Young Japs versus young Brits


This week at my Japanese university the students were discussing the kind of music they liked and disliked. Most of the girls liked J-pop, Taylor Swift and Katy Perry. Some of both sexes liked classical music, a couple liked jazz and the ones who belong to dance clubs liked hip-hop. Almost none of them liked what they call ‘noisy music’, by which they mean hard rock, heavy metal and punk.

During the discussions one girl said she didn’t like a Japanese pop star, mainly because her mum didn’t like her. She laughed at this, obviously recognising how lame it is to dislike someone simply because your mum does. I liked both her honesty and the fact that she could laugh at herself, despite being only 19.

Such candour is not unusual in Japan. Students will often tell me that they are bad at things they would like to be good at. They say they don’t have good social skills or are not good with members of the opposite sex. Japanese girls will often say, ‘I want a boyfriend!’ rather than pretend to be content in their singleness. They don’t mind admitting that boys aren’t throwing themselves at their feet and laugh at their own desperation.

I once asked a popular first-year student who her best friend was. She said it was a girl in her High School, adding with a laugh, ‘But I’m not her best friend’. She said she had once said to the girl, ‘We are best friends, aren’t we?’ and the girl had replied, ”No, Yuki is my best friend’. Had I been my student I might have kept quiet about this, just to save face, but she didn’t.

I started wondering how a typical English student would react to hearing someone say they didn’t like a pop star because their mum didn’t. They would probably think this student should form her own opinions and get over the childish tendency to be swayed by her parents. Yet it seems to me that we are all heavily influenced by the people around us whether we like it or not and maybe it’s natural to copy those who impress us. Whether you are impressed by your mum or by David Beckham is just a matter of taste. The legions of people who have recently got a tattoo probably wouldn’t have done so if Beckham and other celebrities hadn’t got them first. Yet getting people to openly admit that they got their tattoos because someone else did is hard. Instead they would probably talk about how a tattoo is their way of expressing themselves. This may be true, but it just kicks the question of why they want to express themselves in this particular way down the road. To my mind there is precious little difference between my Japanese student being influenced by her mother and a young Brit being influenced by Beckham, other than the fact that the mother’s influence will probably be benign and therefore dull to most western teenagers.

Still, if having a tattoo really is an indicator of individuality then I concede that young Brits are more individualistic than their Japanese counterparts, simply by dint of having more tattoos. Yet attempting to garner the attention of others by adorning your body is surely a trivial and uninteresting way of expressing your individuality. Actually voicing an interesting opinion would be far more impressive. As Thomas Mann once said when asked by his Bohemian friends why he was always so bourgeois in his dress, ‘It’s enough that I am different without having to dress differently’.

As an aside, Brendan O’Neill wrote an article on tattoos several years ago in the Telegraph in which he opined that it is now the un-tattooed young of Britain who are the non-conformists. It was a good piece, introduced by the story of the Mayor of Osaka in Japan who had banned people with tattoos from working in local government. The Mayor viewed tattoos as a kind of deviancy. Brendan O’Neill, who I quite like, made the mistake of assuming that all countries are similar to Britain:

the mistake that the mayor of Osaka and other officials and employees make is to believe that tattoos are evidence of deviancy. They aren’t. They’re now symbols of conformism.

Not in Japan they’re not, Brendan. I have lived in Japan, on and off, for 12 years and in all that time I have probably seen only three or four tattoos and they were either on construction workers or Yakusa. In the context of Japan, the Mayor of Osaka was absolutely right in saying that tattoos are a form of deviancy.

Despite their tattoos and their desire to look different, my impression is that young westerners are perhaps more conformist than their east-Asian counterparts in their opinions. This conformity of views is especially noticeable on university campuses. As far as I can tell, only one point of view is on display at western universities and that is progressive liberalism.

Japanese youngsters have largely taken on the socially conservative views of their parents though familiarity with fashionable western culture and ideas mean they are very aware that other points of view to their own are also possible. Though they are undoubtedly more conformist in their dress and public behaviour, their views are, to my mind, less uniform than those of young westerners. I think they acknowledge that their parents’ attitudes might not be very exciting, but they sense they are related in some obscure way to the low crime rate in Japan, something even the young value highly. Japanese youngsters haven’t yet been infected with the idea that transgression and social dysfunction are ‘vibrant’. They love visiting other countries but are at the same time mindful of how dangerous those countries sometimes are. One of my students had been planning to study in Washington next spring but after hearing about the high crime rate decided instead to go to Australia.

Young Brits on the other hand have largely taken on the post-1960’s progressive liberal views of their teachers, lecturers and the BBC, though this influence is as invisible to them as the air they breathe. Even if they knew that Japan has a much lower crime rate than their own countries they would probably not connect this to the socially conservative nature of Japanese society. Instead they might think of it as one of those weird world facts that is unconnected to anything much and from which nothing can be deduced: America has the Grand Canyon, Australia has Ayers Rock and Japan has a low crime rate. That’s just how things are.


3 thoughts on “Young Japs versus young Brits”

  1. Interesting piece, thanks for writing it. I was in Japan for the first time a few months ago and went swimming in one of the spas in Tokyo. I was aware of the fact that some westerners have been unceremoniously thrown out of similar places for having tattoos.

    1. Hi Andy,

      I suppose the Japanese in the Spas can’t have one rule for their native population and one for westerners. Having a tattoo in Japan actually tells you something about the tattooed person and it doesn’t tell you anything good. In the West having a tattoo merely tells you that the person could be an ex-con, a tough or wannabe tough, a young lefty wishing they were less middle-class, someone wishing to indicate their solidarity with the allegedly oppressed underclass, someone who watches a lot of TV and has seen tattoos on sports stars, pop stars, in the Big Brother house and everywhere out on the streets or an ex-sailor from a by-gone era (my father had a geisha tattooed on his arm from his days in the navy). The only people who don’t have them nowadays are nuclear physicists, doctors and social conservatives, partly because these people are probably less concerned with their image than the very young and very stupid and partly because they just have better things to do with their time and money.

      I think it’s good that the Japanese have a no-tolerance policy. If you allow a little of something into your society it very quickly becomes a lot. It’s the wedge strategy or the slippery slope phenomenon. Before you know it your society is knee deep in tattooed people with matching attitudes and beliefs. Children and teenagers have a great antenna for where the cultural wind is blowing and which group is on the back foot, having lost confidence in itself, and which group has the wind in its sails. It pays them not to get left behind. Though the Japanese have conservatism stamped into their genes this doesn’t mean they are immune to the allure of radical cultural trends. After all, the Japanese who butchered and raped their way across east Asia 75 years ago had the same DNA as the extreme pacifists we see in Japan today. Their DNA hasn’t changed, there having been no time for much gene-culture co-evolution, so this dramatic change must represent a purely cultural shift.

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