Opinion: Reflecting on my adolescence in Japan and the culture shock of Thailand

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Many countries are lifting restrictions on mandatory mask-wearing these days, Thailand included, giving hope that there is an end in sight for the claustrophobia of the previous two years. 

Many are cautiously asking, is it over? 

However, even if the mandatory mask-wearing is over, there is still no sign of improvement in the suffocating Japanese society. 

The government advocates for diversity, but such aspirations seems like a pie in the sky (There is a saying in Japanese “rice cake (mochi) in a picture”). 

When we look at social media or even traditional media, we often see various forms of art criticising Japan’s exclusive society and its well-known societal pressures. By appearances and in reality, Japan is a stifling society. The culture of harmony, which has to berespected in Japan, in essence means a place where people avoid conflict with others so as to not to disrupt that harmony, is a major part of the pressure for conformity. 

Japanese idol group “Keyakizaka 46” quickly became popular with their debut song ”Silent Majority” released in 2016. The song criticizes this suffocating society and many people, especially the young people in Japan, strongly sympathizes with the lyrics. It says “Wearing similar clothes, With a similar look” “What’s holding you back from being different from others?””Those people lined up in front of you, turn and tell you to keep in line, but their eyes look dead.”

Such lyrics resonates strongly with my generation.

If you express an opinion that differs from those around you, you are ostracized, and if you wear unique and somewhat eccentric clothes, people may talk behind your back. You are told to be more normal, to be like everyone else. I have seen art describing the eyes of those around you as guns pointing at you and thought it was quite true.

Which is why it was such a change when my family moved to Thailand 2 years ago.

In Thailand, I often hear the phrase ‘mai pen rai.’ 

Mai pen rai means “it’s OK, don’t worry about it.”

I understand that this phrase is closely associated with Thai culture as well as the characteristics of its people. A search on the internet on the characteristics of the Thai people will show many search results describing Thai people as tolerant and mild-mannered. I agree very much. 

For example, when my mother went to a official government building which was supposed to open at 9 am, she thought something had happened. She asked the staff what was going on, fearing the worse. 

The staff did not seem to be upset at all and simply replied, “It happens all the time.”

I thought this example shows Thai people’s tolerance to others and their easy-going nature which may also be the reason why people in Thailand do not seem to worry about what others think of them. 

Living in Thailand, I get the impression that this is the case. For example, it is often said that Thai people like to take selfies. In fact, you can often see many people taking many photos at photogenic places, cafés and touristy places. People then post them on social networking sites without hesitation. In addition, people walking in shopping malls wear a variety of outfits. Some of them even wear quite unique and eccentric clothes. It’s great that you don’t have to worry about standing out from your surroundings and can do what you like. 

I envy Thai people’s tolerance.

In contrast, I think back to growing up in Japan. In Japan, the word ‘kuki wo yomu‘ (read the air) is commonplace. I think the reason for the popularity of this word is that it is very compatible with the peer pressure that is the foundation of Japanese society. People always read the air, avoid conflicts with others, and try not to disturb the peace. 

Those who disturb the peace are excluded and ostracized. 

This structure can also be seen in the streets of Japan. Many young people walk around wearing the same kind of ‘mass-produced’ clothes. Those wearing revealing or peculiar clothes are considered unapproachable, and when they get on a train, people do not sit next to them or point at them behind their backs. Individuals who are unique are regarded as disruptors of the peace. 

In essence, individuality is crushed. 

The Japanese culture of modesty can also be attributed to the same peer pressure. It is believed that one should suppress oneself and always remain modest, as opposed to being assertive and causing issues with others. This can also be seen in selfie-taking culture. In Japan, many people, except for young people, do not spend much time taking selfies or posting them on social media. They even feel guilty about taking selfies in public, as they feel that taking selfies might disturb others. Also, posting on social media is seen as a way of showing off and is often subject to criticism or subject to ridicule as narcissistic.

On reflection, it seems to me that Japanese people are always strict with themselves and less tolerant with others. We are always concerned about the eyes of those around us. This may also be the root of Japanese meticulousness. Almost all trains in Japan arrive on time and even a one-minute delay is announced at train stations. This is an extreme example, but a railway company once issued an apology for a train leaving 20 seconds too early. I believe that Japanese culture is at its extreme of ‘not causing trouble for others’. While the world may think such meticulousness is something to admire, the truth is that it is a symptom of a larger, more serious disease. Perhaps if Japan adopted some aspects of ‘Mai Pen Rai’ culture, we could find a better balance. 

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