young adults who are expected to enter prestigious universities, secure stable employment, and marry according to societal norms. Those who fail to meet these expectations may feel that they have no other choice but to disappear.
Conformity has been a central feature of Japanese society for centuries, with roots in Confucianism and other traditional cultural values. The idea of putting the needs of the group above the needs of the individual is deeply ingrained in Japanese culture, and is reflected in many aspects of daily life, including education, work, and social relationships.
One of the earliest influences on the development of conformity in Japan was the introduction of Confucianism in the fifth century. Confucian teachings emphasized the importance of social harmony and the role of the individual in maintaining it. This idea was reinforced during the Edo period (1603-1868) when the samurai class enforced strict social hierarchies and codes of conduct.
In the post-World War II era, Japan underwent a period of rapid modernization and economic growth. The government, in its efforts to rebuild the country, emphasized the importance of hard work and loyalty to one’s employer. This led to the development of the “salaryman” culture, in which employees were expected to work long hours and conform to a rigid corporate hierarchy.
The 1980s and 1990s saw a backlash against this conformity culture, with some young people rebelling against the strict social norms and pursuing alternative lifestyles. However, the idea of conformity continues to be deeply ingrained in Japanese culture, with social pressure to conform to societal norms and expectations remaining a significant issue.
Another factor contributing to the jouhatsu phenomenon is the stigma associated with debt in Japan. In Japanese culture, there is a strong emphasis on saving face and not burdening others with one’s problems. This leads to pressure to “save face” whenever someone does something considered “shameful”.
This idea highlights a strong cultural value in Japan of maintaining one’s reputation and social standing. In Japanese culture, the concept of “face” (面) is closely tied to one’s self-esteem, dignity, and respectability. Saving face, therefore, means avoiding behaviors or actions that would cause embarrassment or shame to oneself or others, and maintaining a positive public image.
This “face” is closely tied to the idea of “honne” (本音, one’s true feelings or thoughts) and “tatemae” (建前, one’s public face or facade). In Japan, it is considered important to maintain a positive public image even if it means suppressing one’s true feelings or thoughts in certain situations.
For example, in business settings, saving face can involve avoiding direct confrontation or criticism. Because of this avoidance of confrontation, Japanese people instead use indirect language to convey disagreements or negative feedback (often to foreigners’ frustration). It can also involve expressing gratitude and deference to superiors or colleagues and avoiding behavior that could be seen as disrespectful or impolite.
In personal relationships, saving face can involve avoiding behaviors that could be seen as selfish or inconsiderate. One benefit is that being mindful of the feelings and needs of others is emphasized helping reinforce empathy, respect, and consideration for others. However, the pressures created by the idea of “face” can also result in avoiding public displays of emotion, such as anger or frustration, and instead expressing oneself in a more restrained and dignified manner.
When There is too Much Pressure
One of the major issues in Japan comes from the pressure to not inconvenience others. Because being respectful and considerate of others’ boundaries is overemphasized, it can make it difficult for individuals who are struggling with major problems (such as mental health, debt, etc.) to seek help from friends or family. Instead, they may feel that their only option is to disappear to escape their troubles.
The jouhatsu phenomenon can have grave consequences for individuals and their families. Those who disappear may face significant financial, emotional, and social hardships, including job loss, homelessness, and the breakdown of relationships. For their families, the disappearance of a loved one can be devastating, causing emotional trauma and financial strain.
In addition to the jouhatsu phenomenon, Japan has a very high rate of suicide prevalence rates. As of 2022, the amount of suicide increased by 577, or 2.7%, from the previous year with a total of around 21,584 deaths. This is the first rise in two years. Naturally there are many factors to keep in mind, but issues of mental health that are exacerbated by pressure and stress do not help.
There are steps that can be taken to address the social pressure that contributes to the jouhatsu phenomenon. One approach is to promote greater acceptance of diversity and individuality in Japanese society. By encouraging individuals to pursue their own interests and goals, regardless of societal expectations, we can help to reduce the pressure to conform and the associated negative consequences.
Another step that may help is an increase in mental health awareness. I am very happy to say that I have noticed an increase in mental health awareness in Japan. I personally know many friends who seek help for their problems in one way or another, and I hear it being discussed more often in my daily life. However, while the awareness around mental health has increased in recent years in Japan, it is still markedly less common than in countries like America. By being able to seek help, it can help lower the shame and emotional struggles associated with problems such as failure to conform to expectations.