It is 11:15 on a sunny Sunday morning across the road from Shinjuku Station in central Tokyo. The Southern Terrace there is already thronged with shoppers like all the city’s other retail districts. And then, as you walk past fashion stores and coffee shops, a long line of men and women of all ages materializes before you.

What you are beholding is one of the latest and most famous queues in Tokyo — the one snaking toward a Krispy Kreme doughnut shop that opened late last year. On this particular Sunday, some 150 people were shuffling along in six lines spawned by the shop, filling the space outside — with another crowd of around the same number waiting, like military reinforcements, ready to step into the ranks as those before them, all sticky and smiling, moved on.

And wait they must. As the mercury rises toward noon, the lines just get longer and longer. Despite the shop’s notice board announcing that those at the end of the line will have to wait at least 1 hour and 50 minutes for their sweet, circular fixes, there’s no letup in the arrival of new recruits.

Although the smell of the doughnuts was certainly tempting, the long lines waiting to partake tempered the appetite of this writer. But such qualms had not afflicted Yuko Sato, who emerged from the shop bearing two boxes of a dozen doughnuts each with her 5-year-old son in tow.

“I came here after hearing about the long line,” she said. “I queued for about 1 1/2 hours. I feel so happy to get doughnuts that you cannot easily get.”

In those few words Sato had perhaps put her finger on one of life’s mysteries. Although lining up — to get a stamp in your passport at an airport or in a long traffic jam, for instance — can easily make a person irritated, there are also lines in life comprised of people more than happy to bide their time in pursuit of a greater goal.

Mood of enjoyment

In such lines, the mood tends to be one of enjoyment rather than annoyance, and in Japan there’s always the chance of 5 seconds of fame as well, since the media are constantly featuring shops or services where gyoretsu no dekiru (many people line up), fueling the popularity of the business.

“I always line up when I find a long queue,” said Shizuka Watanabe, 40, who said that she often joins lines outside food shops in department stores. “I line up first and then ask the person in front of me what we are waiting for,” she explained.

Such behavior is not perhaps as strange as it sounds, according to Tamao Matsui, professor emeritus at Rikkyo University and an expert in industrial organizational psychology. The line-joining phenomenon, he explained, can be understood as “conformity behavior” or group behavior influenced by others.

“People often feel safe when they follow many others, especially when they lack information to judge for themselves,” Matsui said. “Long lines are attractive for these people and they can bear waiting for hours because they have higher expectations as the line gets longer.”

But Japan, where lines can become quite unfeasibly lengthy at venues such as amusement parks, is not a country to leave such conformist masses to their own devices. Instead, queuers here will often find themselves shepherded around by uniformed people equipped with flags or whatever.

On the other hand, there are also people who make money by actually lining up themselves. It is widely believed, for instance, that among the unprecedented 12,300 people who lined up in Hibiya Park near the Tokyo District Court in April 1996 to enter a lottery for the 48 public-gallery seats in the first mass-murder trial of Aum Shinrikyo cult founder Shoko Asahara (following the sarin gas attack on Tokyo subways in March 1995 that left 12 people dead and more than 5,000 injured), there were many people hired by media organizations who were desperate to be present.

Long lines speak volumes.
TIMEOUT this week
tunes into some of the things they have to tell us here in Japan.

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