Making Staying at Home Popular: Social Norms as a Force for Encouraging Social Distancing

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Author: Julia Nagai, University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) alumna

Fieldsite: Sakai, Osaka Prefecture, Japan. This piece is based on observations conducted in Sakai and on social media used by people across Japan.

At first glance, you might scoff at the title of this piece. You might think, “No, staying at home isn’t popular! We are doing this because we have to! We’re not allowed outside! Popularity is for celebrities and fashion trends, not social distancing!” Indeed, much of the world has been under local or national lockdowns that make leaving the house for non-essential purposes a crime. People in many countries can be fined or arrested for breaking lockdown rules. In Japan, the situation is a bit different. Although a state of emergency has been declared, the Japanese government cannot legally put a lockdown in place without changing the constitution. While politicians can order schools to be closed and can ask individuals to stay home, they cannot penalize those that go out. Certain businesses, such as bars and event venues, can be asked to limit their hours or close.

However, the majority of stores and restaurants that have shuttered their doors have not done so due to a mandate. Despite the lack of a lockdown, much of the country is behaving as though there is one. Parts of the city that are usually dense and crowded are deserted. A significant portion of the population is taking the government’s requests to limit outings very seriously. One woman told me that even though she usually goes with her husband when he visits his mother in law, she stopped after the state of emergency was declared. I told her that since neither of them is currently going to separate workplaces and they live together, it shouldn’t make much difference whether they go together or her husband goes alone. “No”, she told me. “We can’t go out. No one’s going out.”

In many discussions of social media and the coronavirus, social media is described as a way for people to maintain relationships or as a source of information overload and anxiety. Social scientists have published recommendations on how to stay connected without becoming overwhelmed by the constant influx of new COVID-19 related information. For many people, social media is a platform for reacting to and coping with the effects of social isolation. But social media can also serve as a force for encouraging people to practice social distancing.

Given the lack of government lockdown, it isn’t unreasonable to say that social norms are what lead people in Japan to practice social distancing. There are signs everywhere, both in the physical and digital world, that suggests everyone is practising social distancing. The social media pages of various businesses encourage followers to stay home. Starbucks Japan, a business that has been closed since the state of emergency was announced, encourages customers to post pictures of the Starbucks coffee they drink at home using the hashtag #スターバックスATHOME [#Starbucks at home]. Bagel & Bagel features photos of meals customers have made out of their bagels at home (bagel sandwiches, topped with spread, etc) on their Instagram story. It’s not just businesses that are taking to social media to encourage social distancing. Over one million individuals have posted on Instagram about what they are doing at home – learning a language, cooking, making cloth masks, etc – using #コロナに負けるな [#don’t lose to the coronavirus]. In stores, there are plastic sheets hung up at checkout counters, and there are signs reminding customers to stay 2 meters away from other customers. At banks, signs asking customers to wait sitting apart from one another are taped on every other seat. At every turn in the social sphere, there is a reminder to not get too physically close.

While Japanese culture is often characterized as one that is particularly adherent to social norms, people around the world do things “because everyone else is doing it”. A study surveying Californians’ reasons for conserving energy found that the belief that others around them were conserving energy was their strongest reason for doing so themselves. While we often see trends as just another fad, they can play a role in shaping society during critical times. Even if someone only chooses to practice social distancing because everyone around them is doing it and they feel pressured to, they are helping to slow the spread of infection. What is popular is not always a trivial matter.

Nonetheless, social pressure does not always mimic the media frenzy that is centred around sneakers or the lives of celebrities in less trying times. There is a great deal of shame and embarrassment surrounding contracting or doing activities that run the risk of contracting the coronavirus. When discussing Iwate Prefecture, which has no confirmed cases at the time of writing, one person said that they think the people who live there must feel a great sense of responsibility to not contract the virus.
Further, the news reported on the few pachinko parlours in Tokyo that are still open, they blurred out any information that viewers could use to identify the establishments. When the reporter was walking on the street outside of a pachinko parlour, every part of the screen except for him was blurred. The lengthy measures taken by the news to hide the identity of these pachinko parlours further enforces the idea that risking infection is a shameful and embarrassing thing to do.

Citizens of countries with lockdowns in place express concern about what civil rights will look like after the pandemic is over, but are at a loss as to how to get people to stay home without a lockdown. The influence of social norms on behaviour is far from a unique phenomenon. Sometimes, a combination of encouragement and shame is enough to keep people at home. While social media is often used in response to social isolation, it is also part of creating social distancing. When people do have to go out, businesses can do their part in reminding people to maintain distance. Japan shows that strict government lockdowns aren’t necessarily crucial to putting social distancing measures in place.