Follow the Crowd

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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11 thoughts on “Follow the Crowd

  1. If you could do the whole thing over again, knowing what you know now, would you just have found a taxi or would you have continued to walk another hour in the freezing rain?

  2. That’s a good question. I had wrestled with that while I was walking…because I feel it’s important to honor your own feelings and wishes…and I was worried that if I went along with the group, that I was doing it only because I was people-pleasing and afraid of offending someone.

    If it were anywhere else, I wouldn’t have hesitated. But there was the whole “when in Rome…” thing. So I don’t know really what the correct decision was.

    What would you have done? I’m guessing you would have taken a cab. Am I right?

  3. That is really, really valuable information to have, I think. I think people see skyscrapers and consumerism and automatically think “Wow, that’s westernisation at work!”
    Even non-Westerners who are afraid of losing their own culture will feel that way.
    But the Japanese are more stubborn than that, I guess. I think every foreigner should know this. I’m glad I got to read it here instead being crushed when I found it out for myself later. :/

  4. Kira – I don’t think it’s a bad thing necessarily that Japan isn’t Westernized. That’s what makes it so unique and interesting! And it is how it is. I guess it was just a surprising experience for me to realize just how much that’s true. And it also made me realize, once again, how much my own American culture influences my thoughts and perceptions. It’s interesting…

  5. Hey! I was just blog surfing and I stumbled on to your post 🙂 Being Asian myself, I was raised to be more conscious of my role/what was expected of me in the community. I think the main difference in Asian and Western cultures is that individuality is emphasized in Western cultures while for Asian cultures it’s more of community. There’s this concept called “pakikisama” which basically means adapting (and agreeing)to the group you’re in. It might seem like people-pleasing to you, but to me it’s more of being part of the group. But I do have my limits though. 🙂

  6. Hi Elle, (I love your name by the way). Thanks for the insightful comment.

    So are you saying that when you decide to go along with the group, that it’s a deliberate decision? Or is it automatic and unconscious and something you might only be aware of after the fact?

    For me, whenever I decide to do something for the “greater good of the group”, it’s always a conscious decision…and yes, sometimes it does feel uncomfortably like people-pleasing. But that’s not the case with you?

  7. Oh no, I don’t think it’s bad that Japan isn’t Westernised. I think it’s good that they have this central core of “Japaneseness.” As a Canadian, it’s something I definitely lack. What is “Canadian,” anyway?

    But for me, being North American, the idea of not even thinking about your own desires, trying to fit in with the group, feels oppressive. It’s just good to know about it beforehand, so that you can be prepared.

  8. Now that I think about it, it’s quite hard to explain LOL! Yes, I don’t think it’s uncomfortable and I have a different definition of people pleasing. It’s more about knowing the set of rules in a group, and being flexible enough to adapt to these expectations. It does sound a bit oppressive sometimes, don’t you think?

  9. Reannon,

    I just want to say that I love your last paragraph on this post. I feel the same way. Japan is not westernized its modernized. It’s distinctly japan and cannot be compared nowhere else!

  10. As far as the group thing goes, I don’t think it has anything to do with race. I believe it’s strictly individual and it depends on the relationship you have with the group your with. Being filipino myself, Elle, I grew up going with the flow within the group I’m with. But I managed to break from that mindset. I guess you can say I became a bit more selfish.

  11. I completely agree with this one. Once I was making my husband a meatloaf and asked him to mix the raw meat and the ingredients together, and when he asked why, I told him simply, “Because I don’t want to do it.” He replied, “We don’t normally say that sort of thing in Japan…” and I thought he meant they lied instead of saying their true feelings and emotions, which is also totally true. But yeah, you’re right. They don’t think like we do. Totally weak. ^_~

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