Japan Doesn’t Raise no Quitters

Is this true for all Japanese?  No.  As with any study into a people, blanket statements cannot truly match every member of a society.  That being said, social pressures in Japan and the fact that for much of its history it was an isolated island enables us to look at general trends in Japanese culture and accurately apply them to far more of the population than other developed countries.

In Japan, the group is the most important social unit.  Long ago village families learned that they had to band together in order to survive.  Generations lived in the same home, living together and farming the same land.  The ie a word for house became synonymous with an individual’s in-group.  Over time, farm families extended the definition of ie to include ever expanding groups, such as the village.  As the various families banded together to support and protect themselves they began to include people outside their immediate family within their in-circle, albeit at a different level.  Anyone outside these new groupings became soto, literally outside, which also came to mean different.  Over time the development of cast systems and government regulation reinforced the importance of groups.

The group tendency became so ingrained that it is still part of the language.  In Japan, when talking of your ie one will use humble forms, be it for your family or home-workers.  When speaking of someone outside the ie they will then use the regular or honorific forms. These distinctions also influence how people talk to those within and outside the ie.

Since anyone within a particular group is by definition part of that group, one person’s actions affect the rest.  Those ancient farm families would bear the shame or honor that befell any of its individuals.  Over time villages became responsible for all of its members.  If one could not prepare its taxes, all would be held responsible.  Eventually, walls were created to protect an ie’s members.  Problems were often hid so that it would appear the group had no problems.

Since the group affects every aspect of individual’s life, from family to language, the social pressures exuded by the various groups one becomes attached to are extremely strong, even today.  This was probably best seen in the salary-man of the 1980’s.  Japanese business men devoted themselves to work, and in return they had job stability.  While this practice has diminished, it can still be seen in social activities and clubs.  Once you join one, you might find it harder than you thought possible to quit.  It’s not that anyone will tell you that you cannot quit, it is more that the methods for controlling social dynamics are so ingrained that no one has to consciously act.  Even a gaijin can feel the inexplicable pressures to conform and participate fully in group activities.  Be it guilt, pride, or any other emotion, they all play a part in ensuring that most Japanese will not quit a group once they are in.  That being said, they are also far more wary of joining an activity or group they are not completely sure they want to join for good.