Nice, tight Japan: Implicit rules and their flouting

REUTERS/Kim Kyung-Hoon
People wearing protective masks, amid the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak, walk underneath blooming cherry blossoms along the Meguro river in Tokyo, Japan, March 27, 2022.

Recently I was rereading cultural psychologist Michele Gelfand’s 2018 book “Rule Makers, Rule Breakers: How Culture Wires Our Minds, Shapes Our Nations and Drives Our Differences.” Much of Gelfand’s work deals with the tightness-looseness theory of cultures. Tight cultures are the rule makers, places where there are clear expectations about how to behave, and loose cultures are the rule breakers, areas where assumptions about ways to behave are fuzzier and less strictly enforced. Gelfand and her colleagues investigated around 7,000 people from more than 30 countries, asking respondents about things like the freedom in social situations, the strength of their country’s norms and the disapproval that ensues from violating those norms. Based on their findings, Japan is one of the tightest nations, and the U.S. is one of the loosest.

It’s hard to argue with the notion that Japan is a country of rules, although they’re often implicit and can be breached by the courageous, eccentric or clueless. The point is that the surrounding people will notice the infringement and may convey disapprobation through body language or more explicit censure. It’s not that the rules can’t be broken, but that they are there, and felt to be there, in the first place.

Fuji TV’s drama series “Omameda Towako and Three Ex-husbands,” which aired earlier this year, provides a humorous example of how tacit assumptions of rules can be demonstrated through their noncompliance. Within the first minute of the first episode, Omameda is set up as a quirky character. This is done through a succession of brief anecdotes relayed by a narrator, culminating in the following announcements: “Omameda Towako, who can go into an elegant bakery in sweats”; “[She] can totally walk down a street of shops in sweats”; “If necessary [she] can ride a train”; “Even a Shinkansen.”

It should be said that Omameda is wearing a fairly new-looking matching sweatshirt and sweatpants and has just participated in an exercise class in a park. In addition, she’s got a nice trench coat on top of the sportswear. Omameda’s idiosyncratic temperament is portrayed through this flouting of social rules in cultural shorthand that would not work in a looser country in which people would scarcely register any violation of norms in this apparel being worn in these situations, if indeed any encroachment existed to begin with.

Expressing cultures as tight or loose makes sense to me at a visceral level. My body does indeed feel tighter when I’m in Japan and looser when I’m in the U.S. On trips back to see family and friends I am less expansive than everyone around me for a few days until my way of holding myself slackens. I am literally more tucked-in and buttoned-up in Japan. I came to Japan 38 years ago at age 20. Did I stay because I was naturally taut, or did Japan gradually contract me? For many people, I imagine, it’s one of those chicken-or-egg questions whose answer is likely both.

Though Gelfand passes no judgment and uses “tight” and “loose” descriptively, the term “tight” makes me feel defensive, as if Japan is somehow being portrayed as non-desirable. There are so many “tight” words with negative connotations: “tight-fisted,” “tight-lipped,” keeping a “tight rein” on something, being in a “tight spot,” and of course — the worst of all — being “uptight.” Then again, in an opposite manner, playing “fast and loose,” being a “loose cannon,” having a “loose tongue” and being at a “loose end” are equally unfavorable. Moreover, in tight’s favor are the expressions “run a tight ship” and having a “tight-knit” group. My image of tight may need a little loosening.

More important than assigning labels is discerning how tightness and looseness play out in daily life, and Gelfand’s book is replete with observations of Japan’s nice tightness: the punctuality of the trains and the way passengers refrain from talking much while riding them, the low crime rate, and the clean streets and parks. Gelfand acknowledges that there are always exceptions, and the one she points out is Takeshita street in Harajuku, where social norms related to fashion are more relaxed than in other parts of Tokyo.

Turning to language, in an interesting, earlier tightness-looseness study, another cultural psychologist, Darius Chan, along with three co-researchers including Gelfand, demonstrated how this construct can affect our linguistic experience of concepts. The researchers made use of data from the Atlas of Affective Meaning, developed by cross-cultural psychologist Charles Osgood and colleagues. The Atlas, developed in the 1970s, was built through word association activities related to 620 concepts in 25 cultures.

Through a series of experiments, Osgood and his team were able to determine the most salient words for each concept in each culture. It should be noted that the subjects were 1,200 urban teenage boys in each country. I’d imagine more looseness might be expected among this segment of the population in many cultures, but the important point is that the same types of subjects were used across the board, making comparisons possible.

Chan and his colleagues posited that loose cultures would have more variance, or what they call “cultural instability,” related to concepts comprising sanctions, normative pressure and values. As they hypothesized, the researchers found much more agreement in the words connected to these concepts among Japanese than American respondents. For example, Japanese respondents were more homogenous in their word associations with “truth,” “sin,” “guilt,” “duty,” “justice,” and “tradition,” suggesting they were clear on the parameters of these notions. Even words like “sympathy,” “laughter,” and “immortality” revealed less cultural instability for the Japanese.

On the other hand, there was greater concurrence among the Americans for “question things,” “contemplation,” “conflict,” “problem” and “aggression.” Chan and his colleagues suggest that there may be more conformity in these concepts in a loose culture like the U.S. because they are viewed as more permissible than in a tight culture like Japan, although frankly I find that interpretation a bit dubious, veering toward its own sort of analytic over-tightness.

Thinking about it all has made me feel like going out for a stroll dressed slightly inappropriately like Omameda, to enjoy a frisson of devil-may-care indifference to what I ought to do.