In a previous post, I came clean about my penchant for breaking rules, a legacy passed down from my late father.
Since publishing that post, several people have asked me how I survive in Japan, a society based on compliance and harmony, where folks tend to blindly follow rules, sometimes to a fault.
The online push-back inspired reflection, compelling me to refine how I define my rule-breaking policy: it’s not that I break rules for the sake of breaking rules; my rule-breaking is limited to what I deem stupid, meaningless rules.
George Carlin did a bit years ago on this very topic. He pointed out that some rules make perfect sense – like not sticking your head out the window of a high-speed train. Now that’s a rule I can embrace unconditionally!
But when it comes to following stupid rules, I choose the life of an outlaw. If my penchant for rule-breaking isn’t bad enough, after over three decades in the U.S., my dear Japanese wife has also turned to a life of crime.
What comes to mind is how I routinely disobey Don’t Walk signs. Not always, of course, selectively – based on prevailing conditions. If the Don’t-Walk sign is lit but no cars are within sight, my outlaw nature won’t allow me to stand there like an idiot, and out comes my rule-breaking dark side. (My only exception is if young children are watching me.)
Early in our courtship (at the time while living in Japan), my wife used to freak out when I’d ignore Don’t-Walk signs. She was so conditioned to following rules to the letter that her instinct was to resist, even scold me. My instinct was to laugh then coax her across the street with me as her eyes darted around in hopes that the authorities weren’t watching. They never were.
When we returned to Japan last year, imagine my sheer joy when I observed my dear wife, without any prompting from me, boldly crossing empty streets in direct defiance of Don’t-Walk signs. (My father would be proud!) And imagine my further delight in seeing so many other Japanese folks doing the same. Indeed times they are a-changin’ in Japan…for the better if you ask me! (Perhaps my hyper-active imagination is playing tricks, but it seems as though Kansai/Osaka people have similar rule-breaking tendencies as Americans.)
How does a rule-breaker like me cope in the land of compulsive rule-followers? First, like my late father, I look for a loophole: for example, if the sign says “don’t walk” then I run, which means that technically (at least in my imagination), I’m not actually breaking the rule. Second, it helps a lot to be a foreigner here, as Japanese folks kindly cut gaijin slack that they would never cut for their own compatriots. Third, many of my close Japanese friends are also rebels living on the peripheral of society, mostly musicians and artists who also reject the status quo so they tend to cheer me on. Fourth, I carefully pick my battles. And most importantly, I try very hard not to get caught.
But when I do get caught (it’s rare but happens), I apologize, bow deeply, beg for forgiveness, and move on. So far, my hosts have shown me mercy.
© Tim Sullivan 2020