Monday, May 25, 2009

The Nail that Sticks Up Gets Hammered Down

As much as I know Japan is a democracy, at times it seems like it is a hybrid of a free, yet tightly controlled society.

No doubt there are people who stick out here. The overly dressed anime girls at Harajuku, an eclectic collection of people who reject the suits and opt for non-traditional jobs, grandmas with dyed hair. But the great majority of people conform. Men of all ages leave nearly at the same time in the mornings dressed for work. Housemoms are always seen getting their kids ready for school and seeing them out the door.

A little room is given for alternatives. There seems to be slight deviation from the norm that is acceptable. But Japanese people tend to stay within the safe limits of what is expected from them. I have not fully identified what that line is, but there are consequences if they overstep the boundaries.

Sunday I went to Sugamo. While I was waiting for Travis and a couple other friends I noticed a guy sitting on the ground right near the entrance to the station. He was wearing a mask that totally covered his head and looked like a rock. It was basically some kind of Halloween mask and had eye holes. The entire time I was waiting he just sat there cross-legged on the ground holding a sign, unfortunately I could not read the kanji. He got curious looks from the grandmas and grandpas walking by. People would stare as they left or entered the station. He waved at kids, but otherwise was totally still and silent.

It couldn't have been 10 minutes before a police officer came over to speak to him. I wasn't close enough to hear what he said, but essentially the college-aged guy had to move outside the station.

I couldn't help but be surprised. I've seen stuff like this happen. Japanese people will tolerate a little deviation from the norm, but when it seems to be too much police immediately step in. There is an overwhelming police presence here. Since crime is so low and Japanese people tend to behave themselves, I feel like there isn't much that the police do besides give directions and control petty things like the guys sitting there with a mask on.

The police are nice, but persistent. They will tell you in the nicest way possible to stop. Dame means no and no questions are asked. When they illustrate it, bringing out the two-fingered x, it is pretty clear. I feel like there are too many police here for the society's own good.

It seems as though the society is so structured it is confining. Kim and her boyfriend Landon missed their bus coming back to Tokyo from Kyoto during Golden Week. With no housing arrangements, they had to stay overnight at the station. Apparently there are only certain places that people are allowed to stay in the station. Ultimately all the people sleeping there were confined to one little area. It seemed interesting. They were free to go anywhere else if they weren't sleeping.

It seems as though the Japanese people are used to this system though. Naturally they don't tend to stand up to authority, they don't question whether or not it is a violation of their freedom of speech. There is a curious balance of self-control, obedience, shame, guaranteed rights, and individualism at work here.

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