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Japan's efforts to battle the coronavirus have shown how young women are among those particularly vulnerable to social pressures deeply rooted in the country's emphasis on conformity.   © Nikkei montage
Asia Insight

Japan's virus vigilantes underscore 'suffocating' society

Rising suicides show dark side of peer pressure behind COVID containment success

RURIKA IMAHASHI and NANA SHIBATA, Nikkei staff writers | Japan

TOKYO -- Bar owner Hiroaki Murata's spring pandemic nightmare is back to haunt him just as a coronavirus third wave descends on Japan with the approach of winter.

Murata, who runs an establishment named Ichiyon in Tokyo's Koenji area, remembers how he and his frightened wife felt when they found an ominous message taped to their store sign in late April when Japan was in the midst of government-imposed measures to control the spread of COVID-19.

"For safety, refrain from opening live music clubs until the state of emergency ends," it read. "If I find you opening again, I'll call the police." The typed message described the writer only as "a neighbor."

That day Murata and his wife were live streaming a performance behind closed doors, in accordance with Tokyo Metropolitan Government guidelines. The only people inside were the singer and the couple.

"I was very sad and anxious to think we didn't have any friends around the neighborhood," he said.

Hiroaki Murata, second from left, and his wife Harumi, standing next to him, talk with guests at his tiny bar in Tokyo on Nov. 13. (Photo by Ken Kobayashi)

But Murata was also not that surprised as live music clubs, many small, underground, crowded and with poor ventilation, were reported as an early infection epicenter. He had heard from musician friends about strangers attacking them on the street for carrying guitars.

"During the war, people were harshly accused of just wearing nice clothes or singing songs," he said of Japan during World War II. "What happened to me was just like that. Japanese people haven't changed much."

So-called jishuku keisatsu -- literally "self-restraint police" but in the current context harboring a nuance more akin to "virus vigilantes" -- are people who confront those seen as flouting prevention and control measures. They have appeared in many places during the pandemic and highlight a Japanese social propensity for conformism that is adding to an existing atmosphere of psychological suffocation expressed as being literally "hard to breathe."

Certainly, the pandemic and efforts to control it have brought about huge levels of stress throughout the world, with lockdowns and social distancing bringing economic and mental devastation.

In Asia, where the overall spread has been relatively contained compared to Europe and the U.S., emotional well-being has also taken a hit.

In India, cases of mental illness have risen 20% since its lockdown with one in five people affected, according to the Indian Psychiatric Society. In Thailand, a survey conducted by the country's mental health department found that nearly half of the capital Bangkok's residents suffer from stress. In Singapore, 63% of workers said they felt stressed in April, up 5 percentage points from January, according to U.S. health services company Cigna.

People wearing face masks commute in Tokyo on Nov. 16. (Photo by Ken Kobayashi)

Although Japan is seen as a successful model internationally with its comparatively low infection and death toll figures, the flip side is an increasing feeling of collective surveillance.

Walking around, one quickly notices that almost everyone wears a face mask, even though not mandatory. Despite Japan's somewhat loose approach to curbing infections -- mainly based on official "requests" and the traditional tendency of its citizens for "self-restraint" -- the country has so far prevented an explosion of cases.

And while some claim that could not have been realized without such unique social factors, there is also a growing recognition of their darker elements.

"The pandemic has brought Japan's intense 'peer pressure' to light," said Naoki Sato, co-author of the recently published book "Peer pressure -- why Japanese society is so suffocating."

Peer pressure, or doucho atsuryoku in Japanese, is an invisible force that makes people obey what is thought good in a community or group. Although there is no clear order or instruction, it makes people feel they must follow along even if they disagree.

Unlike Western countries that tried to contain the virus through orders and penalties, Japanese have voluntarily obeyed the rules of the community, or world around them, called seken, said Sato. "From childhood, Japanese are strictly taught not to bother others and that pressure is becoming even more overt in the pandemic," he said.

Data suggest that people are feeling overwhelmed. Suicides rose 40% to 2,153 in October from the same month last year, the fourth straight monthly increase. The rate of increase in females was a startling 82% in October, compared to 21% for men.

Yasuyuki Shimizu, who heads the Japan Suicide Countermeasures Promotion Center, sees a link between peer pressure and increasing suicide risk. "Japanese people have a strong tendency to think that they may not be able to live if they do not get along with people around them," he said. Shimizu added that because most Japanese are nonreligious they need social acceptance. And it is easier for them to be driven into a corner mentally, he said, comparing them to Westerners, whose largely Judeo-Christian religious tradition can offer an outlet through a more personalized and communal spiritual relationship.

Regarding female suicides, Shimizu thinks COVID-19 has likely increased anxiety among women, many of whom bear the burden of caring for children and elderly parents at home, not to mention increasingly pinched household finances. He raised the example of Scandinavian countries, where social welfare carries no stigma. Conversely, people on benefits in Japan are seen as "not independent," he said. "The idea that a life accepting charity is not a full-fledged one is deep-rooted."

Sato, the author, sees people's strong desire not to bother others as a factor in suicides. "When they feel extreme stress, they steer their murderous intentions onto themselves instead of hurting others," he said.

The pandemic has also revealed that certain groups such as women, who were already vulnerable, have become more so.

Young women, who feel they don't belong anywhere, have particularly suffered, said Jun Tachibana, director of the nonprofit Bond project. According to its survey, 96% of respondents -- women in their teens and 20s -- said the pandemic has affected their mental and physical health, while 69% of those said they want to disappear or die. "Low self-esteem is the reason for this," Tachibana said.

In seniority-based Japanese society, the young are more likely to feel emotional suffocation. Despite some changes to work styles brought by the pandemic, Japan's peculiar job culture -- subordinates, for example, traditionally cannot leave the office until their bosses do -- weighs heavily.

A woman in her 20s, who requested anonymity, felt strong pressure from a co-worker when asked to attend an online drinking event. "The colleague seemed to only care about what our boss would think if someone was absent," she recalled.

A woman walks among shuttered restaurants in Tokyo's Kichijoji area on April 22 during Japan's coronavirus state of emergency. (Photo by Ken Kobayashi)

According to the 2020 World Happiness Report, Japan ranked 62nd, down from 43rd in 2013. "There is a correlation between low-self esteem and the level of happiness," said Takashi Maeno, professor of human well-being at Tokyo's Keio University.

A survey conducted by Japan's Cabinet Office showed that only 45% of young people responded that they are satisfied with themselves, relatively low internationally.

That also may explain why Japan's turnout rate for elections is not high among the young. Voting by those in their 20s is around 30%, compared to over 70% for people in their 60s. According to a survey conducted by the Japan Foundation, just 18% of Japanese teenagers responded that "they can change the country and society on their own."

Young people's low self-esteem is correlated with how Japan's overall national power and their own demographic position have changed, Maeno said. While economic growth stagnates at around zero, more young people, forming a political minority in an aging society, have lost hope for the future.

Japan is the world's "oldest" country with 28% of the population 65 or above. The total fertility rate is as low as 1.36, one of the worst in the world.

"In a collectivist society, it is often said 'the nail that sticks out gets hammered down,'" Maeno said. "People's tendency to care about what others think and a society of surveillance may affect their (lower) level of happiness."

Many young people measure it by standards set by others, said Kensuke Suzuki, an associate professor specializing in theoretical sociology at Kwansei Gakuin University. "Rather than changing the environment on their own, young people accept the cards they are dealt in a system created by someone else."

Outside Japan, the young have protested in Hong Kong and Thailand for freedom and democracy. In the U.S., many young people support Black Lives Matter. Suzuki hopes that how the young overseas fight to improve their future can be a "role model" to inspire Japanese to think about theirs.

Though slow, some examples of change are offering a glimmer of hope.

Ryohei Mineue, 31, began offering a program two years ago for hikikomori, or shut-ins, and other troubled people to feel better about themselves through agricultural work after experiencing devastation himself. When he was a system engineer at one of Japan's biggest companies, he suffered from clinical depression. Worn out in body and soul, he decided to return to his parents' home south of Osaka where they grow plums.

While recovering, Mineue was shocked to learn a friend committed suicide after suffering from overwork and he decided to open a shared residence where those facing emotional hardship can restart their lives. He runs three such houses where 10 people in total reside.

He said Japanese unconsciously believe they have to follow the same path as everyone and many tend to think they don't deserve to live if they diverge from it. "When I left the company, I was scared to death that I was going off what is considered a good road in life." Unlike school, where students only have to find the "right" answers, in real life people need to find what works for them, he said.

Students at the N High School, which is seen as a sign of change toward a more open Japanese education system that values instilling initiative. (Photo courtesy of Kadokawa Dwango Gakuen)

Changes afoot in education to encourage people to think outside the box are also emerging.

The N High School, operated by Kadokawa Dwango Gakuen, opened in 2016 with no strict rules on clothing and hairstyles and students can take classes online to obtain a diploma and can also study additional courses of their choice, like programming.

As of October, more than 15,000 students were enrolled, making it one of Japan's largest high schools. For some students who used to refuse to even attend school, N is a place where they finally feel they fit in. It offers a wide curriculum to nurture students who can take initiative. Some are even running their own businesses on the side.

Students choose the school because they feel they can find something they want to do there, said a Kadokawa Dwango representative. "Our students are very diverse and cannot describe themselves in one word. We want to be a place where each student can cultivate their individuality," the representative said.

"The Japanese education system has long focused on correcting the bad aspects of a student to create an average person," Keio Univerisity's Maeno said. "From now on, we need education that focuses on the strengths of each student to develop individuality," he said, citing a new and unpredictable era characterized by the emergence of technologies such as artificial intelligence and a once-in-a-century pandemic.

Kwansei Gakuin's Suzuki also says the global health crisis offers an opportunity to change Japan's emotionally oppressive society.

During the pandemic, some college students who were forced to take classes online, called on their university to review tuition fees. "That's a good example of the young taking action to improve their situation," Suzuki said. "If they feel their voices will be heard when they take action, that will be a step toward them making the world better on their own."

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