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Realizing the price of Japan's perfection

In Bangkok, a vibrant community of Japanese expatriates has found an unexpected comfort zone
People take pictures of sculptures by Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama in collaboration with Louis Vuitton outside of a shopping mall in Bangkok on March 24, 2023. A vibrant community of Japanese expatriates has found an unexpected comfort zone in Thailand's capital city.

People take pictures of sculptures by Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama in collaboration with Louis Vuitton outside of a shopping mall in Bangkok on March 24, 2023. A vibrant community of Japanese expatriates has found an unexpected comfort zone in Thailand's capital city. (Photo: AFP)

Published: February 23, 2024 03:52 AM GMT
Updated: February 23, 2024 06:02 AM GMT

In the last few years, a prevailing narrative has been building up on social media celebrating Japan as a paragon of discipline and order, in contrast to the perceived disorder and insecurity of the Western world.

This idealized view fosters a longing among many for the serene and structured lifestyle Japan is reputed to offer, so much so that a recent poll showed it is one of the top countries where most Americans would want to emigrate.

In Japan, the collective drive for harmony and perfection often manifests in a relentless pursuit of punctuality, excellence, and public composure, virtues undoubtedly responsible for the country's remarkable achievements and social order.

However, this picture only tells part of the story. These ideals have a cost, which is often invisible to the eyes of a stranger who has only known Japan via a YouTube upload and the mediation of a non-objective party (the content creator himself).

What the public doesn’t see is a pervasive sense of pressure that permeates various aspects of Japanese daily life, from the workplace to the family unit which makes it far from ideal. No one could better explain this contrast than the Japanese who had a chance to live in a different country, Thailand for example.

In the bustling streets of Bangkok, a vibrant community of Japanese expatriates has found an unexpected comfort zone, unleashed by the rigid constraints of Japanese societal expectations.

This thriving enclave, consisting of families who've ventured thus far as their husbands moved for work-related reasons, reveals a profound lesson about the implications of social restraints and the allure of freedom found in less stringent societies.

My conversations with several members of this community unveiled a unanimous preference for their life in Thailand over a return to Japan, and the tropical climate is just the last of the reasons.

What significantly influenced their stance is by far the social atmosphere that allows them to navigate daily life with a sense of ease and authenticity.

This point also challenges the commonly held belief in the inherent politeness of Japanese culture, particularly the practice of ojigi — bowing — which essentially is a mere superficial etiquette rather than a genuine expression of inner sentiments.

Being late by merely five minutes in Japan can invite scorn or disappointment, a minor infraction by global standards yet a source of significant stress in a culture where time is sanctified, and every minute counts.

Another dimension to which an “untrained eye” pays little attention but is worth considering is the motivation behind the Japanese practice of meticulously putting everything in order after use. While it might be tempting to attribute this behavior to a deeply ingrained ethical principle, it's more accurately understood as a response to the fear of societal judgment.

In Japan, the act of leaving a space as clean as — or cleaner than — one found is less about personal virtue and more about adhering to societal expectations. This compulsion is rooted in a collective consciousness that places immense value on public perception.

But adhering to expectations also promotes stress, as these Japanese women confessed.

Above all, the most transformative aspect of living in Thailand is the freedom experienced while raising children in a society that celebrates the vibrant spirit of youth.

Every Japanese mother I encountered shared that child-rearing in Japan is fraught with anxiety, stemming from societal pressures for children to suppress their natural behaviors. In public spaces — be they restaurants, cafes, or other settings — there's an overwhelming expectation for children to conduct themselves with the decorum of adults, refraining from crying or loudness, essentially behaving like miniature automatons.

These mothers unanimously conveyed that they would never exchange Thai society's relaxed and accepting attitude toward children for the stifling environment they left behind in Japan. The social restraints that define and confine life in Japan represent indeed a double-edged sword, providing structure and stability at the cost of individual expression and spontaneity.

The contrast between the social climates of Japan and Thailand is emblematic of a broader discourse on the downsides of rigid social restraints. While such structures are designed to maintain order and facilitate collective progress, they inadvertently cultivate an environment where individuality and spontaneity are curtailed.

The essence of humanity, with all its flaws and unpredictability, is often stifled in the process, leading many to yearn for spaces where they can express themselves freely without fear of judgment or retribution.

*The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of UCA News.

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