Living in Japan

How does social pressure influence the views of success in Japan?

In Japan, it is fashionable for men to be able to pay for women on a date. However, what might seem as fashionable may connect to deeper social pressures. These pressures and norms around being a successful can go on to affect many aspects of Japanese life both for men and women.

The first time I ever went on a date was in Japan. I remember being very nervous as I showed up at the restaurant. I wasn’t sure what to wear or what to expect. By the end of the meal, I found myself laughing with the guy I was with and having a fun time. However, to my surprise, he proceeded to pay the check refusing to let me even help split the bill. This continued when we went to the movie and he payed for the popcorn and ticket. What surprised me the most is when he insisted to pay for the train ticket to return home even though we were on a date in the city I lived, not the city he lived. Although that date didn’t amount to anything but a friendship, I found this to be the norm as I dated other people in Japan.

In Japan, it is kakkoii (かっこいい) or fashionable for men to be able to pay for women on a date. While I won’t deny that I appreciate it when my current boyfriend chooses to pay for me (especially since I am a graduate student while he has a full time job), it has led to many interesting interactions. I remember another time with my ex-boyfriend that I wanted to go out to eat with him. At the time he had little money, so I offered to pay, but this stressed him out so much. This led me to wonder about the deeper social pressures that my partners were under.

Anyone who has spent considerable amount of time in Japan may have a clear picture of what a “salary man” is. We all have seen the clean shaved Japanese man wearing a full suit as he rushes onto the train early in the morning and late at night. Or perhaps we think about the cluster of suited men on their way out to drinks after work. In Japan, the view of a “successful man” is largely associated with this idea of a “salary man”. The idea of a hardworking man with a good company job is considered desirable.

These pressures and norms around being a successful “salary men” can go on to affect many aspects of Japanese life for both men and women. In this article I would like to explore gender expression in Japan and the influence of social pressure.

How is gender expression different in Japan?

To start out, we should answer the question: what is gender expression? “Gender expression” is the concept of how gender is performed within a culture, such as through fashion, attitude, social behavior, and so on. Every culture has differences within gender expression.

For example, in United States (where I am from) having a beard is considered very cool and masculine. When my father was younger, he grew a goatee to look more mature and professional at work. Many businessmen, executives, and celebrities wear a variety of styles of facial hair. However, you’ll find Japanese men are quite the opposite. A man with a beard in Japan tends to be seen as unprofessional. So, while for Americans, being masculine is cool, strong, and attractive, in Japan it is more common to see clean shaven men in positions of authority.

Another notable difference is in fashion. Of course, fashion is very loose and changes rapidly in every culture. Trends of today are different than trends of tomorrow, so any broad sweeping observations are subject to change. With this said, I have noticed that a lot of my Japanese male friends find jewelry like earrings and rings and carry bags (or purses) around is popular. However, in America, this is seen as much more feminine expression. In fact, there have been multiple times in America where other Americans find it odd that my Japanese friend carries a purse, blow dries his hair, and cares about which skin products he uses. He is often seen as less masculine than American peers despite being quite masculine in Japan.

One major difference I’ve noticed between Japan and America is that Japanese men have much stricter standards for beauty. Now, don’t get me wrong. American men do have beauty standards they have to adhere to. Such things are normal to every country. However, I find overall beauty standards tend to be stricter (for both men and women) in Japan than in America.

As mentioned before, Japan has a strict image of what a “successful salary man” is. This includes both physical and mental aspects. In high school, this is enforced through pressure to be the best student, go to college, and so on. It then translates into adulthood as men are pressured to be the mainstay of the family. When a man cannot provide for his family, he experiences severe social shame for not being good enough (here we can see the origins for that “paying for the date” norm from before).

One reason that this image is so strict is because of Japan’s high uncertainty avoidance. In social sciences (such as psychology), uncertainty avoidance is defined as the degree to which we avoid unknown or ambiguous situations. In a uncertainty avoidant society, people try to resolve ambiguities quickly. Countries like Japan have a variety of natural disasters such as tsunamis, earthquakes, typhoons, and so on. Because of this, preparing for unstable situations is important for societal survival. This leads the culture to be more cautious.

This avoidance of ambiguous situations appears in many aspects of Japanese culture. Have you ever noticed that Japan has paperwork for every situation? One of the most frustrating aspects of living in Japan is the fact that there are strict policies for everything and very few exceptions. Or perhaps you’ve noticed Japanese people tend not to be spontaneous in social situations. Sometimes it feels like any social gathering with a Japanese friend has to be scheduled well in advanced. In fact, having an itinerary of events for your day of hanging out is also not unusual.

This avoidance for uncertainty also bleeds into the Japanese view of success. That image of a successful salary man is an image rooted in the success of past men throughout history. And so following the path that has already worked has less risk than following a new path. This creates a pressure to conform to the ideal path rather than more risky paths (such as being an artist or any other unconventional careers).

How does social pressure influences Japanese people?

As mentioned before, the social pressure for men to conform to a successful image is quite strong. In fact, social pressure in general is strong in Japan. 

Social pressure is not an inherently good or bad thing. All societies come with some level of social pressure. The benefit of social pressure is that it allows people in a society to have positive influence on one another and can facilitate goal orientated cooperation. For example, being able to support your friend in getting out of a toxic relationship or inspiring your peers to achieve a shared goal are types of social pressure. The sense of belonging is rooted in some part in social pressures. Conforming to norms of a group (such as wearing team uniforms or shared friendship bracelets) allows us to connect to each other.

In Japan, these social pressures do have many advantageous effects. For example, have you ever notice how things in Japan tend to be high quality? It’s often difficult to find poorly made meals or messy streets. Part of this is because of social pressure to do your job as good as possible. Likewise Japan is perhaps one of the safest countries in the world to live. In part, this is because of social pressure as the social shame for breaking the rules can be quite strong.

However, while social pressure has benefits, it can also be harmful. For example, because of the expected path to success includes graduation from university, getting a job, getting married, and having children, anyone who does not conform to this norm struggle immensely beneath the pressure. For example, those on the LGBT spectrum are shamed for not adhering to the social norm. This can cause them to not be free to express themselves to friends and family.

Likewise, men who do not wish to pursuit company careers or women who do not wish to be housewives can be subjected to a lot of public scrutiny. The “successful salary man” pushes the view that men have to provide for their families. This means when the man isn’t the primary caregiver (for example if his wife is successful), he can face public scrutiny for not being good enoug. Perhaps you can see then why it becomes difficult to break up the traditionally very male dominated sneior positions. This can affect interpersonal relationships between husband and wife harming both the man and the woman.

There is no problem with taking pride in being successful. If you work hard to get a degree and get a good paying job allowing you to be able to pay for a girl on a date, then you should be proud of your hard work. While I never want my boyfriend to feel like he must pay for me, I also want him to feel proud because he has worked hard. In contrast, sometimes I also want to feel proud because I do work hard myself and so I want to buy him things and pay for things in return. However, the other side of this pride is shame. When you don’t succeed, you now suffer the shame of failure. This is perhaps the most harmful aspects of this social pressure as what is successful can be a forever out of reach. When the shame gets too great, it can be devastating to a person’s life (both men and women). This can result to heightened risk of depression, suicide, and cases where people are trapped by their fear of society (such as hikikomori).

What does this mean for me as a foreigner?

Regardless if you are a Japanese person or a foreigner, social pressure will influence you to some degree. Because we are not Japanese, we are given a free pass when we don’t fit the norm. No matter what, we can’t fit the norm. We cannot be the ideal “Japanese salary man”.

However, even though the pressure is different, we are still expected to conform in many ways. For example, we are expected to follow social rules. Just because we’re not Japanese doesn’t mean we are suddenly allowed to do whatever we want. We still need to be respectful of our neighbors, take out our trash properly, and not cause major social disturbances. The more we pursue a career or develop interpersonal relationships in Japan, these social pressures become even stronger. It’s impossible to participate in a society without facing some pressure to conform.

In my own life, there have been many times I have also been pressured to conform to Japanese norms. For example, my boyfriend has commented on basic table manners (especially places where Japanese table manners differ from American). This is because his mother cares deeply about manners and he wants me to have a good relationship with his family. Likewise, he has to conform in some way when interacting with my own mom who is much more casual and expects him to be less polite.

Another example is when I go to class. In school, my classmates often dress nice. Things like pajamas to school every day (which is normal in America) is atypical. There are constant pressures to conform to Japanese mannerisms, behaviors, and speaking styles. By doing so, these social interactions become much smoother and easier to navigate.

It’s easy to get carried away with other people’s views of us, especially if it comes from our significant other and their families. There is no easy answer to handling these kinds of pressures. While it might be tempting to say you should simply resist them, social pressures aren’t exclusively bad. In fact, entirely resisting them can make life more difficult. At the same time, pure conformity is also not good, especially in cases where those pressures are detrimental to your happiness and well-being.

One major benefit to being aware of the social pressures that influence those around you (as well as yourself) is that you can analyze it critically. I find by being willing to discuss these pressures with my friends, it allows us to understand one another on a deeper level. This gives us a safe place to escape the pressures without shame and be ourselves.

Many of my Japanese friends have come to me and talked to me about deep traumatic experiences and major emotional struggles. This is because of this openness to talk. In return, I am given the chance to express my own struggles and ways that these pressures harm me (such as pressures to conform to femineity in ways I am unable to). This ability to understand one another on a deeper level helps relieve some of the pressure. In the end, by supporting one another, we can distance ourselves from that feeling that we are not “good enough” for social standards. After all, as the famous quote goes, those who matter don’t mind, and those who mind don’t matter.

My name is Katarina (Kat) Woodman
ウッドマン カタリナ (キャット) と申します。

Kyoto University Graduate School of Education
​Educational Cognitive Psychology Course, Doctoral course​
教育認知心理学講座, 博士後期課程

I was born in the United States and currently reside in Kyoto, Japan. My specialization is in Japanese Second Language (JSL) and multilingualism, but in general I write about a broad range of Japanese related topics.


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