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A nation that’s set up for looking down

by Amy Chavez

Only in Japan is it possible to ride a crowded train to work, stop to buy your “o-bento” lunch at the convenience store, and arrive at work — all without ever having eye contact with anyone. That is because people spend a lot of time looking at the ground in Japan.

This must be why Japanese pay so much attention to things on the ground. Manhole covers are often decorated, and I am pretty sure there are professional “sidewalk designers” who conjure up the detailed tiled patterns of sidewalks, which often include one meticulously painted brick every hundred meters. If you had your artwork appear on a manhole cover in Japan, your work would be seen by more people than the Mona Lisa. And people would be just as happy to not have to go all the way to a special wall in France to see it.

With all those people looking at the ground on their way to work, I have often thought they should line the sidewalks with newspaper. With the Japanese vertical writing system, we could at least read the news on the way to work.

It is no wonder the JR advertises train passes on that tiny space between the steps that go up to the train platforms. Universal Studios Osaka has even taken to advertising on the floors of train stations. Next, I imagine the Japanese will start advertising on elevator floors.

In Japan, it seems everything is set up for looking down. I haven’t ordered fast food with eye contact in years. At fast-food restaurants, the menu is on the counter. You look at the menu while pointing and ordering. Even at sit-down restaurants, I often don’t know who my waiter is because, even though he took my order and brought my food, I never actually looked up at him!

What is so bad about eye contact? Plenty. First of all, if you don’t wear glasses or contacts, your eye is naked! Second, looking your superiors in the eye isn’t always polite. Japanese even drop their gaze when they are introduced to someone they find attractive.

Other times, eye contact just isn’t bothered with. Japanese don’t look at the shop attendant who yells “Irrashaimase!” when they walk into a store, and Japanese women can sit next to each other on the train and talk for 30 minutes, hardly ever looking at each other.

But there are rules for eye contact in Japan. Take the paper covers put on books when they are purchased, meant to protect the book cover from eye contact. I noticed a woman sitting on the train the other day reading a manga series book without a paper cover. She held the book inside her purse while reading it.

You also are not supposed to make eye contact with homeless people, large bags of trash on the curb or big black crows on the large bags of trash on the curb.

You are allowed to have eye contact with your cell phone, however. You are even allowed to stick your eyes to your cell phone if you forget your glasses and still want to read your e-mail. Surely you have seen these people — stopped and standing for better focus — reading their e-mail with their phone just inches from their face.

I once saw a guy in a convenience store having some serious eye contact with a magazine. Maybe he hadn’t forgotten his glasses; he was just one of those stubborn people who thinks: “I don’t need glasses. I’ve got another good 3 inches of sight left!”

I don’t wear glasses or contacts myself, but lately I have had eye strain. I am afraid to go to the doctor, though. As a “gaijin,” surely the diagnosis would be: Too much eye contact. Tsk, tsk!