Group mentality — dressing to belong?

by Kris Kosaka

Japan’s group mentality stumbles with frequent kicks from the Western mind.

Too often, group-think translates to no creativity, no backbone, no individuality. Japan’s reputation as a nation of the group versus the individual is used as a convenient explanation for many things Westerners dislike about Japan, things that center around conformity, regulations, and norms.

One of the most quoted Japanese proverbs, “the nail that sticks out gets hammered down,” frequently smirks down in English publications as proof of Japanese traditional, narrow views.

I would like to gather my International Educators in Japan Group, my Yochien Housewife Group, my Foreign Mother/Wife in Japan Group, my Elementary Mama’s Choir Group, my Two Children on a Mama Charley Group, my Costco-hater Group, my Freelance Writers Group, my Identical Twins Group and my Love Champagne and Sparkling Stuff Group members all together and hold a rally protesting this Group against Groups.

Humans naturally gather, whether society dictates we do or not. We are social creatures. Japan merely elevates something natural in human nature to a higher level, in the same way Japanese culture approaches food, the bath or the toilet seat. A bit officious; a bit overdone, perhaps (does anyone really use the water-sound effects to encourage release in the toilet?) but when it works, especially in the case of groups, it works wonderfully.

My best experience to date is with my Mama’s Choir Group. In yochien, the mothers are usually united by the same general philosophy, marked by their common choice of kindergarten. Mothers who work normally opt out of kindergarten to send their children to whatever day care center may be available.

In public elementary school, all that changes, as parents have no choice about schools but are united only by area. Yet we all join forces, once our children don those yellow rucksacks of initiation.

It is amazing, the number of groups the typical Japanese public elementary school provides for mothers and fathers, meeting at all times to encourage working parents to participate. Of course, there are aberrations; it does not always work, but in traditional Japanese culture, the school is the center of community, and I found a community with my Mama Choir Group.

I have no musical talent, and I write, unfortunately, without a shred of false modesty. Most of the mamas in my current group sing like a pro, doubtless reinforced by years of rote learning and late-night karaoke.

Still, there are a few who rival my (in)aptitude. It doesn’t matter. I am accepted and teased and included, the same as everyone else, and there is something comfortable and loving about feeling the same. Typical complaints against the group miss this valuable point, that being part of a group means being accepted, means being loved.

There are problems, of course, with ostracizing and bullying in Japanese society, but so there are, everywhere. Humans gather, form groups; include and exclude. Perhaps Japanese identify and embrace groups more obviously, but every human divides and belongs.

The only thing particularly Japanese about groups, in my opinion, is their rigid adherence to dress code.

The first time I went skiing in Japan, a thoughtful Japanese acquaintance lent me ski wear. I took the bag, thanked her profusely, and then stowed it in the closet, refusing to even take it to the mountain. Instead I donned an old boyfriend’s rain wear, layered over my normal winter clothes.

Her well-meaning loan consisted of matching hat, scarf, gloves, jacket and pants, all from an elite ski wear company. All bright orange or yellow. All completely pristine.

To me, new to Japanese conventions, only a professional skier would wear such attire, and I could never show up on the bunny slope so fashionably arrayed.

I was sure it was my acquaintance’s best wear, and I was also sure she must be an expert skier. Seems I was wrong on both counts. A lesson absorbed on Japan’s group think: dress the part.

Japanese groups follow their group dictates seriously, and must accordingly choose fashion that reflects the group. Thus, Japan’s old ladies battalion dye their hair purple, Salarymen wear dark suits, young housewives in Kamakura don garden boots for rainy days, and well, we all know the false eyelashes, eclectic wear of the Shibuya gals.

Maybe in the West we think we dress to impress or show individuality, but in Japan, we dress to belong. Still, after living away from America nearly 15 years, I wonder now how individual we really are, in the so called Free West. Can’t you always spot an American tourist in Japan? It’s something to do with the shoes, the baseball cap, even the way of looking at a map.

I can distinguish easily between French, Germans and Canadians only by sight, even from across a busy station. I almost always know who will welcome assistance, and who feels determined to navigate unfamiliar waters alone. I am not particularly savvy; just picking up on group signals.

Regardless of what group you belong, of where you call home and where you feel welcome, we all, as individuals, belong to the human race. I tip my Hanshin Tigers Baseball Cap (A necessary group accessory, adopted when marrying my husband) in salute.