Thursday, March 20, 2014

Will Miss #40 - people doing their own thing (reflection)

If this guy were in America instead of Akihabara, he wouldn't bother wearing headphones, he'd just blast that music aloud.

At some point within this past week, my husband and I were crossing a street and a guy on a skateboard crossing in the opposite direction was loudly and theatrically singing "Somewhere Over the Rainbow." After he had passed, my husband asked me if I thought he was mentally ill (as a lot of such unfortunate souls are conversing with unseen parties) or if he was just unaware of how inappropriate his behavior was. My answer was that it was a case of neither and that, in my experience, he was just being a not atypical American.

I'm sometimes floored by how people behave in public spaces as if they were private. I'm not talking about people who hug or kiss in public in moments of unrestrained passion (also, hugging in public is a greeting in the U.S. so it's not so strange). I'm talking about people who seem mentally well who will sing aloud or talk to themselves aloud - without any sort of phone - I've seen people discuss the contents of their shopping cart with themselves. America has either really changed since I left it in 1989 or the Bay Area is vastly different from where I grew up, but people really seem quite unrestrained now in these areas.

In Japan, the people who did their own thing rarely sang or conversed to themselves (though it did happen). They, more often than not, would dance, do golf  or baseball swings, or some sort of movement which seemed unusual in public. Americans tend to be verbal about it. Japanese tended to be physical. Frankly, the latter was less disturbing because you could just not look. It's hard to not "hear" someone who is being loud.

I can't say that I miss people "doing their own thing" in public since it happens so often here, but I can say that I found the way in which it happened in Japan less disruptive and charming. That's a biased I've formed, no doubt, but I'm being honest.


  1. It interesting what catches someone's attention; It seems to me that Japanese people talk to themselves quite a lot. But, yes, it's usually quietly. The guys who pick their noses on trains like no one's looking, though...

    I always say that in America, mentally-ill people are fairly easy to spot; in Japan, so many of them wear suits and carry briefcases...

    1. I used to think that - especially the mumbling to themselves, but it often struck me as more of the non-mentally ill talking to oneself (almost absently) rather than the out loud conversations I tend to hear here. The singing thing here really does take me by surprise, but given how everyone things that it's a great idea to blare music at top volume from their cars (and even bicycles) such that I can hear it clearly in my apartment from hundreds of yards away, I think people believe all the world is a stage. ;-)

  2. Well, Americans are said to be a little too comfortable with themselves in public sometimes...but:

    I don't share the perspective that the Japanese are doing their own thing because they are more thoughtful of other people's sensory perceptions of them. Rather, they are inhibited by growing up in such a rigid society where people seem to always censor themselves in order to not stick out.
    People not blasting music and thereby annoying others is one thing. But not daring to have a sip out of a bottle of water, or eat a snack while walking on the street is clearly taking things too far and a highly irrational concept of "doing my own thing."
    I heard of anecdotes where people suddenly had their neighbours knocking at the door, saying "we saw your wife walking and eating yesterday" with a huge frown, expecting an apology.
    Call it cultural bias, but I don't think a society there where is less personal freedom than in East Germany is something to be missed.
    One of rare instances I completely disagree with this great blog.

    1. I have to say that I never saw someone refrain from eating in public or take a sip out of a water bottle. That actually is not what my post is about. It's more about "letting your freak flag fly" rather than conforming to unwritten rules of public manners.

      My experience in Tokyo, and I have to make it clear that I only lived in Tokyo so YMMV, was that people did not often drink or eat on trains, but it certainly was not uncommon either. In fact, sometimes I was annoyed that people would drink a soft drink or can of coffee and leave the empty behind such that it would be rolling around in the car for the duration of the trip (I don't care if they drink or eat, but at least have the courtesy to take the garbage with you and toss it in a trash bin). Honestly, the level of rigidity you're speaking of was not something I was ever told about or experienced. I was told that it was considered bad manners to eat or drink while walking or riding the train (as was putting on make-up on the train), but it wasn't something you got called on for doing. People had the freedom to do such things, but those around them disapprovied. It's not like the police would stop you or people would yell at you in the street if you drank or ate in public.

  3. I would guess that part of that may be more common where you live now than other parts of the US. I was born and raised not far from where you were in under very similar circumstances, and the sort o behavior you mentioned would not go over well back there even today.

    But otherwise, people in Tokyo are much more restrained than counterparts in the US. Interestingly though, I know a few from the Kansai area who are not nearly as restrained as Tokyoites and complain of being stared down for talking "loud" on trains.

    As far as the eating/drinking while walking goes, it is pretty common nowadays as you mentioned. THis especially pleases me as it will cause that old bar-code headed right-winger Masahiko Fujiwara to go further bonkers. He hates it so much that he specifically mentioned it as a no-no in his absurd "The Dignity of a State."


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