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No point in going if you can’t wait in line

by Philip Brasor

The next time you go to Tokyo Disneyland and find yourself waiting an inordinate length of time for five minutes of thrills on Space Mountain, spare a thought for Hung Wah-fung, who is certainly thinking of you — or, more precisely, your situation.

Hung is the man who filed a suit in a small-claims court against Hong Kong Disneyland on Sept. 12, the day the theme park opened. The week before, he and his family had attended a special pre-opening charity day at the park along with 30,000 other people. He claims there were long lines at rides and restaurants, some up to three hours, and told the South China Morning Post that the park’s managers “only want to squeeze as many people in as possible in order to make money.” He is suing for “poor crowd management,” and it’s obvious from the small award he is seeking, HK$1,400 ($175), that the suit is mostly symbolic.

It was also inadvertently timely since it coincided with glowing reports about the success of the Aichi Expo, which was just about to end. These reports presented the long lines and cramped conditions at the Expo as a good thing, not only for the organizers but also, apparently, for the people who were doing the waiting.

Since the Expo finished Sept. 25, the numbers have attested to its success: 60 billion yen in admissions, which is about 17.5 billion yen more than expected. Though costs are still being calculated as the site is dismantled, it’s estimated that the Expo will see a surplus of 10 billion yen. What’s more, the economic benefits to the region are estimated to be more than 1.2 trillion yen.

The icing on the cake is that this success was not at all assured prior to the Expo’s opening last March. Though the media coverage was neutral, some negative points emerged regarding the cynicism of the organizers (an exposition dedicated to “nature’s wisdom” that may have compromised the environmental integrity of the area), the purpose of the tight security (such as initially preventing visitors from bringing their own food so as to force them to patronize vendors) and the uncertain appeal of the overall project. This last aspect seemed to have been confirmed when a mere 43,000 people showed up on opening day.

It turned out to be the lowest attendance day for the entire six-month run of the Expo. It didn’t really pick up substantially until after school let out for the summer in July, but the growing number of visitors wasn’t simply a function of families having more time on their hands. If that were the case, then the numbers should have risen accordingly and stayed the same for the rest of the summer. What really happened was that attendance kept growing, and grew almost exponentially during the last month, when something like 7 million people visited the Expo, a third of the overall attendance. Two million came in the last week alone.

The media’s role can’t be overestimated. In the beginning, when reporters conjectured that the Expo would not reach its admission goals, few people came. But once lines started forming at more and more exhibits and the media reported it, people arrived, thus creating longer lines and more coverage of these lines.

The Japanese term for this phenomenon is gyoretsu no dekiru, an adjectival phrase that means “able to create a line of people.” When it’s used to describe something like a restaurant it automatically imbues the restaurant with a glow of success that draws more people, which in turns draws the media and thus creates even longer lines. Many Japanese people don’t mind patronizing businesses that are over-crowded because the lines validate their patronage.

You don’t need a masters in economics to understand that this sort of mind-set is a boon to business people. For one thing, it makes marketing a cinch. Movies, whether they are popular or not, are invariably advertised as being “big hits” since it’s assumed people will only want to see movies that everyone else is seeing. The media reported that several thousand people had camped overnight outside the new Yodobashi Camera store in Akihabara before it opened Sept. 16. More than a million people subsequently passed through the store that weekend. If you’re able to create a crowd, then more hordes will follow. 34,000 people were waiting outside the gates of the Aichi Expo the morning of its last day.

The Tokyo Shimbun interviewed visitors during the last week. A 25-year-old man from Shizuoka said that he originally had no intention of coming to the Expo, but two weeks earlier everybody seemed to be talking about it. A man from Tokyo who had waited three hours to get a ticket for the Toyota Pavilion said, “I can wait up to an hour for ramen in Tokyo. You have to experience standing in line if you really want to appreciate this Expo.”

According to a media professor quoted in the same article, Japanese people have become used to instant gratification and so the idea of postponing gratification holds a certain appeal to them. However, the impression one gets is that for many of these people the gratification is in the waiting itself.

One Expo repeater said she visited the Toyota Pavilion 20 times and waited three hours to gain entrance each time. On the last day, a 37-year-old man said that he and his family hadn’t been able to get into any pavilion. No problem. “It’s enough just to say that we came and enjoyed ourselves,” he said.

Mr. Hung would have been appalled.