I’m boring. I’m the first to admit it. A fun weekend evening for me is to go out to eat (or order take-out back the states) and then return home with some friends to play card games or board games. I’ve never done drugs, I’ve still never been drunk, and my biggest run-in with the law was a single speeding ticket 5 years ago.
So I find it odd that in Japan, I find myself being reprimanded by “authority figures” (a term I use loosely, as you’ll see below) fairly frequently. Japan is a country of rules and policies. Things are done a certain way and it’s simply not tolerated to deviate from the norm.
You see this everywhere. For starters, luckily, I read up on etiquette before moving here so I know that in a restaurant, one should NEVER stick your chopsticks in your food and leave them there while you drink water, use a napkin, talk, or take a break from eating. At some restaurants, waiters (the authority figures in this case) will give you an English menu…and sometimes even the menu has rules on it. For example, they tell you how you should eat your soba noodles (one place was quite particular, telling me to lift the noodles with the chopsticks and dip them precisely 1/3 of the way into the bowl of broth, then return to the mouth to slurp).
If you’re walking down the street and there is construction going on (which there always is since they seem to repair perfectly fine roads and sidewalks on a daily basis here) there will be attendants at all ends of the site to guide you. You’re required to walk along a certain path only, guided by white gloved men with those glowing red sticks (like air-traffic guys at the airport). You must never try to walk around the site on your own.
Another favorite spot of mine is the top of the Mori Tower at Roppongi Hills. Think of the place as a more contemporary Prudential Center (Boston) or Rockefeller Center (New York). The ground level has shopping, movies, and restaurants and the top of the skyscraper has an observatory. I have never been reprimanded more often in my life than I have in this building. Randy and I signed up for annual memberships since we figured we’d bring friends here when they visit (and we would occasionally go on our own to enjoy the view from the outdoor rooftop deck). This is no exaggeration, but I have been reprimanded every single time I’ve been there.
Once I was reprimanded for leaning against the wall in the elevator. I’ve been reprimanded for not holding on to my ticket. I’ve reprimanded for not putting enough stuff in the locker (a requirement to go onto the roof deck). I’ve been reprimanded for walking in the wrong direction. I’ve been reprimanded for standing too close to the yellow line (on the roof deck) that separates the pathway from the useless green astro turf patches. I was even reprimanded for chewing gum. Honestly, it’s a nonstop assault on my (apparently to the Japanese) infantile level of independence. Until visiting this building, I was a 41 year old man. While there, I’m that bratty 3 year old with ADHD and chocolate covered fingers running around touching everything and everybody.
Just last week I was walking back from lunch in an unfamiliar neighborhood. Using my iPhone’s Google Maps the most direct path led me by a school and playing field. I could either walk along the perimeter of the field (which was sort of a coutyard) or walk up the hill and around a long block. It’s probably obvious which route I took. I was more then 3/4 the way across the field, minding my own business with my iTunes blasting Christmas songs (don’t judge), when a uniformed man ran up to me from behind. He didn’t touch me, of course…he just ran in front of me with his eyes wide open and his arms up in front of his body in an “X” fashion (as in “no”). He looked is if I’d just pushed his wheel-chair bound grandmother down a flights of stairs. He kept gesturing for me to turn around and return to where I came from. I pointed to the end of the field, which was probably a 30 second walk away, compared to the entrance I had used which was about 1.5 -2 minutes behind us and he would have nothing of it. He kept blocking and redirecting, despite my constant “sorry’s” and “sumimasen’s”.
Five minutes later, after back tracking then walking up hill and around the block, I was back to where I would have been in less than 30 seconds had I been allowed to continue on my apparent path of destruction.
All in all, I must admit that I find it rather deflating sometimes. In the US, I never got reprimanded. I minded my own business and life was good. But here, it seems I’m unknowingly breaking the rules on a daily basis. In some ways, the rules here help keep this a very organized and crime-free country. Cities don’t get any safer than Tokyo.
But they also make me feel “less than.” Some of the rules are so obscure or silly you truly can’t tell you’ve done something wrong, yet there is a white gloved person expressing disappointment in you.
Yet at the same time, this feels like home. During my visit to the US in November and early December, I was missing Tokyo. I wanted to be here and I felt like a visitor there.
HMM – maybe I actually like being told what to do? Just don’t tell Randy.
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