I’ve been reading a lot of about “groupism” and “the follow the leader syndrome” in Japan and it’s all sort of mind -boggling. I was reading, for example, that this ice cream company in Tokyo actually hired people to form lines in front of their stores. And even though it was in the middle of Winter, that simple little marketing trick worked wonders in increasing sales. Apparently, people saw the long line and assumed (naturally) that the place was popular and in demand and not wanting to feel left out of the trend, they joined in on the line.
That’s so interesting, isn’t it? It makes me wonder if that trick is what’s at play with the Krispy Kreme and the H&M, (who continually have lines that snake around the block).
Last Monday, I experienced this “follow the leader syndrome” first hand. I went hiking with a group of Japanese, Korean, Taiwanese and Thai students around Mt. Ishiwari. After a six hour climb through the rain, we were all sore, exhausted, wet and cold and in desperate search of an Onsen (hot springs) and a hot drink.
We waited outside a hotel while the group’s organizer and quasi-leader asked for directions. And when she came back, she informed us that the nearest Onsen was an hour’s walk away! We’d been wandering lost for nearly an hour already, so I thought that surely this meant that we’d either give up on the idea of going to an Onsen or that we’d take a taxi. After all, who wanted to walk for an added hour through the freezing rain? And along a busy freeway, no less?
I even suggested a taxi, to which at least one person heartily agreed.
But then something very peculiar happened. One person started walking down the road and the rest of the group, who were in the midst of an animated discussion, slowly began to follow. A little ways down the road, I stopped my friend and asked where it was that we were going. Was this the way to the way to the taxi stand? A bus stop?
And then she said that we were walking to the Onsen.
“Wait. Seriously? Seriously? We’re walking?! Why? When did we decide this?” I was thoroughly confused. Had I missed something?
But it was my friend who looked confused. “I don’t know. I was just following them.”
“Um, Ok. Well, you won’t be offended if I don’t come with you, will you? I’ll find a cab and meet you guys there.”
But even as I said this, I instinctively knew that this would be a big ‘no no’. I’d be going against the ‘group conscious’ and they probably wouldn’t know how to interpret that. They’d probably be hurt and see my actions as rude.
So I kept walking. But the little American in my head kept whining like a petulant child, “This is sooo dumb. It makes no sense! Whhhhhyyyy are we doing this?” And the American wanted to demand a discussion. We needed to weigh our options! We needed to have a vote!
This prompted a long and fascinating conversation with my friend (who’s Japanese). She said that until I had asked about the taxi, the thought hadn’t even occurred to her to question the group’s actions. She had just followed.
The same thought was echoed by my Korean friend. “I also thought about taking a taxi,” were almost his exact words. “But then we started walking and I thought ‘Well this is nice too.’ The scenery is really beautiful.”
I replied with a sarcastic: “Yes, this freeway is gorgeous. And the way we get splattered with mud each time a car zooms by is really beautiful, too.”
He then suggested that if I was really cold or tired, that I could go home. But that wasn’t the point! Sure, I was cold and tired, (which was partly my fault for not getting enough rest or thinking to bring a raincoat or umbrella) but not enough to prevent me from being able to walk another hour. The point was that I just didn’t want to.
And in America, that would have meant something. That would have been enough.
I found the fact that I was even having this discussion to begin with, completely mind-blowing.
“You mean to tell me, that each person in this group is probably thinking ‘Wow, I wish were taking a taxi right now’ but they aren’t, because they’re trying to be harmonious and do what’s best for the group?”
But my friend explained to me that it wasn’t about people making a conscious sacrifice for the best interests of the group. She said that the motives for their actions were completely subconscious. They weren’t even thinking about why they were walking through the rain or of any possible alternatives. They weren’t considering their wants or desires at all.
She said that before she went to college in the States, she never gave any thought to what she wanted. It wasn’t about “What do I want to do?” it was about “What should I do?”
But how can that be possible? I can understand how the pressures society places on young people might take the decision-making process out of education or career choices…but what about the little, every day choices? Surely, people ask themselves: What do I want to eat for breakfast? What do I want to wear today?
But my Japanese friend says that this isn’t so. It’s still a matter of ‘should’ and not ‘want’. And most people aren’t even aware that they view the World in this way. It’s just how it is.
Damn. And I was living in Japan under the assumption that if you strip away most of the cultural conditioning, that all of us are basically the same. That we, as human beings, all share the same basic needs and desires.
But I think that’s an easy mistake to make here. On a surface level, Japan seems so westernized. They have a diversified restaurant scene that rivals that of New York and a Starbucks on every street corner. But I think the distinction is that they are modernized, not westernized. At their core, they think in a very different, unique way. A very Japanese Way.
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