“Your shoelaces,” she warns.

I had sensed the presence of a figure in front of me as I walked down the street. Noticing that one of my laces was trailing slightly onto the pavement, she had come over to help out.

I thank her and tuck the lace into my shoe. Then, 10 minutes later, it happens again, with another stranger pointing out a lace trailing from my other foot.

Passing judgement: The ever-present eyes of our fellow citizens keep Japanese society in order. | GETTY IMAGES
Passing judgement: The ever-present eyes of our fellow citizens keep Japanese society in order. | GETTY IMAGES

I feel ambivalent about all this help, since it addresses such a minor hazard. Besides, how do they know undone laces isn’t just my style? They may be aerodynamic innovations that we blind people employ to keep ourselves walking straight. OK, maybe not. I’ll get around to tying them properly soon enough.

As I thank the second good Samaritan and tuck in my laces again, I wonder why the residents of Tokyo’s Koenji neighborhood are so assiduously checking my footwear. Is it because I am blind? I’ve been protected from major hazards by strangers pointing out that I had drifted into the road, so this may just be an extension of that kind watchfulness.

Or is it because I’m a foreigner that some locals are so keen to lend a hand? My elderly Japanese neighbor in Akashi, Hyogo Prefecture, was keen to be helpful, so much so that she once snuck into my house while I was at work and proceeded to do my laundry. Is it just that I’m letting Japan down by failing to meet the local standards of neatness?

Whatever the reason, I now feel an array of eyes on me, ready to point out and pass judgement on my minor failings and foibles. For someone brought up in highly individualistic Scotland, this behavior is disconcerting. However, it provides an (admittedly rather benign) introduction to the concept of “hito no me” — literally, “people’s eyes” or “the eyes of the people,” whichever sounds more sinister.

The term suggests an acute awareness of how your fellow citizens perceive and judge you, and it cropped up in a conversation with my wife recently. We were on a train to Saitama to meet my sister-in-law for New Year’s when my wife pulled out a little mask for our 4-year-old to wear on the journey.

“Experts say that it’s better not to put masks on children under 5,” my wife informs me. “The kids are less susceptible to the virus, and much more likely to touch and fiddle with their mask. But then there is ‘hito no me.’ What if someone on the train gets annoyed that he’s not wearing one?”

In Britain, you’ll sometimes hear the phrase, “What will the neighbors think?” But “hito no me” takes public watchfulness to another level. In the Edo Period (1603-1868), citizens were divided into groups by neighborhood, and the entire group could be punished for one person’s transgressions. So it’s understandable that the neighbors may be a bit nosier here.

It can be difficult for non-Japanese residents to get used to such watchful eyes, though. It can be pretty difficult for some Japanese people, too, which may help explain the high number of hikikomori (social recluses).

The “hito no me” phenomenon has a positive side as well, however. If someone jumbles recyclable and non-recyclable garbage together in a bin bag, they may find the bin bag returned to them by a neighbor. There may even be a note asking them to stop letting the apartment block down (unless these things just happen to me?), but hopefully the recycling issue is then quickly resolved.

The pressure to keep up with our neighbors’ mask-wearing and sanitizing protocols may even be one reason why Japan has seen lower COVID-19 numbers than other countries. When compared to more individualistic societies’ tendency to let everyone make up their own mind on compliance, you can certainly see benefits.

When we arrive at my sister-in-law’s place in Saitama, she says to me in Japanese, “Wow! You’ve really put on weight. How much have you put on in the past year … 10 kilos?”

I mumble something about the lack of opportunities to exercise during the pandemic, trying to shut the conversation down.

“So what are you going to do?” she asks. “Are you going to exercise more, or eat less?” Oblivious to my discomfort, she calls on her daughter. “Hey, get the scales out. See if Will’s put on as much as 10 kilos!”

I touch my stomach. Surely, it’s not that noticeable? But you can’t get anything past the “hito no me.”

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