Issues | JUST BE CAUSE

In Japan, no escape from The Eye's perpetual policing glare

by Debito Arudou

Hey, all you residents heading abroad for the holidays, here’s a little experiment to try on yourself: When you return to Japan, take note of an interesting phenomenon that starts just as you deplane and plug back into Japanese society.

You’ll feel a palpable and intractable pressure — a pressure to conform to The Order, that standardized way of doing things in Japan. You can use it to get what you want, or you can defy it and feel the burn of its stare.

I call this pressure The Eye.

Of course, you can find The Eye in all societies. Also known as the “evil eye” or “hairy eyeball,” it’s a glare you get when you’re doing something the crowd doesn’t like. Humans as a species have an innate sensitivity to the feeling of being watched. Perhaps it’s a primal instinct to keep us in formation and out of trouble.

But The Eye in Japan is so powerful that it doesn’t need a crowd. Just step out into public view and you’ll feel it. And because it is so constant, normalized and pervasive, it triggers a conditioned reflex.

Consider the reflex triggered by Chinese water torture: The victim gets water dripped between the eyes and blinks it away. Enough drops over a long period and the victim’s self-control erodes, and he blinks uncontrollably even without the dripping water.

The Eye similarly conditions you. It makes the feeling of being watched involuntary — to the point where you feel the need to look around before doing something unusual in public.

The Eye thus compels you towards collective behavior: Mustn’t be forceful or push back against the status quo, lest you get hairy-eyeballed.

For example, call upon a Japanese student in any classroom and ask his opinion about something. The Eye turns on him like a heat lamp on the back of his neck. He’ll pause, look around and wonder — if not flat-out ask — what the consensus opinion is.

Even if you clarify that you are asking for his personal opinion, you’ll generally get evasion or a noncommittal answer.

Understandably. After all, nobody wants to stand out in the spotlight and push against something, especially if they have no stake or emotional investment in it. And even if they did, who wants to be judged for it? Life is less complicated for an anonymous member of a crowd. The Eye thus keeps Japanese classrooms quiet.

Of course, peer pressure exists in classrooms worldwide. But even outside class, where there are fewer “peers” to worry about, the lack of individual push-back in Japan is marked and noticeable.

Let’s say you’re walking down the street in the middle of the night and you see a “don’t walk” red light at an intersection. Assume there are no cars coming, so you could actually cross safely. In Japan, people often still don’t cross. You wait for it to turn green, especially if somebody else is there ready to look at you funny if you break ranks.

Or let’s say you’re walking down that street again and see a cordon of orange traffic pylons around half a sidewalk that squeezes pedestrians into one lane and inconveniences everyone. After sizing up the situation, you notice that the cordon serves no practical purpose because it’s Sunday and no one’s working on the site.

Yet you still don’t move the pylons over. You squeeze into the narrowed foot traffic and silently negotiate with oncoming pedestrians who can’t decide which side to walk on (as often happens in societies that lead with the right hand yet drive on the left).

The Eye thus forces everyone to assume that something beyond individual control is probably there for a purpose, and that no individual should stand out by interfering.

Rarely are there enough standouts to balance the scales, or even tip them in the iconoclast’s favor. It creates the inverse of “breaking ranks”: If only one person reasserts the status quo, the rest will generally fall into line.

Now consider the extra pressure on people who often cannot avoid The Eye: the non-Japanese (NJ).

It is said that privacy in Japan is the art of not being seen. This means that natural standouts, such as Japan’s “visible minorities” (i.e. the NJ and Japanese who don’t “look Japanese”), cannot opt out of The Eye’s glare. They attract attention no matter what they do — even if they do absolutely nothing.

Granted, sometimes that works in the NJ’s favor — that is, if they happen to appeal to a desirable standard (e.g., tall, well-groomed, moneyed and male). They attract the attention of the Giggly Ingenue and Bored Cougar. In other words, they get “the look,” not The Eye.

But that also means they don’t get left alone. They have to endure more intrusions into their space. Random bystanders barge in and try to be A Gracious Host to The Gaijin Guest.

Not to mention the other people who hijack The Eye for their own purposes: the Culture Vultures, for one example, who ostensibly want to practice their English with any NJ face, but in actual fact harbor a gaijin (foreigner) fetish.

Such fetishists want to “study” anything NJ do, believing it to be somehow symptomatic of how all foreigners behave, right down to checking on what’s in their supermarket carts or garbage bags. Some even follow NJ around and photograph them surreptitiously, as if tracking rare animals. It can get creepy.

As for the motley NJ who don’t fit that aforementioned desirable standard, The Eye eventually convinces them that they really are somehow deviant and undesirable. And many go a bit nuts due to their apparent inadequacy. They’ll be ignored, but studiously so.

On the other hand, there are NJs who do “look Japanese” and can “pass” as such. By donning drab colors, effecting a sullen public mask and adopting unobtrusive behaviors like everyone else, they can escape The Eye.

But these are the exceptions that prove the rule — the rule being that NJ in Japan are naturally viewed as suspicious. And the law as enforced reinforces that.

As detailed in previous Community Page articles passim, aside from the (now remotely trackable) “gaijin cards” that must be carried 24-7, racial profiling by Japan’s police is normal and legally sanctioned. Probable cause is not necessary for search and interrogation of NJ, since every one of them is potentially a visa overstayer. NJ are also given extra and distinct procedures in criminal jurisprudence, incarceration and public registration.

Then there’s the extra scrutiny from neighbors, encouraged by extralegal intrusive regimes such as government online “snitch sites” (see “Downloadable discrimination,” Zeit Gist, March 30, 2004) and unlawful visa checks by hotels, businesses and workplaces (“Gaijin card checks spread as police deputize the nation,” ZG, Nov. 13, 2007). All of these practices are part and parcel of The Order for NJ — for NJ in Japan must be watched.

But less considered is how Japan’s top-down enforcement mechanisms are also enforced bottom-up and side-to-side — for everyone.

That is how The Eye is manifest. And it completes the circuit of the system by making everyone watch and police one another.

Usually I like to conclude a column with advice about what to do about the issue in question. This time, however, shikata ga nai — there is no escape from The Eye. In fact, you’ll even resort to hairy-eyeballing someone yourself if you see aberrant behavior, glad to be the one staring for a change.

The only escape is to head back to the airport and exit Japanese society. As many Japanese do.

Then you’ll notice the opposite effect. Japanese free of The Eye often go overboard in their conduct, doing loud, brazen things in public they’d never dream of doing in Japan, given the sudden easing of societal boundaries.

Tabi no haji wa kakisute (“throw away your shame while on a trip”) is the Japanese proverb that justifies such behavior: You don’t know anyone around you and you won’t be there for all that long, so you can do even shameful things if you like. After all, few locals will police them like Japanese would police NJ back home; overseas, cultural relativism turns many a blind hairy eyeball.

Break over, they’ll come back to Japan and plug right back in. As will you.

Scholar Kenichi Yoshida once famously wrote that “Japan is a circle.” I’d amend that: It’s a closed loop of perpetual policing.

Debito Arudou adapted this essay from the introduction of his 2011 book “In Appropriate: A Novel of Culture, Kidnapping, and Revenge in Modern Japan,” now available as an e-book for ¥935. See www.debito.org/inappropriate.html. Twitter @arudoudebito. Just Be Cause appears on the first Thursday Community page of the month. Send your comments on these issues and ideas to community@japantimes.co.jp.

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