Japan: The Herd Mentality

by Nabanita Dutt, Jul 11, 2002 | Destinations: Japan / Tokyo

Sephora, the French cosmetic store, was giving a fabulous pre-Christmas sale. Half of Tokyo's fashionable young female population seemed to have descended on the shop, to sift through the 50 per cent discounted goods. There was no room to stand, much less get close enough to choose.

Shopping basket in hand, I was hanging around the fringes, wondering what to do when I noticed an anteroom leading off the shop floor. Everything that was on sale in the main area was displayed here, except that nobody seemed to be going in. Thinking it was a storeroom, hence out of bounds, I wandered in anyway. A couple of teenagers, following my lead, came in after me. Then two, then three, until the anteroom was as full as the main area in a space of five minutes.

What had been holding them back? How come nobody had tried to enter this place til I ventured in? By the time my seven days in the city was over, and I was catching a flight back home, I had my answer. It was a characteristic unique to all Japanese people - herd mentality.

They play golf because others play it. They holiday in Hawaii because others do (they may not have been anywhere else in the world, but they've most certainly been to Hawaii). They are maniacal about photography because Nippon is such a camera-loving nation.

Instances are all around you and one cannot spend any amount of time in the country without being aware of at least some of them. For example:

* Their fascination with branded goods. An average Japanese girl gets her first designer handbag when she's 12 or 13. Women on the streets of the world's most fashionable capital are walking flashbacks of the excessive Eighties, clutching several shopping bags, teetering on pin heels and sporting Chanel sunglasses emblazoned with interlocking Cs. Louis Vuitton is the label of choice, followed by Burberry and Prada. Eight out of 10 carry Louis Vuitton bags - and this is Japan, not Thailand or Hong Kong, so you can be sure they're the real things. Schoolgirls, it is said, ply the streets of Kabuki-Cho (the city's red light area), picking up customers to make enough money to visit the Louis Vuitton showrooms. Apparently, matters came to such a head that the president of the company had to issue an appeal to young high-school girls not to buy LV bags, to put an end to such incidents.

* Their obsession with thick volumes of comics called manga. While travelling in trains, during short breaks at work - if they are not napping, they have their heads buried in the newest editions to hit the bookstands. Manga plots deal with everything from wild farce to sci-fi, written in a manner which amuse everybody from children to young Japanese adults. Anime - animated versions of Japanese comics - is a recent phenomenon, and its popularity is presently sweeping the country.

* Their obsession with vending machines called jido hanbaiki. They're all over Tokyo and in such numbers that you'd imagine there's one for every 10 Japanese or so. Jido Hanbaiki sells everything you can pack into these 3 x 2 meter metal boxes - soft drinks, CDs, soaps, shampoo, video games, ramen, books, rice, condoms, bento boxes, toys (take a deep breath) cosmetics, magazines, underwear and hundreds of other things. Like their tech savvy manufacturers, these gadgets are fast and efficient, spewing out just the correct change for a 1,000 or even a 10,000-yen bill.

I had read somewhere that the Japanese set such store by the jido hanbaiki because, unlike humans, they don't take breaks, have mood swings or get sick. Most important, unlike humans they work 24 hours a day and don't complain. Japanese definition of the Perfect Worker.

* Their obsession with hi-tech public restrooms. Even in shopping malls and railway stations you're likely to come across toilets which seem to have all the facilities to make a science fiction movie: infrared lights that senses movement and flushes automatically, soap dispensers which get activated the moment you even think of washing your hands, bidets that spray your bottom at the push of a button, baby-holders inside the stalls so that you don't lose sight of your kid when you close the door...

In all my time in Japan, I haven't managed to work out what all those buttons attached to the toilet bowl with instructions in Japanese are quite supposed to do.

* Their obsession with a game called Pachinko. Pachinko parlours dot the city, a-yen-a-dozen, always full with people sitting in front of pinball-like machines, flipping balls into little holes. The illusion that repetition leads to mastery prompts queues to form outside these parlours long before they're open, as Japanese of all ages can't wait to get their hands on the lever - a lucky pull and a month's worth of salary can pour out of the slot.

* The herd mentality seems to extend to the fantasy world as well. I found many shops in the busy Shinjuku area selling something which resembled colourful lottery tickets. I couldn't read them as they were in kanji, but prices like 5,000 yen, 7,000 yen were written clearly in English. Lots of men were bending over them, making hasty purchases and disappearing into the crowd. It was only later that a local explained that they were buying fantasies. For example, Japanese men, he said, get off on the idea of feeling up strange women on the subway. Or have a schoolgirl at their disposal, catering to their every whim. Given that they are such a courteous and decent lot of people, I'm sure none of them would actually indulge in such practices. But when there are establishments with girls willing to role-play for a hefty sum of money...

This explanation seemed to make sense since I had seen pictures in the shop of women standing in what looked like a railway compartment with a man covertly pinching her bottom. But what struck me as funny was that these conformists seemed to fantasize in unison as well. I mean, these establishments must have been assured of enough customers before they put up the train or schoolroom sets.

* Another curious thing I've noticed about the Japanese is how angry they get at the very mention of things an average foreigner knows them by. It's never occurred to me to take umbrage when people say "Ah! The Taj Mahal..." when they learn I'm from India. Similarly, few Dutchmen, I think, mind the mention of tulips or Frenchmen the Eiffel Tower. Not so in Japan. Don't talk of samurai, or kimono, or geisha while you're there. Also, leave their much-respected Mt Fuji -- who they call `Fuji-san' - alone (an irate Japanese once told me: "And you know, these ignorant Americans know so little about Japan, they call Mt Fuji, Fuji Yama!!!!!").

I didn't ask what's wrong with Fuji Yama. It was enough that I had learnt it's incorrect to call it that the easy way, without stepping on any toes.

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