Japanese people are experts at the segregation of interpersonal social spheres. That’s a generalization, I know. At least two of my Japanese friends are gregarious extroverts with complete disregard for compartmentalized social norms between groups. But as far as the rest of society goes, they’re outliers.
Perhaps accordingly, then, most Japanese people I know pay astoundingly close attention to privacy (by my extraverted-Westerner standards). And this attention to privacy is understandable in the context of clear-cut social spheres. As an individual, you don’t want to be caught out by member-from-Group-A being someone alternate to the person they know you as when interacting with them as member of Group A. Such a situation would cause cognitive dissonance; a general feeling of tension and unease, brought on by a conflict in role and norm expectations. Because roles and social norms within interpersonal relations in Japan are, generally, much more clear-cut (in an unspoken, implicit way) than in, say, the US, dissonance felt by Japanese when seen by known others outside of those norms is much more significant than, say, in the US. If an average American bumps into their boss in the supermarket on the weekend, it is not a big deal. In Japan, also, it’s not a big deal. But there’s an instant requirement to alter roles in the Japan case. From “Weekend-Me” to “Subordinate-Me”. And that’s stressful, when both “me’s” have attached to them a social requirement to fully “be” each required role when acting in that role (more so than in the US).
Is it this clear-cut distinction between interpersonal relationship ‘spheres’ which causes people (increasingly including me) in Japanese society to subconsciously aim to blend in? To keep as private as possible, avoiding the large, clear-glass bay windows one might see on houses in New Zealand? Is being seen ‘out-of-context’ such a big deal in Japan?
One might be tempted to put this emphasis on privacy down to what social psychologists call crowding (Altman, 1975); when too many people occupy any certain space, people feel stress, due to less actual privacy than desired privacy. One way to mitigate this stress would be to, obviously, increase privacy (by being inconspicuous, in body language, dress, architecture, etc). But I’m not so sure. In a large Japanese city, people seem to be much more self-aware (in the sense of wearing sunglasses, avoiding the eyes of others) than, say, in a large city in China, or, indeed, Korea. And those are two very crowded countries, with some extremely crowded cities.
Perhaps this emphasis on privacy in Japan has something to do with the extent to which opportunities exist, in any given society, to select new or dissolve current interpersonal relationships. This is called relational mobility, and the idea is that in high relational mobility environments, it is in people’s best interests to actively disclose things about themselves to others. That is to say, if you’re not interesting, then it doesn’t cost much for your interaction partner to leave for someone else more interesting. And one of the most effective ways of keeping someone interested in yourself is to self-disclose. To let others in on your personal thoughts and feelings. The cost to self-disclosure, however, is that new partners might not like who you really are. They might reject you. In any society, rejection is a big thing. But at least in high relational mobility environments, you have lots of opportunity to find other potential partners. In a low relational mobility environment, however, social rejection is much costlier. With fewer options to make new friends, you’re better off holding back on the self-disclosure and conform to group norms.
So in a low relational mobility environment, it doesn’t seem too far fetched to assume that people are more concerned about accidental self-disclosures. In low relational mobility environments, where in-group norms are revered and mutually reinforced (because no one wants to rock the boat for fear of being rejected), accidentally showing Group-A friend that you’re actually quite a different person to what you’re like when you’re in Group-A is a big deal. Better to keep things on the low-down. Keep private.
Coming up: What is privacy? and What’s wrong with this picture?