In my first years of reading about Japan I learned quickly to separate the sociological wheat from the pop-psychology chaff. Most anything I encountered originally in English about “conformity in Japanese society” was potted pop-psychology churned out in the 1980s, when fear of Japan buying out America rode high and books that purported to explain those inscrutable Japanese were being hustled out into airport bookstalls. (The big airport-reading trend now is neuroscience for businesspeople, which manages to be even more insulting to the intelligence of everyone involved than Yellow Panic For Dummies.)
I find the whole discussion of Japanese social conformity to be at least partly a red herring, because society is by definition a conformist enterprise. Most of us are conformist if only in that we do not kill the other guy because we know that if we do most everything we ourselves could draw on runs the risk of spontaneously collapsing. The idea that Japan puts greater pressure on people to fit in and work together seems borne less of perspective on the very tangible historical conditions that shaped such things, and more out of a need to contrast their straightlaced ways with more allegedly freewheeling ones elsewhere. It’s not that conformity doesn’t exist in Japan; it’s that most of how non-Japanese talk about the subject is unenlightening, sanctimonious b.s. designed to make anyone not Japanese feel like they dodged a sociological bullet.
This may seem like a loaded lead-in for a review of a manga—Keiko Suenobu’s Limit—but I cite it here as a lead-in for a story that, in its own pop-culture way, attempts to look at conformity in Japan from the perspective of a type most vulnerable to it: the schoolgirl. Limit’s main schoolgirl character is Konno, and in the opening pages she makes it clear that the ability to conform, to merge with the current and just drift along, is not something you do because you like it. It is simply a fact of life, a survival trait you either acquire and use to your advantage, or ignore at your own peril.
Konno and her clique of friends are, in their own minds, arguably no worse than anyone else around. They don’t see much wrong in poking fun at someone like Arisa Morishige, the moody girl who spends all her time in the back of the class scribbling cartoons. Even if Sakura, the outwardly friendly class beauty, looks at her and mutters “A fugly girl like her should just die,” it’s nothing personal—it’s just another way the order of things is established.
This makes it all the more stomach-turning for Konno and her friends when they draw lots to see who goes with whom for the school summer-camp retreat, and find themselves stuck with Arisa. Well, at least they still have each other despite her. Then the driver of their bus collapses at the wheel and drives off the road, and all but a handful of the students are killed: Arisa, Konno, a frightened girl named Usui, a calmer one (bordering on cold-blooded) named Chieko, and Sakura’s friend Haru, now numbed from losing so many people close to her. They’re miles from civilization, with no cell reception—and eventually, no cellphones at all—no food, and the only weapon, a sickle, is now in Arisa’s hands. And she intends to use that one bit of supremacy she has to lord it over all the others who unthinkingly made her life so miserable for so long.
It’s all but impossible to put any group of young people in an isolated situation without namechecking either Lord of the Flies or Battle Royale. The flap copy for Limit invokes the former and tosses in Heatherson top for good measure, although it’s more the revenge-fantasy aspects of the latter rather than its gloriously nasty black comedy that’s being invoked here. Arisa’s greatest weapon is not her sickle or even her brooding mania for getting even—it’s the way she uses those things to expose the cracks in the friendships everyone else believed they had, when in fact all they were doing was, in Konno’s words, “going with the flow”. You are not friends with someone simply because you have mutual victims, and Konno’s deficiency of character is in knowing this and choosing, time and again, to do nothing about it. The one character who shows Arisa something like humanity, Chieko, is “rewarded” for this by being offered a seat as her right hand (it’s allegedly because she gathered food for the group, but read back further than that). Knowing that Arisa plans to have Konno and Haru attempt to kill each other for some of the remaining food makes this seem less a reward and more a forestalling of the inevitable.
Suenobu’s previous manga Vitamin dealt with much of the same territory—bullying, ostracism, cliquishness—but was more upbeat in that its heroine used her art as a way to transcend wretched circumstances. Limithas no such easy out, and maybe I will sound cynical for saying this, but that no-exit feeling is probably far closer to the reality that bullying presents for most kids. When I was in junior high, I was the subject of, and witness too, any number of varieties of harassment, just for being that much lower down in the pecking order. The only real escape was either to wait it out and leave school, or to become a bully yourself. Small wonder some of the kids find it hard to believe “it gets better”, when they have to sit around and wait for years on end for that to happen.
What struck me most about bullying then, and as it’s reported now, is how unthinking the whole thing is. Bullies don’t think they’re doing anything wrong; the weak get what’s coming to them. Teachers close their eyes, if they ever see anything to begin with, and tell themselves they can’t really do anything. Parents shrug and say it’s just kids being kids, so why get worked up about it? Between all of them they orchestrate the mindless perpetuation of suffering, the way Konno and her friends pushed Arisa to the bottom of the pile without even really trying.
There is a Japanese proverb, “the nail that sticks out gets hammered in”, one I quoted before in my review of the movie Bashing, another story about the cost of reflexive, unexamined maintenance of a status quo. Now that I think about it, it’s not so much that the nail is hammered down that is the horror. It’s that most of us never realize we’re the ones doing the hammering. Konno realizes it, but the book lays no bets on whether she will live to do anything with that wisdom.