Inside / Outside
It is well known that Asian societies - or, corporate cultures everywhere - tend to have a stronger sense of liminality than more individualistic cultures and societies. That means that they recognize and draw firmer lines separating one thing from another, especially the inside from the outside, or the “in-group” (us) from the “out-group” (them). Some cultures, for example, might have filthy streets and public spaces, but immaculately clean homes. Or, some cultures might be very warm and affectionate with family members, friends and acquaintances and yet give strangers the rude brush-off. Or, in the case of Japanese, they might be impecably polite to Japanese and foreigners alike within Japan, but when they travel abroad they might slide into near-barbarism. These are indicators of cultural liminality.
For years I have been on the lookout for signs of Japanese liminality. But recently I began wondering about one instance in particular - whether it reveals more about unique Japanese sensibilities or just my personal obstinance. People who know me might say the latter. But hold on!
The case I am talking about concerns train platforms. Most Japanese commuter train platforms have no guard rails or barrier of any kind to separate the pressing mass of commuters from the edge and the drop to the tracks below. Arriving trains swoosh into the station only inches from peoples’ faces, hands and feet with nothing to prevent a disaster. I know, it’s dangerous and there is a long history here of suicides and fatal accidents involving trains. But in the last few years some train lines have been (slowly) installing safety gates at the edge of their platforms making it impossible for people to simply fall into the path of approaching trains. (They were motivated by a particularly bad accident at JR Shin-Okubo Station on the Yamanote Line loop in central Tokyo, where a drunk fell onto the tracks one night and he, plus his two charitable would-be rescuers were all run down and killed by an arriving train in plain view of hundreds of witnesses.)
On all of those station platforms that have no safety gates there is a yellow line painted about 50 cm from the edge, parallel to the edge for the length of the platform. This is the psychological safe/danger zone separator. As trains approach an announcement is made that such-and-such a train is approaching on such-and-such a platform, and that people should be careful and stand “inside the yellow line.” Sometimes there are even (bilingual) printed signs telling us to stand inside the line. Sometimes the line is white, not yellow.
The problem I have is that I do not recognize the “inside” of the line. Or, rather, my idea of the “inside” is kind of the opposite of the Japanese idea. I imagine the narrow 50 cm space between the line and the platform edge is the safety zone that the announcements are advising me to stand in, not the rest of the platform. I know that it is the opposite of what is meant, and I am not trying to be obtuse. It’s just that in my mind the “inside” is naturally smaller than the“outside,” and so when I imagine, read, or hear advice to stay “inside” the line I automatically picture the smaller of two spaces. But in this case the Japanese have reversed it. (Or, is it just a matter of the word used to translate the message? That can explain a lot, you know.) Maybe it is because I am concentrating on the line itself while the Japanese are concentrating on the platform as a whole. I can’t see the forest for the trees. In that case, it makes sense that the “inside” is the safe, central part of the platfrom while the “outside” is the small, narrow strip closest to the moving vehicles.
The Japanese seem to be big on painted lines as a means of traffic safety and control. On many small neighborhood streets the pedestrian sidewalk is nothing but a white line painted on the pavement. The lines are a symbol similar to pedestrian crosswalks in Canadaor the United States, I guess.