Identically Distinctive

December 1, 2008 By KUMIKO MAKIHARA
The International Herald Tribune/The New York Times

TOKYO — I witnessed a bizarre scene at my son’s primary school earlier this year. A dozen or so school mothers had encircled a teacher and were bowing deeply. They were apologizing after being scolded for chatting too noisily at a field day performance.

What impressed me even more than the unison bowing was how similar the women appeared: Backs ram-rod straight and waists bent at a 90 degree angle; foundation-polished faces and dark hair; semi-expensive, tasteful if bland outfits. The women looked like identical spokes in a wheel.

The school’s professed goal is “to raise distinctive children,” but the mothers pursue sameness with military precision. They dress in similar conservative styles and carry designer handbags.

They want to be included in all the coffees and play dates. They sign their children up for the same camps. Conformism assures parents that they won’t stand out and risk offending someone in a society that values modesty. And banding together keeps them in the loop of goings-on at school.

Such valued particulars range from what might be on the next science test to where to get school supplies.

A few hours after the school distributed a packing list for a retreat last summer, I went to a department store to buy a fish net. Too late. There’d already been a run on nets by mothers who had decided that was the place to go for them.

The day after the art teacher asked the children to bring in paint sets, I ran into a group of mothers at a stationery store. “My daughter won’t be happy unless she has the same one as everyone else,” said one, squatting by a stack of them. Even though I already had some brushes and paints at home, I grabbed the same set everyone was buying.

To guide parents in the dark, Katayama Elementary School in Osaka distributes an instruction booklet every year for new students called “Katayama Navi” (short for navigation). “We didn’t have enough personnel to field all the inquiries from parents who call with even minor questions,” says Kuniko Sugimoto, the assistant principal.

The 30-page manual details necessary supplies down to the number of pencils and advice such as: “Please refrain from buying expensive items or items not needed urgently”; or “As much as possible, have a bowel movement before coming to school.” The guide proved so popular that 36 schools in the area now produce such handbooks.

I am overwhelmed trying to stay in good standing with the other mothers, especially as I started out way behind the similarity curve. My fashion style, bred from many years living in the United States, is casual practical. I’m a single parent of a mixed-race child in a nearly completely homogenous and married school population. So I double my efforts to blend in, and grovel to find out about the must-buys and then sew subtle patches and attach charms onto the prized possessions so my son won’t mix them up with all the other, identical ones.

How far do I want to smother our identities in order to assimilate? (A few mothers avoid the entire complicated scene by not socializing at all. But these are extremely confident women who can survive on their own.)

I can accept my son being thrilled at the prospects of taking an identical soccer bag or pencil case as his friends’ to school. “We can say, ‘we have the same one!”‘ he explains. But it saddens me to see him bemoaning his shimmering brown hair, just a shade lighter than everyone else. In English language class, he adjusts his native pronunciation to have a Japanese accent like his classmates.

In fact, the deftness of concealing one’s achievements is another skill in the art of sameness. Many children, for example, attend after-school academic classes but keep it confidential to hide their efforts to race ahead of the crowd. Word went around recently that one girl was “outed” when spotted bearing the satchel of such a program.

The spokes-in-a-wheel mothers had agreed to write brief and simple apology notes to the teacher. But one of the letters was revealed to be rich in detail after it was quoted and praised in a daily report from the teacher to the class. The other apologizers immediately began sleuthing to find out the culprit.

I need to sharpen my skills far more before attempting to join any wheels. First on the agenda is to find out how crucial it is to attend the upcoming fourth-grade potato-roasting event.