Readers in Council,
The Japan Times,
5-4, Shibaura 4-chome,
Minato-ku, Tokyo 108-0023
It was an interesting moment when I first arrived in Japan and saw a sign in English at the airport, “Welcome to Japan. Please obey the rules.” Rules? What rules? Since then my experience living here supports the lesson I was taught as a student that Japanese entertain a weaker notion of law than what prevails in the Occident. The law in Japan is more a guideline than a strict requirement, and even today shame is a stronger regulator of deviant behavior. Without a religious heritage preaching sin and punishment, the Law here is seen more as a suggestion. Maybe that is a more humane approach to life, but there is also a persistent comedy about it, because many occurrences here that strike foreigners as clear cases of right and wrong, legal and illegal don’t impress Japanese the same way: lying; urinating and spitting in the street; driving cars through red lights; smoking in non-smoking areas, etc.
The January 24, 2012 story “Views from the Street” question “What do you think of the recent police crackdown on bicyclists who break the rules?” is an example. Bicycle safety laws are clearly described by statute. But the laws have traditionally been ignored with impunity by people riding on the sidewalks - even by the police. There is no doubt that, but for a few exceptions, riding on the sidewalks is illegal and a crime, and the bicyclists are criminals. Maybe that language is a little harsh for something as minor as a bicycle infraction, but it is accurate nonetheless.
Two foreign respondents and four Japanese offered opinions on the question. Each of the Japanese spoke of the “rules” while neither of the foreigners did. Is it because the Japanese were simply repeating the wording of the question in their answers? Or, is it that for foreigners it is not a question of gray “rules,” but of clear-cut legal infractions? I think the latter.
But I could be wrong.