I’m going to have to dust off my desk at the “Japan’s Weird, Did You Know That?” institute.
I believe I mentioned before, after living here for over 6 years I’ve gotten used to some of Japan’s quirkyness. Things like old women with purple hair, kids wearing T-shirts with English sexual innuendo, or men who dress up as women and roam the streets of Osaka no longer faze me. …I feel like these things SHOULD faze me, but they don’t anymore. Sentences such as “Oh hey, look, the old guy in the hippie dress with the green hair and pushing the baby stroller with the Cabbage Patch Kid is back…hmm, he has purple hair today, that’s a change”* now roll off my tongue as casually as “Hmm, so do you think the Dow will go up today?” or “whose the new Prime Minister this time around?”
*As much as this may sound like a made-up example…it’s really not.
That having been said, there are still a few things that continue to baffle me. One of these things is the Japanese approach to walking through doors.
Imagine you are standing in front of a department store here in Japan. Most if not all department stores have big double-doors, which makes sense – these places usually have a lot of foot traffic, and they want to have people go in and out smoothly. These doors aren’t automatic doors, and usually they stay closed, I imagine to help regulate the air conditioning, bug control, and to slow down any potential zombie outbreaks. Despite being a closed door, they have handles on it which allows any intelligent mammal – say a human for example – to use their controllable digits to open and close the doors at will.
Simple enough, right? Here’s how the Japanese take this simple concept and make it special.
Most Japanese people will only go through one of the double doors. If traffic going in and out of the building is sparse, that makes sense. But even when there are eleventy billion people trying to go in and out of the department store (think: clearance sale), the Japanese will still obey this mysterious one-door rule. People going out will patiently wait as people go in through the one door – when there is a slight lull in the inbound traffic, then the people going out will take over while the people going in resume the patient waiting duties.
And while this all sounds like the actions of a highly organized and civil culture, remember – there’s a second door there! You could have people going in and out at the same time!
Sometimes I get dragged to a department store, and I see the above taking place. People will be waiting patiently on the outside while the group inside exits the store single-file through the one door. Being the uncultured Gaijin beast that I am, I will go to the perfectly functioning second door and – GASP! – open it, which gives me free and uncontested entrance into the store. To the Japanese who were waiting on the outside, I imagine this is a lot like when fire was first introduced to cavemen. Or, when humanity discovered YouTube.
Having exposed the pot of gold that is the second door, my Japanese friends will join behind me, and for one brief moment of pure Valhalla, there will be uniform traffic going in and out of the store – at the same time – through the double doors! This magic doesn’t last for long though, for as soon as I turn back around to see what’s going on, one of the doors (usually the one I opened) has closed and people have gone back to the single door wait-and-go approach. I can only imagine what must go down…
Japanese Guy 1: Uh-oh, that impossibly heavy second door that Gaijinzilla opened for us is going to close!
Japanese Guy2: That would be bad. Someone should stop that from happening.
Guy 1: Yes, someone should.
Guy 2: Oh look – while we were talking about someone keeping the door open, the door went and closed itself.
Guy 1: …Now what do we do?
Guy 2: …Clearly, the only thing we can do. Quietly accept our miserable fate.
Guy 1: Of course, for we are Japanese.
Guy 2: We will wait here outside the store until the inbound traffic gains control of the One Door.
Guy 1: My girlfriend’s birthday is 4 months from now – I hope I can make it inside before then.
Okay, so the door thing is weird. But maybe it isn’t? While utilizing both doors would let them enter and exit the store freely, only using the One Door gives them a chance to do something that, apparently, they love to do – stand in line.
Y’see, the Japanese LOVE lines. Like, if you could make the concept of lining up into a human being, otaku guys would marry the DS game which simulates lining up for things.
You may be thinking “Big deal, we line up in America too!” And sure, if we go down to the local movie theater or something, you can clearly see some painted lines and/or rope poles, etching out a clear queue up to the ticket window. But what you don’t realize is that those lines are necessary to retain law and order. Without them, people would just crowd around the ticket booth, waving money and screaming things at each other. A simple outing to the movies would turn into a twisted Survival of the Fittest challenge. Imagine the scene – children devastated as their meek fathers are unable to obtain Shrek tickets. Or even worse – hundreds of women brutally clawed to death as Sex and the City premiers worldwide.
…But not in Japan. Even without the clearly defined queue, Japanese people would just line up automatically, in one uniform single-file line.
Again, you may be thinking “Hey, isn’t this a good thing?!” and for the most part, you’re right. Order, in most cases, is usually better than chaos. The thing with the Japanese and lines though, is that they sometimes line up…for no good reason at all. If you walk through any major city, you are bound to see Japanese people lined up for something. In many cases, it’s some sort of restaurant with a reputation for being a hot spot. But despite there being hundreds of other restaurants offering the exact same type of food within the same 2-3km radius, none of which have any waiting time at all, people will get in line for The Restaurant, and patiently wait their turn. On my way home from work, I can see a large line in front of a sweets store in the basement of the department store. As far as I can tell, there’s nothing particularly special about this particular sweets store, and never mind that the entire basement floor is filled with sweets stores with little to no waiting time. They don’t have a Magical Line.
I swear to God, Buddha, Oprah Winfrey, or whatever deity you believe in, the following is a true story.
I was in downtown Kyoto once with my wife. We were in the shopping area, which can get quite crowded during tourist season. And by tourist, I don’t mean fellow Gaijin – I mean other Japanese people from various parts of the country.
There is a certain crepe shop in this area which almost always has a huge line of people for it. I don’t know what, if anything, makes this particular crepe shop special. And never mind that crepes can be found almost anywhere else in this area, with another crepe shop not even 50 meters away. Sometimes the line for the first crepe shop is so long, that people at the end will actually be standing in front of the second crepe shop. And that in itself is amazing, but not the point of this particular story.
My wife had gone off to go buy some cosmetics or something. The shop she went to was fairly small, so I offered to stay outside as to not take up space. I was standing near the line for this crepe shop, when two girls, I think from out of town walked by (I think they were out of town because of their dialect…). One of the girls pointed out the large line and asked what it was for. The other girl said she didn’t know. What makes this story notable is that at this point, both girls simply got in line. After seeing a couple walk by eating crepes, they realized that this was a line for crepes, and then determining that a nice crepe would indeed be delicious, decided to remain in line.
…Now, let’s think about this for a second.
Without even knowing what the line was for, these two girls lined up in it. It wasn’t even a conscious decision; their Japanese programming just naturally lead them to the line. For all they knew, it could have been “Get Slapped in the Face by a Black Man” line, but there they were in it. Only after lining up did they learn the purpose of the line. Then, deciding that the purpose was worth it, they remained in line. When viewed in a different light, we could say that these girls lined up solely for the sake of lining up – upon learning that the purpose of the line wasn’t something hideous like “Get Kicked in the Crotch, For Free!” or “Justin Bieber Music Sampling Station”, they determined they could continue being in the line without having a negative effect on their lives. The crepe was only a bonus for the true activity, which was to stand in line.
Again, I have to stress that I am not making this up. This actually happened.
Being the entrepreneur that I am, I’m always thinking of ways to make these discoveries into a profit. So far what I’ve come up with is – a single file line leading up to a building with only one door. Once inside, I will be sitting at a table that reads “Pay Me $5 – Mandatory.” If anyone objects, I will show them a contract that states that upon entering into the room, they explicitly agreed to the terms of the room. While this sounds like a horrible idea in theory, if I can get some friends of mine to just stand in line, I’m confident I can get Japanese people lining up around the block for it in no time.
So there you have it – a new case for the “Japan’s Weird, Did You Know That?” file. I hope you all enjoyed it. If you would like to leave a comment on this story, please form a single file line over there and write out your thoughts in an orderly, organized manner.