Japanese people are generally very much like the Finns when it comes to authority. Unlike the Brits, neither nationality sees the policy makers or law enforcement as corrupted clowns. Consequently, the Finnish and probably also Japanese people’s attitude is that the rules are there for a reason, that someone who is cleverer than them and who has thought about those things in more depth than themselves must know what it the best course of action in a given situation. So, if you are walking home from the pub at 1am on a Tuesday night on pretty much empty roads, standing at the red light at the pedestrian crossing makes perfect sense to a Finnish and Japanese person. I’m not joking. That’s how it is.
In Japan and Finland the authority actively discourages jaywalking. In Japan they have traffic warden type characters who patrol most major junctions making sure that people will not attempt to cross the road when they shouldn’t, even if there were hardly any cars around (see photo). So, people just stand there, like plums waiting for the green man.
In Finland the police can give you a ticket if they see you cross the road (a) where there are no traffic lights or zebra crossing or (b) if you don’t wait for the green man. And like I believe I have mentioned before, the police in Finland take their job very seriously. I mean, they are at least as vigilant as a particularly observant British neighbourhood busy-body. Seriously. The police in Finland see everything. I know it’s pretty ridiculous that the tax payers’ money is spent on patrolling crossroads for jaywalking but perhaps the fact that the police are patrolling crossroads sends a message that there is zero tolerance for crime, regardless of how petty it is, and the law/policy makers hope that, as a result, people are less likely to commit crime overall. A bit like some methods used, for instance, in New York. However this zero tolerance approach is not exactly 100% effective in Finland. This might come as a shock to you – it certainly came as a shock to me when I first heard it – but Finland has one of the highest murder rates in the EU. Before those of you who cancelled your driving holiday in Japan when you found out about the parking conventions here and booked a holiday in Finland instead, don’t panic! It is really quite unlikely that some lunatic attacks you in a public place in Finland (although this is not completely unheard of). You see, a typical homicide in Finland (largely contributing to these stats) involves (1) alcohol, (2) a knife, ax or gun and (3) most importantly: your friend(s) or relative(s). People generally get (violently) killed in Finland when two or more people who know each other get together, drink too much, get into an argument and end up killing each other. So, if you choose your friends well during your visit in Finland and go easy on the old Koskenkorva-vodka the chances are you will survive the experience. I might mention that Japan (and Portugal) are the places where you are least likely to be murdered. But again, it might be advisable to stay away from drunken Finns (or Glaswegians) wherever you are.
Finnish people love authority but the Japanese take authority to the next level. People do what the authority says. And boy, doesn’t it! There are signs everywhere instructing people as to what to do/not to do and how to do it (see photos). Many things that the Japanese authorities feel need to be prescribed to the public, to me seem rather common sense. I mean, most people would make sure that their dog was in the lift with them when the lift doors were closing. And most parents would probably make sure that their kids weren’t playing with the tube doors and get their fingers stuck between the sliding door when the door opened. But then again, perhaps there are some people out there who do benefit from this kind of advice and these signs do have a real-life function. It would be interesting to see some accident related stats between Japan, Finland and England to establish whether the signs in Japan are actually saving any children’s fingers or lives of Yorkshire Terriers. Don’t get me wrong. I am a Finn so I take these as helpful suggestions as to how make my life easier and safer. It also gives me the opportunity not to think for myself and let someone else take charge of my life. At this moment in life I love it. I feel I am too busy and tired with a fulltime job, two kids, and frequent sleepless nights (when blood testing my diabetic daughter’s blood sugar levels) that I welcome any suggestions and observations that I might have overlooked in my current haze of existence. After all, I would like to keep my children’s fingers intact. But if you are a Brit you probably think I am mad. I bet you can’t understand (a) how someone could think that someone else knows their business better than them, (b) how some nationalities happily tolerate what in Britain has become known as ‘the Nanny State’ and (c) who on earth would not question what other people, even the authority, suggests.
The policy makers and authorities do not always get it right. This is true for all countries, but in Japan where everything is well thought through I am shocked to see some distinct flaws in the system. For instance, Japan is decades behind Europe when it comes to regulation on smoking indoors. You see, smoking is allowed pretty much everywhere; in restaurants, bars, cafes and hotels and people do smoke in those establishments regardless of whether or not there is a young child sitting in the next table. On the other hand, Japan seems to be ahead of Europe when it comes to smoking outdoors. You are not supposed to walk around smoking. Instead, you need to go to a designated (outdoor) smoking area to have a fag (see photo). Ridiculous, right? You can’t puff away while walking around the city centre where your cigarette smoke is giving no-one but yourself lung cancer but as soon as you step into an enclosed space, optimal environment for passive smoking, you are free to light up. I mentioned above that the Japanese authorities are not corrupt, but there must have been a smoker or two in the decision board when these regulations were passed. In my opinion, the smoking regulations in Japan are as ludicrous, inconsistent and violating to public health as the policy in England whereby domestic cats (but no other domestic animal) have a right of way to any property in urban areas. Similarly as the chain smoker members of the Japanese smoking law board, their British environmental health colleagues are most likely cat owners and it would not surprise me if toxoplasmosis had clouded their better judgment. I know I am taking a risk here (again) pissing you all off, given that many of my friends have a cat. And I am sorry if my views offend you or your four legged friends (or three legged friends in the case of my mother-in-law’s cats) but your cats’ shit on my two-year old’s hands kind of offends me.
I want to make one more point about smoking – nothing more on cats, I promise. I just think it is interesting how quickly people’s opinions and expectations change, given that I and most of you reading this blog are old enough to remember the time (pre 2007) when it was completely acceptable to smoke in public food and drink establishments. There was nothing unusual about coming home after a night of clubbing and your hair and clothes reeking of smoke or enjoying your burger and chips in a pub amidst heavy cigarette smoke. And here I am now up in arms complaining that some Japanese guy in a suit is not considering my wellbeing when I am tucking into my biifu (beef) and biiru (beer) in the table next to him and his cigarette. That’s it. That’s what I wanted to add.
In addition to no ban on smoking in public places, Japanese authorities are clueless like the Virgin Mary when it comes to the Explicit lyrics of Western music. There aren’t many places in Europe (and nowhere in England or Finland) where you could stand in the queue in Zara and enjoy bleep-free American rap music. Me and many of my (Finnish) friends (you know who you are!) are not the most sensitive of people in terms of swearing and we have been known to use some swear words ourselves but I’m talking really quite offending words for a public place with several children (and adults) there. Words like motherf***er, and even the n-word. The fact that lyrics of foreign songs are not better controlled in public places, is probably related to Japanese people’s overall lack of a good command of English. As practically no one knows what motherf***er or the n-word mean perhaps the authority is not too concerned about people being exposed to these words. Alternatively, it could be that the authority doesn’t even know these words and the record labels are taking advantage of the situation.
Even though Japanese people are overall extremely law abiding and take their authority’s word like that of God’s I have noticed that there are (at least) three areas of life where the Japanese rebel, at least from a Westerner’s point of view. First, Japanese sleep in public a lot, in fact wherever they sit down (e.g., in a classroom) they attempt to doze off and there does not seem to be negative connotations attached to this. On the contrary. Sleeping at work/school can be taken as an indication that you are a hard worker. You work so hard that you can’t stay awake. Apparently some people even pretend that they are sleeping to signal that they are hard workers. Imagine that in England or Finland! I am guessing a Japanese person who had not done their homework on some key cultural differences between their home and target countries would have a rather unsuccessful and short-lived work life in England or Finland.
Rather than the work, the most common place for a quick kip for a Japanese person seems to be the train. I would say approximately 50% of the people sitting down are in all sorts of positions apparently fast asleep (see photo). Public benches/sofas seem to be also popular (see photos). When we were at Universal Studios, we sat down on a bench by one of the rides. A 50-something woman sat next to us. Within one minute she was asleep. I knew she was asleep and not just resting her eyes because her Universal Studio leaflets and maps that she was holding fell on the ground, and she did not react in any way. I picked up her things and placed them next to her on the bench. That did not wake her up either. Twenty minutes later she woke up, got up and off she went.
English and Finnish people, on the other hand, rarely sleep in public, other than long journeys on public transport. You don’t want to fall asleep in public in Finland unless you don’t mind people thinking that you are an alcoholic. Falling asleep in public in England is also not a good idea, as it is pretty much guaranteed that you’ll wake up without your valuables. Even though I don’t usually sleep in public in Finland or in England (bar a couple of drunken episodes here and there), I have quickly started to adopt Japanese sleeping habits. On the train, I now quite happily close my eyes for some minutes, my chin low, head moving from side to side as the train moves, but I try not to fall asleep though, because I don’t want to wake up 45 minutes later 20 miles north of Osaka at the end of the train line. Japanese people don’t seem to suffer from not waking up at their stop. I don’t know how they do it. Perhaps they are just pretending that they are asleep so that (a) people think they are hard workers or (b) they don’t have to give up their seat if someone who needed the seat more than them happened to hop on the train. You see, I have not seen one Japanese person give their seat to an elderly person. I have not seen one Japanese person give their seat to a pregnant woman. I did see a high school boy give his seat to his friend who had a cast around his ankle and was walking on crutches. But unless you have a broken leg and your friend happens to be on the same train as you, be prepared to stand up.
The second rebellious act that I have seen is the use of mobile phones on the train. There are signs everywhere telling commuters to turn off their phones while on the platform and the train. But practically everyone on the train is there fiddling with their handsets – even Japanese ladies dressed in full Kimono gear from the Geisha hairdo to the white silky socks worn with flip flops that press the sock in between the big toe and index toe to create a camel toe look. These Japanese ladies tiptoe into the train, sit down, open their bag, take out their mobile phone and start playing Candy Crush. I find this nearly as weird as if I saw Jesus playing Candy Crush. The unwritten rule amongst the commuters is that one can use their phone as long as the phone or you do not make a sound. That is, talking on the phone is frowned upon. The staff on the train has slightly different ideas of mobile phone use. More than once or twice I have seen a conductor-type guy walk through the train and reprimand everyone who had their phones out regardless of whether they were talking on it or not. I am not sure where this rather random rule of not speaking on the phone in public transport derives from, given that people are allowed to talk to each other on the train/tube. However, I am totally in favour of this rule being introduced in England as well. I really don’t give a flying rat’s ass how successful a pulling night some bird who (shouldn’t have been but nevertheless) was wearing flower patterned leggings and white crop top in the back row of a Brighton bus had had the previous Saturday. Finnish people on the other hand embrace silence. I mean, I am pretty sure that there are areas in Northern Finland where the term ‘awkward silence’ is not part of people’s vocabulary. To clarify, this is not because their conversations never have awkward silences but because in their opinion there is nothing awkward about silence.
Third, Japanese people cycle like madmen! There are signs indicating that one should not cycle on the pavement, but that does not stop the Japanese cyclists. They cycle on pavements regardless, and they cycle fast, often holding an umbrella (if it is raining) or a parasol (if it is sunny) and show very little concern for the pedestrians. We have been in Japan for about seven weeks and I am amazed that we are all still alive. You see, there has been several near misses. The worst thing is that I think Japanese cyclists are completely unaware of my ‘evil eye’ when I try to silently signal that I disapprove of their behaviour by angrily eyeballing them. For instance, yesterday one cyclist nearly ran me and my daughter over when we came out of a subway exit. So, I eyeballed him (angrily). He stopped his bike, which made me panic because I thought that he was going to come and hit me having seen my evil eye, but instead he pointed at the ground and said (in Japanese) that my daughter had dropped her toy. I couldn’t carry on giving him the evil eye any longer and in fact found myself thanking him.
Lastly, I would like to thank those of you who have contacted me and kindly offered to send me Godzilla size tights and clothes. What lovely friends I have! However, I have given my husband an extensive list as to what to bring back to Japan with him from England, so no need to post anything. It might be worth mentioning that my husband is somewhat shocked having now learned how much money I spend on monthly basis on hairspray, hair mousse, face cream, perfume, and other personal hygiene products, cosmetics, and tights. But of course he is shocked. The only things he buys are shaving mousse and razors. And the only other thing he has to invest in every couple of years is a new set of hair clippers, with which he can clip down the few remaining hairs on his head, so that he doesn’t look like Captain Stubbing from Love Boat. If you don’t know this 1980’s TV show character, Google him, preferably without him wearing a hat. Luckily, I have a thing for men with shaved heads so I think my husband is still (nearly) as handsome as he was when I met him 13 years ago.