Am I in the Way?
The Japanese have a word that means “being in the way” - “jama.” But despite having a word for it, I do not believe that Japanese culture has a real, functional and viable concept of what it means for one person to be physically in another person’s way, thus impeding the smooth and harmonious conduct of social life. Either that, or the idea of “jama,”of being in the way, is overridden by another more powerful idea - the idea of indulgence, or “amae no kozo.” Indulgence is one of those powerful concepts at work in Japanese culture and society - like shame and honor, or duty, or filial piety - that we sometimes read about in expository books about Japan. In everyday life its practice means that Japanese never pay attention to themselves and what they are doing, or to their surroundings. They often behave very dangerously walking, riding bicycles, driving cars, etc. in the full expectation that their behavior will be indulged by others. In other words, Japanese expect other people’s obligation to look out for them surpasses their own obligation to look out for themselves. Indeed, they do not imagine having such a personal obligation. Like so much about Japan, this appears to be the opposite of what we are familiar with in Canada and other Western countries, where people, I think, habitually pay more attention to what they are doing, and where people expect that everyone looks out for him/herself first.
This is something I have written about before, so those who know me may have heard these things already. In defense of the Japanese, I must say that it is a very safe society compared to others. The first obvious explanation of the matter stems from the smallness of the country, of the sidewalks and houses, to the density of the large population, and to the much-observed interpretation of Japan’s as a group culture with a high degree of passivity among the people and a clear and sometimes strict vertical social hierarchy. Out of all this stems the habit of people relying on group security, on looking out for each other. Maybe it sounds warm and friendly - like a big family. But the model of Japanese as one big, homogenous family (with the emperor as the head) is an old myth and complete nonsense, but a notion that is still cherished, I think, by political conservatives and by criminal ultra-right-wing nationalists. In fact, the idea that Japan is small and crowded is also a myth. Although 80% of the (large) population is crowded into only 20% of the land (the coastal plains), the fact is that in total area Japan is a large country - not to mention that it is one of the largest in the world by other measures such as population, economy, foreign aid, and military size and budget. It is one of those much-repeated myths that will just not go away. Believing that theirs is a small (and weak) country is important to the Japanese sense of who they are.
Social harmony plays a big role in Japanese cultural mythology, so there are no grounds among most Japanese even to receive the notion that one person can be an unharmonious impediment to others. If I try to make my case to Japanese, like I am doing here, they do not recognize anything that I am saying because our culturally-prepared terms of reference are so different. But I have lots of examples from everyday life. The most frequent examples come from people walking: pedestrian behavior. As people walk on crowded sidewalks or in crowded train stations they never look over their shoulders to see who is behind or next to them, or what is happening around them. Often people suddenly stop and change directions completely. Or they don’t even stop to do it. They do not look first to see if the coast is clear like how I imagine most Canadians and Americans would. They just zip around dangerously like projectiles in a pinball machine. I have witnessed collisions. Luckily I have never collided with anyone myself, thanks to my own sharp lookout. Along the same lines, you always have to beware shoppers exiting stores onto narrow sidewalks because they are prone to walk straight out into heavy pedestrian traffic like there was no one else on the streets.
On the streets and in stations it is common to see people walking slowly abreast of each other, chatting. High school girlfriends, middle aged women, even businessmen. They are completely oblivious to the fact that they are totally blocking passage to anyone else. When I am out with my family, or walking with friends and acquaintances my instinct is to walk in single file, not side-by-side precisely to avoid this situation (also to help disguise our numbers in case of ambush). I wonder if other Canadians do the same. Is this is a culturally prepared behavior, or just my personal idiosyncrasy? Walking single file makes it harder to carry on a conversation with your friends. You constantly have to turn your head to make eye contact and you often cannot hear your friends clearly because their mouths are pointed away from your ears. But I always thought that single file makes for faster progress wherever you go, and speed is usually more important to me. Think in leisure, act in haste. That’s what I like. Don’t try to do more than one thing at a time. Do not walk and talk, or talk and drive, smoke and ride, or read and eat.
People push past me and butt in front of me in the queue to board trains, or buy train tickets, or to buy movie tickets. Even during the full rush hour crush there are still some who put their bags on the bench beside them, generating angry glares from many commuters forced to stand.
The proliferation of cell phones (“keitai denwa” in Japanese) does not create a new problem so much as it highlights an old one. People walk down the streets talking into their phones with their eyes downcast, completely heedless of what they are doing. I sometimes have to do this crazy dodge ‘em dance to keep out of their way. Stories of accidents caused by distracted cell-phone using drivers are more and more common throughout the world. The worst instance I have seen in Japan was a mother on a bicycle some rainy day. Her child was mounted in a child bicycle seat. She kept one hand on the handlebars and with the other juggled an umbrella, a cell phone and a cigarette.
Friends who have lived in Korea report the same, or similar behavior there. It has even been suggested to me that it might be a racial thing. The idea is that as a foreigner the view of my existence is so diminished in these cultures that people almost literally do not see me. I’m an outsider, so I don’t exist, like a ghost, and if they must acknowledge that I doexist, then my existence doesn’t count. But I disagree with this interpretation because I see Japanese behaving pretty much the same among themselves. They disregard everybody (in public).
Another explanation is that it might be a question of “liminality.” I mean, inside/related group behavior versus outside/unrelated group behavior. Public versus private. In other words, people might behave differently outside their homes among strangers than they do at home, with family and friends.
Finally, it is frustrating how slow Japanese move. Generally speaking, they are the slowest-moving people I have ever met. (Israelis are the fastest I have see, I think.) One might say that I only think they move slowly because my legs are longer than the average Japanese. But I disagree. I am the shortest person in my family and I am easily within average Japanese height. There are plenty of Japanese taller than me, and they move slowly, too. It can be a real drag.