Japanese Culture and Traditions: Big Brother Is Always Watching You in Japan

A popular Japanese joke

On a ship with people from various countries, you’re the first to notice the ship is sinking. What to say to make the people escape and jump in the water?

To American people: “Jump, and you’ll be a hero!”

To British people: “A true gentleman/lady would jump.”

To French people: “Do not jump!”

To German people: “The regulations say we must jump.”

To Japanese people: “Everybody else has already jumped.”

This is a very famous joke in Japan. I think it expresses one of the Japanese characteristics very well. In most junior-high and high schools, teachers tell us to behave the same as everybody else. At home, parents scold their kids, saying “No one would do something like that!” The only exception is when they beg for the same things as their friends have. If kids say “I want a new bicycle. My friend had one recently,” their parents will definitely respond “Live and let live.” Anyway, we are grown under such a strong peer pressure in Japan.

It’s like George Orwell’s 1984

In order to control the infection of the new Corona virus, the governments of many countries have issued stay-at-home orders. In Japan, we’ve never had such legal restrictions, but the number of the infections has been kept very small. I heard people outside Japan were curious. The answer is very simple. It’s a mutual monitoring system by the strong peer pressure. Even though there were no legal restrictions, shops and restaurants were harrased to close in the peak period of infection. According to the Google stats, there was no big difference between NY and Tokyo in March, in the amount of movement distance change or movement distance reduction. In the frenzy of the pandemic, some people bravely said “This is a war!” The words remind me of other words: the first to be killed in a war is always freedom.

A lounge chair consisting of many sliding wood pieces. By sliding each of them, the shape changes as you like.

Personally, I dislike this kind of too-much peer pressure embedded in the Japanese society but must admit its big advantage in business. A mutual monitoring system enables us to have good quality control, though it’s highly likely to impede creativity at the same time. You can count on the quality of our products, while Japan’s economic position has been going down. You can see the good result of it in the regime change from Japanese electronics and car manufacturers to GAFA.

A woman is lying in the lounge chair. The chair looks like a cradle.

For any companies in Japan, people like me are difficult to manage. Surprisingly enough, CondeHouse still keeps me around, allows me to do what I want, and even promoted me (though the directors may regret). In that sense, you can expect a lot from us, even in terms of creativity!

Shungo Ijima

He is travelling around the world. His passion is to explain Japan to the world, from the unique viewpoint accumulated through his career: overseas posting, MBA holder, former official of the Ministry of Finance.