The nail that sticks out gets hammered down.
Almost elsewhere in the world, we’re actively taught as we grow up to question things and to speak out if we see something wrong. People might try to silence us, but that encouragement is still there: if something is wrong, if something could be bettered, say so. If you’re unhappy, say so. In Japan, that doesn’t exist to even remotely the same degree, and for people raised in a culture where you grow up believing that your opinion is supposed to matter in the bigger picture
though that isn’t to say it always does, that can be difficult to adjust to.
A lot of Japanese people don’t talk about things. Whether it’s the media, politicians, friends or colleagues, people simply do not discuss important or problematic topics. They might be eager to tell you about the details of their job, or how much weight they gained over their holiday, but if you ask someone what they think of laws, or human rights, or the way their company or school is run, there’s a chance that they’ll neglect to give you a straight answer or solid opinion.
Japan, as a country, has its fair share of serious issues, many of which are in dire need of attention, but this culture of silence means that those issues are probably going to take years to solve. And, because so many people remain silent, the result is that a lot of other people – the people who are either unaware of or unaffected by an issue – end up thinking that it just doesn’t exist.
The fact that the media there seems incredibly censored and is awful at covering anything important and/or controversial (and most things going on outside of Japan, for that matter) doesn’t exactly help the situation. For example, there are plenty of Japanese people who think that homosexuality simply doesn’t even exist in Japan (what do you say about that, yaoi fans), or that domestic violence doesn’t exist in Japan. The common thought is that these things are ‘Western’ things. Obviously, that’s a load of bullshit, but no one ever talks about them and, instead, people rather seem to just push them under the rug and pretend that they aren’t there. If such topics do come up, people won’t ask questions.
Most everyone knows about, say, Japan’s suicide rate and will explain to you what it is, but few people think to question why it might be as high as it is, or what a potential solution might be. The people that I’ve spoken to, at least, just write it off as ‘normal’, and that’s that. For many foreigners, it’s pretty shocking to hear that no one thinks twice about the fact that almost a quarter of the adult population of that country has considered killing themselves.
The same can be said about the issues surrounding ethnically Korean citizens of Japan. There’s a problem, a lot of people know there’s a problem, but you’ll be lucky to hear anyone ever talk about it. To talk about serious issues like the discrimination, suicide rates, karoushi (death by overwork), rights, violence, laws or even just the way things are run is to rock the boat, and rocking the boat is not something that’s widely accepted in Japan.
Standing out as different or making a fuss seems to be one of the last things that people want, since many things here also operate around a culture of shame to top off the silence. When you do something ‘wrong’, it’s often drawn to the attention of those close to you, or the nearby public, and that’s a humiliating experience that keeps people in their places, so to speak. The idea that doing something ‘wrong’ will also bring shame to your family also ups this level of humiliation and creates a great deal of pressure to not step outside the box, because you won’t be the only one who experiences consequences for it.
Even in my classes, if someone is absent, many of the teachers would often demand that you explain the reasons for your absence in front of the entire class. As someone who is reasonably passionate about human rights, I found this very difficult to live with, due to the fact that I can see so many problems, and virtually no one taking them into consideration.
A lot of Japan’s attitudes seem to be decades behind most other developed countries, and this is likely due to Japanese society being so slow to stand up, speak out and change things, and this is likely because the country has a history of people sticking their necks out only to get their heads chopped off, so to speak. It takes time to pull a nation out of that kind of mentality.
Disclaimer: This taken from a critical academic [international relations] perspective.