A Japanese Psychiatrist’s Takes on the Trials of Life

Escaping Conformism and Keeping Individuality Alive


Individuality is often unwelcome in Japan, but it is necessary to mental well-being. Psychiatrist Izumiya Kanji considers the sense of self.

Is Japan a Modern Society?

In my previous columns on how to reactivate the self, I focused on dealing with one’s internal attitudes. This time, I want to consider issues related to the external world.

As Japan is an advanced, democratic nation, it ought to have a society where people are respected as individuals. But does it?

The news these days is full of stories about “power harassment” (abusive treatment of subordinates), sexual harassment, and sontaku (preemptive action in anticipation of superiors’ unspoken wishes) by harried bureaucrats. Meanwhile, bullying is rife in schools and workplaces, and despite all the talk of preventive measures, the problem shows no sign of going away. These phenomena all run counter to what one would expect in a modern society with respect for individuals.

A Nation of “Villages”

The everyday Japanese words shakai (society) and kojin (individual) only entered the language as improvised translations for the English terms shortly after the beginning of the Meiji era (1868–1912). Until then, Japanese did not have words for these concepts, because they did not exist in Japan.

What Japan had instead of a modern society was seken, a loose term referring to the general public. And within this seken were mura, or “villages,” to which everybody belonged. The members of each village were expected to be essentially uniform, and displays of individuality were unwelcome. Custom and precedent were valued, and order was maintained under a set of unwritten rules that members were expected to observe faithfully.

By contrast, the imported concept of society refers to an aggregation of individuals, all of whom have their own feelings, thoughts, and beliefs. Each person is recognized as a distinct entity and has rights and responsibilities as a member of society.

In this light, it seems that we Japanese are not yet living in a modern society. Though Japan adopted the concepts and institutions of a modern state as part of the Westernizing “civilization and enlightenment” movement of the Meiji era, the mura continues to be the fundamental unit, and seken—the power of public opinion—is a stronger force than the law. This is demonstrated in the peculiar phrasing of public apologies by corporate executives and others, who are regularly heard to make declarations like “We did nothing illegal, but we are sorry to have caused a disturbance among the public [seken].”

Hierarchy in the Language

In a modern society individuals exist independently, but in a mura the members are part of a hierarchy in which their positions are defined relative to others.

The pecking order is heavily influenced by Confucian values, prioritizing seniority according to such measures as physical age, length of service, and years of experience. The essential first step in interactions between members of a mura is for them to figure out which ranks higher. This ranking will determine, among other things, the form of language that each of them will use in speaking to the other.

Japanese does not have a second-person pronoun equivalent to the English “you” that can be used when talking to anybody. Instead, people considered to be superiors are addressed with words that indicate their social role or occupational rank, such as sensei (teacher/doctor) or buchō (department head). Nor is there a single first-person pronoun corresponding to “I” or “me”; speakers switch like chameleons among different words, such ore, boku, and watashi, depending on their relationship with the listener. The emphasis is on obedience to superiors over the rights and responsibilities of the individual, and people are not encouraged to think or make decisions by themselves.

Other types of vocabulary also reflect relative ranking. For example, an older brother is ani and a younger brother otōto. The very language we speak is deeply imbued with this sort of hierarchical thinking.

Paying Lip Service to Individuality

At school, Japanese children are inculcated with individualistic values; they are encouraged to voice their own opinions clearly, to recognize that everybody is equal, and to respect others’ feelings. But in practice, groups form within the classes, and often they are ranked from high to low,  creating what has been described as a “school caste” system. In reality, students are still living in a mura rather than a modern society.

So from an early age Japanese are torn between the officially stated expectation that they will develop themselves as individuals and the reality of having to cope with life as members of a mura. While struggling with this contradiction, if they stray from the zone of conformity required by their “village,” they increase their risk of being bullied.

Bullying may take the form of open violence, but it also often comes through ostracism. When a mura member is treated as an outcast, it is mentally agonizing. In today’s connected world, this ostracism often happens in social media, most typically in Japan by being shut out of a group on the popular Line messaging service.

The Courage to Be an Individual

Being isolated within a group is certainly tough. However, worrying so much about belonging to a mura that one sacrifices individuality is even more painful and leads to a loss of meaning in life.

People do not belong to a single “village” permanently. They join a new one when they change schools, move to a different location, or find themselves in a new workplace. So no matter how much they may try to ingratiate themselves with the members of their current mura, this will not assure permanent peace of mind.

The word mura derives from the verb mureru, meaning “to flock together.” This is an action taken by people without the maturity to stand up as individuals. That is to say, a mura is a flock of people with zero identities. The Japanese painter Fujita Tsuguharu (also known as Léonard Foujita) was active in Paris for almost two decades from 1913. When he was driven out of the Japanese art world after World War II, he returned to France and became a French citizen. In his later years, he wrote as follows:

“Even if public opinion [seken] is strident, spreading from one mouth to thousands of ears, I say that however many tens of thousands of zeroes gather, they only equal zero and will always be less than one.”

Fujita’s words should give us the courage to establish our own identities even if surrounded by a mura. If more of us live as individuals, we can eventually become a great force in transforming Japan’s world of convention-bound mura into a modern society.

(Originally published in Japanese on May 29, 2018. Banner illustration by Mica Okada.)

Society hikikomori psychology