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


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.

  • Tal Canita

    I’m a foreigner and yes I don’t cross the road on a red light. Why? Because as a foreigner , if I get hit on a red light, I know that I’d diminish my chances of winning a legal battle based on me not being Japanese, not because I care so much about people watching me.

    • Mike Wyckoff

      I agree with the later half of your comment, but your reasoning sounds a little odd. I wouldn’t cross if I thought I was going to get hit, regardless of what race or where I am.

  • Christopher Douglas Peter Goul

    Based on very selective observations of road-crossing to say the least. More noteworthy is the apparent Japanese conceptions of time and space. If they feel they can save half a second (even if it has no meaning in the grand scheme of things) by racing into gaps people like me don’t even see (in crowds, in trains, on cycles), they will take the seemingly reckless plunge.

  • qwerty

    so is denial

  • Sam Gilman

    I hope that, having finally gone back to the US, Debito finds some kind of peace.

    The extreme and generalised feelings he describes in this article clearly have much more to do with someone struggling to live in a foreign country than any issues of a particular country or particular people within a country. Regardless of his political activities, I think it’s fair to say that, when all’s said and done, he has not coped so well socially and psychologically in adapting to the very different social environment here, referring candidly in the past to his inability to forge anything more than superficial relationships with people here, and also, notoriously, his intense suspicions that Japanese people around him were intent on alienating him with the simplest of utterances, hinting he had himself felt the need to withdraw from society.

    I don’t mean the following at all facetiously, and I certainly don’t mean to dismiss any problems people may geniunely have experienced with particular people as a result of specific acts of discrimination and prejudice, but the state of mind this article expresses goes way beyond that. Here goes:

    If any readers from overseas living in Japan have such debilitating thoughts as these: that they are being constantly watched, or that the government is tracking them remotely, or if they are convinced they are “deviant and undesirable” because of their foreign identity, or if they are convinced they are in general surrounded by automatons, or if for example, if they believe, as the author has previously claimed, that everyone around them has been conditioned to lie to them, I think it’s important to recognise these as symptoms of paranoia and/or culture shock.

    There is no shame in confronting this. Immigrants and ex-pats are a vulnerable group anywhere in the world. Although we normally associate culture shock with the early period of adapting to life in a different country (and I certainly remember moments of laughable paranoia early on), subsequent life stressors such as divorce, losing a job, financial difficulties and physical ill health are all often much harder to cope with and can also create culture-shock style problems even for those who have lived abroad for a while. The author, for example, has been very open about his own familial issues in Japan.

    This seems to be a good curated reference for English-speaking counselling services in Tokyo:

    And this site contains a database of counselling support for international residents all over Japan, with a useful clickable map for your area:
    (International Mental Health Professionals Japan)

    It’s always good to talk to people. It’s also good that Debito challenges the prejudice that going home if, after trying, you find that settling in Japan is not for you, is somehow a shameful solution. It’s not. Best of luck to him.

  • Currawong (Amos)

    It always amazes me how Japanese people will stop and wait at a pedestrian crossing, yet if there isn’t one they’ll just brazenly walk or ride across a road, even on very dangerous bends. The problem is that they are taught to DO, not to THINK.

    • Sam Gilman

      Without wishing to drop a cognitive bomb in your lap, has it ever occurred to you that these might not all be the same people?

  • Sam Gilman

    Given the current fears over the new secrecy law and the increased ability of the government to suppress alternative points of view, it’s disturbing to see similar behaviour here at the JT.

    I wrote a long post about the serious issue of culture shock and the challenges faced by people living overseas even in the long term. I even included information on counselling services for your readers. I noted that, as with all mental health issues, there is a taboo in confronting this.

    It got deleted after half a day. I originally thought that this must have been a mistake when the moderator deleted a clearly trolling response (from someone who confessed they hadn’t even read it; they just don’t like me). However, when checking later to see if it had been reinstated, I found that another post that also raised much the same issue (in a shorter, pithier, but still polite manner) has now been put back under moderation.

    These are the community pages. If the moderator will not allow discussion of a serious issue like this (and the article provides an excellent opportunity to do so), what kind of “Community” is this?

    In the meantime, a number of posts that barely fall short of racism, and one that actually encourages people to render their Residency Cards invalid, have been let through. Again, what kind of “Community” is this?

    • Catherine Dassy

      Sam, I read the post you are referring to, but I thought there was little of interest in it as it was just a badly disguised ad hominem attack on Arudou Debito and added nothing to the discussion for that reason.
      You are of course welcome to try and submit your opinion about the relevance of this article again.

      • Sam Gilman

        An attack? I went out of my way to be clear that this is a sensitive issue, and actually praised Debito for affirming that for such people as him, returning to your country of origin is a valid option.

        Maybe you found it a shock for me to link to his various articles that form what appears to me a very, very distinct picture of generalised alienation. That’s the key here: it’s generalised. It is one thing (and a praiseworthy thing) to attack concrete cases of discrimination or oppression. However, here we have presented to us beliefs about the ingrained qualities of the undifferentiated host population in general that honestly look like paranoia born of sustained or reignited culture shock. If you find yourself in a situation where you believe pretty much everyone is lying, everyone is watching you, everyone is looking to alienate you, then isn’t it clear that perhaps you’ve crossed into some very dubious ideation?

        For you to dismiss everything I said as an ad hominem attack seems to me to be indicative of the problem we have in the foreign community talking about these kinds of feelings and states of mind. It is, sadly, politically correct to validate them rather than challenge them and raise awareness of them as a kind of occupational hazard.

        Look at online discussions of life in Japan: suggestions that someone experiencing strong generalised feelings of hostility towards the host culture is going through adjustment difficulties are typically met with striking hostility. Any suggestion that someone might be better off returning home is treated as an insult. Any suggestion that moving abroad might not be a stroll in the park (or should be if the natives weren’t so damned racist and anti-me) for everyone is met with abuse. There’s some kind of macho “I’m tough enough how dare you” reaction. Are we going to pretend that only “weak people” have acculturation problems? Is that a good attitude to have about any psychological issue?

        Are we going to pretend that the issue doesn’t exist, or that it only exists for other people?

        For the JT to rule such discussions as inappropriate, while approving comments that encourage people to take actions that could have them deported, boggles my mind.

  • For the sake of those dumb enough to consider following pseudo-anonymous advice on the internet:

    The IC chip is used to digitally confirm the authenticity of the card, and is read by more than just immigration and law enforcement; the specs for digitally confirming IDs have been distributed to banks and other institutions for the purpose of detecting card forgeries.

    According to the MoJ immigration FAQ on its official website, a bank, etc. can refuse to accept a Residence Card as conformable/authentic identification if its IC chip is damaged or inoperable.

    Also, if immigration can somehow determine that disabling or destroying the chip was intentional, this could be viewed (worst case) as “altering” your card and under the new immigration laws is a DEPORTABLE offense.

    For more information, consult Q9, Q25, Q27, Q29, Q51~Q55, & Q77 of the official New Immigration Act Q&A at the Immigration Bureau of Japan website.

  • qwerty

    If this was The World Times, and people kept writing about Japan – that would be strange, but as this is The Japan Times, it makes sense to focus on Japan, right?
    Of course “one has to take the global situation into account” and “Japan is not in isolation from the world” (well, that one not so much) but part of your original post (I think) was something along the lines of “stop whining about Japan – other countries are bad too” – which doesn’t help anyone – “Zimbabwe’s not so bad – you should try living in North Korea.”
    If I wanted to read about Zimbabwe, I’d try The Zimbabwe Times (or maybe even the Japan Times’ international section)

  • Barry McMeany

    Why would you want to disable the chip on your zairyu card?

  • JKRobinson

    I mean to respond to you on the other thread, but it appears to be locked; was your comment deleted? Sorry for any confusion.

    Anyway, as I recall you went about assessing someone’s mental health in a way I felt was disappointingly offensive and irrelevant to the discussion. Even if you were some stripe of psychological professional, it would be tremendously embrassing to be so cavalier about someone’s identity; it conveys a sense of entitlement and vendetta I thought to be shameful and ridiculous, so I ridiculed you. A person doesn’t necessarily need to consider the world at large to say something valid about a particular place in the world at large.On the contrary, who else is even interested in so vocally raising this kind of awareness in the English language?

    At the same time, I understand that Debito authors things worthy of criticism. However, you are taking it a step too far by trying to canvas his personal life into the discussion. If you were another faceless denizen of the internet it wouldn’t matter; most are content to anonymously carry on this way. But that you would irreversibly attach this to who you are…it was bizarre enough to make me want to say something.

    • Sam Gilman

      I completely understand the uneasiness you have when someone raises the issue of the author’s state of mind. There are good reasons for that uneasiness: dismissing someone’s viewpoint as the product of an unhealthy state of mind can be antagonising, insulting and defensive, and really quite unproductive of health discussion.

      However, it’s also important not to summarily dismiss such questions if they are actually relevant to a serious issue that affects foreigners living in Japan. To simply dismiss these questions would be to pretend that acculturation issues (under the broad umbrella of “culture shock”) don’t exist. I argue that not only do they exist, but they are swept under the carpet on a routine basis.

      You can see here for yourself in this discussion how certain views are being very heavily moderated. It’s actually worse than you can see (and I’ve been quite shocked at this). The Disqus system allows me to see replies before they are moderated, and I’m afraid the deletion pattern of messages is clear. For example, John Yamamoto Wilson posted two quite thoughtful but frankly anodyne “I agree” messages mentioning nobody’s health in response to my posts, but they got deleted.

      If you like, I can start citing research on the subject, but let’s keep it simple for now: if an incomer not only cannot bear the feeling that the locals are watching them, but also believes the locals are inveterate liars with whom you can never have a real friendship, is it really out of order to raise the issue of whether the incomer has successfully adjusted to their immigration? Is it wrong to note the striking similarities between the view expressed here, and well-documented cases of culture shock, something that affects a whole lot of people?

      Do you welcome the idea we should keep quiet about it?

  • qwerty

    Zimbabwe vs North Korea or England vs Spain – the point is the same.
    To criticize someone for focusing on Japan, in The Japan Times, is wrong.

  • Mike Wyckoff

    I’m going to go out on a limb and say that you’re not Asian or black?

  • John R. Yamamoto-Wilson

    Yes, I’d go along with that. I’ve never been happy with gung-ho nationalism.

  • Mike Wyckoff

    Having lived in Japan for a while now, I have done my fair share of coming and going. At first, I felt and was treated like a tourist (at airports), spoken to in English and never took it personally. I still don’t, as I’ve come to the realization after all this time that, no matter how long I intend to live here, I will ALWAYS be considered a foreigner, and will always be watched intently.

    But I DON’T believe Non-Japanese (NJ) are being watched in the same way as Japanese (J). J are EXPECTED to follow the rules, whereas, I have learned, NJ are expected not to know the rules.

    I admit, I have J-walked numerous times, and although not a trend-setter by any means, it seems quite common that after I take that first step, quite often J follow. The author mentions that J follow rules and traffic flow to a T, but I would argue that they only do so because the person infront of them did so, like “sheep” in a way. I could give numerous examples, but I’m sure NJ’s know what I’m talking about.

    Let the trolling begin!

  • Mike Wyckoff

    I don’t think the author has ever lived in Kansai….those obasans don’t give a rats-ass about how anyone sees them!!

  • thedudeabidez

    “”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. ”

    As if no other culture in the world does this? Try strolling through Bangkok or Ibiza or Ubud and see how many westerners behave…