It is commonly known that Japan is a collectivistic society. The group is more important than the individual. The adage that “the nail that sticks out gets hammered down” is often mentioned when bringing up this idea. But if it’s important not to stick out, then it’s just as important to fit in. To stay with the group. To act within the whole. And this is why the constant reporting of public opinion surveys for elections, especially this week’s on who will be the next prime minister, can be more harmful in Japan than other more individualistic countries.
Examples of the “groupthink” mentality in Japanese culture can range from obvious to subtle. One of the more common, and easier to spot, is fashion trends for each season, especially for women. When the fashion magazines hit the stands, they present the looks that nearly everyone will be wearing in the coming weeks. There are variations, sure, but it will all be the same type of shoes, or the same fit of jeans. For example, last year it was spartan or gladiator-style sandals. Nearly everywhere you looked, young women had them on their feet.
Another example is things to do or places to go that are fun or popular. In the summer, there is always a few weeks where the beaches are simply packed because everyone comes at the same time. There are other factors in this, of course, such it being the only time of year the beach is open, and that employees all take summer vacations at the same time. But the fact that going to the beach is “the thing to do” also plays a big part.
Now let’s get to elections and the almighty “public opinion.” Just like the U.S. or any other country with big democratic elections, the large media outlets in Japan love to do public polls and write up big headlines about who’s in the lead and which party is expected to win by a landslide. But in a collectivistic culture like Japan, people’s opinions are often easily swayed by being told what “everyone else” thinks or feels. This doesn’t apply to everyone or all ideas. Many people have very strong feelings about some of the biggest topics for the December 16th election; the use of nuclear power, and the stagnant economy. People who are strongly against Japan’s continued use of nuclear power after the Fukushima nuclear disaster aren’t going to have their minds changed just because someone, or the media, tells them that everyone feels nuclear power is a-ok now.
But there are other topics or ideas that people don’t have such strong feelings over, or the topics themselves aren’t so black-and-white. In this situation, it’s more common for Japanese people to seek out what the others around them think or feel, rather than trying to investigate and decide for themselves.
Headlines of who will win the election may not have an influence over every voter, but with so many parties and so many candidates popping up at the last minute, a large number of people are undecided, or on the fence between one and another. Repeatedly being told of who is in the lead may play a part in how they decide to vote. This also raises the question of how accurate those public opinion polls really are. Well, the accuracy of those should always be questioned. Just as every media outlet is going to have a bias of some sort, and that bias is going to affect how they report the results of a poll.
Is Shinzo Abe and the Liberal Democratic Party really expected to take two-thirds of the Lower House seats? Or is Kyodo news actually in favor of him, so they increase his public opinion by several percentage points to sway the public into thinking he’s the majority’s choice? In this instance, making a candidate or party seem more in the lead than they really are could result in more undecided voters simply choosing to go with the crowd. Not stand out from the group. Be a part of the whole.