Home > Gaijin Chronicles > Line Theory

Line Theory

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.

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Categories: Gaijin Chronicles
  1. Longtime Reader
    June 10, 2010 at 4:57 pm

    Az, you seriously need to do the $5 (or 500 yen) room thing, even if you don’t have a building to do it out of, even if you only do it on a weekend day, as long as 2 conditions are met: the room has to have 2 doors (one marked exit on the inside and outside), and that you tack up the contract to the front of the door in fine print, that way they cannot say that they didn’t see it. It would make for a great sociological experiment that would never be possible in the US, not to mention the fact that you would probably make enough money for the renting of the space within just the first few hours. Although I understand if the life of a Japanese Gaijin salaryman doesn’t allow room for such interesting diversions.

    Also, I am so glad you are back up on the internet, because what you write about, although a bit off the wall, certainly keeps a lot of us grounded with the certainty that though our lives be interesting in their own right, someone sane out there has decided to post the zanier side of “more interesting” than our experiences.

    Keep up the writing, and I hope your book deal takes off!

  2. Rexides
    June 10, 2010 at 7:09 pm

    I can totally get why people want to go to crowded bars and cafes instead of empty ones, but the line thing just baffles me…

    And the incident with the two girls is right out of a surreal comedy show. Damn, I bet that if some writer proposed the scene in the west, it would be dismissed as being way too absurd.

  3. Lio
    June 10, 2010 at 11:58 pm

    You know, that reminds me of the last years of the Soviet Union. When people saw a line in the street, they would always join it, because a line meant that some “deficit” hard-to-get goods were being sold there. Maybe sausages, or rare books… Only after lining up they would ask the people in front of them, what they were queueing for. The Line is the symbol of the “perestroika” years by right.

  4. Darkrider
    June 11, 2010 at 5:29 am

    Ah Japan. Where rational thought and common sense are silly little ideas. This all just contributes to my theory of the Japanese hive mind. Any other place in the world people would at least inquire what the line was for but not Japan. “Wow!” “a long line.” “It must be good!, I’ll just get in even if I have no idea what it’s for!”

  5. Prozzac
    June 11, 2010 at 5:38 am

    Just wanted to say that i really enjoy your blogs or whatever you wanna call them.
    Keep up the good work and good luck in the future!

  6. Soiled Oregano
    June 11, 2010 at 5:48 am

    In regards to the one-door thing: I’ve noticed that people do the same thing with double doors in my high school, unless there’s a massive rush of people moving through the area – and even then, sometimes one door is still closed.

  7. Tetsu
    June 11, 2010 at 10:47 am

    Az,

    Is your paypal donation thing down ? I noticed you needed a new comp, wanted to shoot you some cash for one.

    • June 11, 2010 at 11:26 am

      Thanks. And done!

      • Tetsu
        June 12, 2010 at 11:39 am

        Can you post your paypal e-mail ? The one from outpost 9 isn’t working. How much is the computer your eyeing ?

      • June 12, 2010 at 12:52 pm

        I put a button on the Gaijin Chronicles side menu, that should work. If not, the email is azrael@outpostnine.com.
        Thank you.

  8. Avelina
    June 11, 2010 at 2:37 pm

    What?!? This is a Japanese thing? I thought it was a Canadian thing, and I’m Canadian. Well there might not be enough of us at a time to line up in a single filed line, when there is I do it! Usually without knowing what the line is for.

  9. wah
    June 11, 2010 at 3:00 pm

    I’d find this so weird if I hadn’t actually lived in Japan to such things with my own two eyes!

  10. Chris
    June 11, 2010 at 3:00 pm

    I guess this explains the success of Tokyo Disneyland/DisneySea — the Holy Fucking Grail Of Waiting In Line:

    Japanese #1: What is this place?

    American: It’s an amusement park.

    Japanese #2: What do we do here?

    American: Go on rides, look at scenery, eat food which will give you breasts, that sort of thing.

    Japanese #1: Sounds dull.

    American: Oh, no, it’s quite exciting — the dull part is all the waiting in line you have to do.

    Japanese People, en masse: *WAIT IN LINE*!? WHY DIDN’T YOU SAY SO!?

    [whirling newspaper revealing headline: AMERICAN AMUSEMENT-PARK CREATOR TRAMPLED TO DEATH BY ENTIRE POPULATION OF JAPAN]

  11. wole
    June 12, 2010 at 3:09 am

    Wow…they just took the group mentality to a whole new level

  12. Tobias
    June 12, 2010 at 8:51 am

    Never commented before eventhough I’ve been reading gaijinsmash for about 1½years now. Just wanted to say it’s great to see you back writing Az!

  13. Kev
    June 12, 2010 at 1:41 pm

    Good to see you back Az! I had almost given up on GaijinSmash, but no I told my self, “check it one last time before you delete the bookmark.”
    And you were back!
    Speaking of crowd control. This is the other the chaos you are speaking about:

    PS. Congratz on your baby news!

  14. Alan
    June 12, 2010 at 4:50 pm

    Just do “hug a huge black guy for 5 dollars” line and become rich. You don’t even have to become famous.

  15. AS
    June 13, 2010 at 8:06 am

    Haha, the whole standing in line thing bewilders me as well. The Japanese are quite serious when they do it though so it’s hilarious. When I went to Tokyo Disneyland the lines are long just to wait for the gates to open. I know this because I was waiting in one of those lines lol. I would say I was there 2 hours before opening and there were at least 100 people there across all the entrances. The reason I was there, as I assume everyone else was, was to get a fastpass for the then new Monsters Inc. ride. I later learned why when I say the standby line for that ride to be six hours and it was only one in the afternoon. I can’t believe that people would wait six hours in line just to get on a 5 minute ride that wasn’t even that great. It was renovated when I went again this past May and it was better with more interaction but I still ran for that fast pass ticket with everyone else in fear of that six hour line. It actually didn’t go up to six hours like it did before but around 45 minutes, probably because everyone figured out that it wasn’t worth it.

  16. June 15, 2010 at 10:18 am

    This blog is just awesome, love your style of writing. Please keep up the god work.

  17. Jeska Feru
    June 15, 2010 at 7:56 pm

    I saw this happening in Akiba the other day! I walked past one of those game software stores with a friend and there was a line of hungry-looking boymen staring up at the store’s TV screens like they were learning the secret to life or something.

    But for the life of me I can’t tell you what the actual line was for o,o

  18. Nao
    June 15, 2010 at 9:00 pm

    Wow, lots of text there ! what are we commenting ? Is it some kind of blog ?

    If anybody have a clue, I’ll be waiting here.

  19. Grimeyes
    June 15, 2010 at 9:22 pm

    Thank God your back Az! Like most of your readers I thought you were dead. Your posts are as entertaining as always. Its great that you’re gonna be broadening the scope of your blog. Personally, I don’t think your posts always need to be funny or mind blowing, just interesting would be enough. Heck, it doesn’t even always have to be about Japan. Anyway, welcome back, and here’s to hoping for regular updates!

  20. Iron Cheef
    June 16, 2010 at 3:52 am

    My ticket says number 23.

    I’ll just wait until its my turn to insert witty comments…

  21. RieaMiea
    June 16, 2010 at 5:04 pm

    I think you need to do that $5 room thing and seeing as the Japanese are very obedient(or so I have heard), they will probably free up the cash just cause they have bene told too. Oh crap I hate lines, so I can imagine that I will piss off lots of Japanese people when i go to Japan, just by my bitching and whining alone. Hey I know a lot of teenage girls who would Line up for Justin Bieber *rolls eyes*

  22. Corey
    June 17, 2010 at 4:37 am

    Sounds like the “Line Ride” from that South Park episode would do incredibly well in Japan.

    I think you’re idea is actually pretty good. If not for money, for a social experiment. It would actually be pretty fascinating (and hilarious).

  23. JD31
    June 17, 2010 at 8:19 am

    Wow that explains a lot when it comes to certain Japanese videos I have watched. Sometimes you think wow… how could you simply be talked into doing whatever that guy wants you to do. Have you no will! Wait, stop, think about this! Just say NO! Actually it like never happens that they say no… well at least not in the videos I watch.

  24. nandeyanen
    June 19, 2010 at 12:19 am

    There is a Krispy Kreme donuts that opened in Shinsaibashi a month or two ago I believe. Even now, every time I go to Shinsaibashi there is a line with a one and a hlaf hour wait for this shop! Suddenly Mr Donuts is no good anymore it would seem…

  25. j
    June 22, 2010 at 1:08 am

    Man, you should write a book. Seriously.
    In Japanese. For the Japanese.
    This kind of stuff would have to sell, especially with your humorous style of writing. For some strange reason, people like to be told about themselves so long as it’s done in a humorous way.

  26. Name(required)
    June 22, 2010 at 2:44 pm

    >Man, you should write a book. Seriously.
    >In Japanese. For the Japanese.
    >This kind of stuff would have to sell, especially with your humorous style of
    >writing.

    That would never work. I really enjoy reading Az’ blog, I cringed, I laughed. But writing that kind of style in Japanese would just sound very mean and insulting. Japanese humor is _very_ different…

  27. June 22, 2010 at 9:30 pm

    Waiting for the sake of waiting is indeed pretty stupid, but I can get behind (in a neatly unique line, of course) the idea of waiting to go to a particularly good place. There’s this ice cream maker in my old town, as soon as it is open they’re at least 10 people waiting in line whereas all the other ice cream places are half empty. But this one is just delicious, and worth every second of the wait.

    And I’m french, and we’re oh so, so terrible at waiting in lines…

  28. Char
    June 23, 2010 at 12:02 pm

    I just wanted to say this happens at my university too… in New Zealand. We’ll have 3 huge double doors and a huge queue of people (maybe 300 waiting to get out of the lecture theater) using only two doors. Why have 3 doors when we only use one? Of course I just waltz through the double door no one is using.. I don’t get why people queue for these things either.

  29. Ben
    June 24, 2010 at 1:49 pm

    For all that they love waiting in line, the Japanese haven’t really perfected the art of queuing. I constantly see them waiting in dozens of separate lines when one line would be much faster and more efficient.

  30. ban6dit
    June 30, 2010 at 1:44 pm

    Koreans have their own version of “Line theory.” When it comes to double doors Koreans only use one door but for no reason one door is locked. From day to day It’s not always the same door. So people always try to go through a set of doors and chose the locked door and it is like hitting a wall.

  31. ItAintEazy
    July 8, 2010 at 9:15 am

    “For all they knew, it could have been ‘Get Slapped in the Face by a Black Man’ line”

    Lawl, this is exactly why I keep reading you XD

  32. Avery
    September 18, 2010 at 9:33 am

    I like lining up for the train here in the inaka, but nobody else uses the designated line spots, so I feel kind of silly. I guess lining up hasn’t caught on yet here.

  33. John
    October 27, 2010 at 2:01 pm

    When I was young and in high school, I would often try to talk my friends into just stopping somewhere at some place like an amusement part of fair, and we would just stop and get in a single file line and see how long it took for everyone to fall in behind us.
    Then, we could turn around and say, “What are you guys doing? .. We were just taking a breather…” and walk off, continuing to watch to see how long before the line faded away. I am SOOO glad I found this place again, I really did miss your stuff. >_<

  34. Phil
    December 8, 2010 at 3:45 am

    I’m a bit late, but it’s good to see you back, Az. I was thoroughly amused by your tales of double-door behaviour, but I have to tell you that it’s not unique to Japan. It’s not even unique to stereotypical weedy people who are afraid that they can’t open one of the two doors. It seems to be a psychological thing based on a culture that stresses politeness and the desirability of patient behaviour when (you guessed it) waiting in line. Because, you see, I recognised that traffic-signal-like behaviour from my own life here in the UK. Now, I don’t do it (much), but I have to deal with it a lot at work, where there are lots of double doors with considerable numbers of people (students — it’s a university) going in and out all day, and they demonstrate the exact same behaviour. Not only that, but the looks of surprise I get if I open the other door are truly a thing to behold — if, of course, I can open the other door; because you see, when waiting for their turn to get through the single open door, the people currently facing the red light, as it were, will often move to the side slightly, blocking the other door from opening! So it’s a self-propagating behaviour — a bit like your girls joining the crepe line. The thing I want to know is why the staff of the second crepe shop weren’t out there drumming up trade: “Want a crepe? We’re open, and the queue here is much shorter…” Or would that be a disadvantage?

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