Assume

I didn’t live in Japan for very long, just under a year and a half, so I can’t really claim to have all this worldly insight from my time there. It was really good for me, and it opened my eyes to the world at large, but most times when I reflect on it, it seems like a reeeaaalllly long vacation. But, over a dozen years later, it’s funny to see what things stuck with which have changed the way I think or do things. Mostly its just a bunch of little things rather than a profound experience. The one that comes up the most is etiquette during queuing situations, like on an escalator or elevator.

“Did the beauty and depth of the 1,500 year old temples have much impact on you?” “Nope, I mostly remember how people lined up for stuff.”

I never experienced the “white glove treatment”, but notice how tidy the queue is and it’s relation to the door.

There are a lot of people in Japan. Like, an almost hard-to-explain amount for someone from most places in North America. Tokyo especially, and when you have that many people all moving around together some very strict social norms develop in order reduce the chaos. These are sometimes hard to grasp at first for a foreigner, but the sheer volume of social pressure gets you up to speed pretty quickly. When you’re lining up to get on a train, or into and elevator, or step onto an escalator in Japan, there is near total conformity to a certain way of doing things.

  • Escalator and train platform: the lines form to the sides of the door and you let everyone out before anyone gets on. You do NOT stand right in front of the doors and barge in as soon as they open.
  • Escalator: stand on the right, walk on the left. Seriously, even on a nearly empty escalator, no one there stands on the left.

Pretty straightforward stuff, but its shocking how many people here either do not know, do not care to think, or do not care at all about things like this. Just this morning I got off the elevator on the ground floor at work, and a lady was standing right in front of the doors as they opened and didn’t make much of an effort to let me out.

You know how this problem is solved in Japan? Elbows. And shoulders. And every once in a while, a stern look. But definitely elbows and shoulders. ALL. DAY. From little grandmas to salarymen to school kids. Keep in mind this is in a culture where there’s very little physical or eye contact, especially with a gaijin. You stand out-of-place or out-of-order: deliberate elbows and shoulder checks. Even if you were straight up ignorant, you’d get the message pretty quick. But here’s my insight; they don’t do this because they’re pissed off and are like “fuck this guy” (well, mostly), I think they see it as their duty to keep some order. Most Japanese people are strongly driven to be as little of a burden to others as possible. So when someone is being a burden (fucking up the train line) they assume it’s out of ignorance because they can’t fathom someone purposely making things harder on other people.

Japanese culture get a lot of props for being very considerate of others but I think the reasons behind their “considerate” nature is ever so slightly misunderstood. While I’m sure there’s a component of trying to make the other person happy or do right by them, my theory is that along with that, a large factor is they feel obligated to not make things worse for someone else, and as an extension of that, they can’t imagine someone else thinking differently.  So, little ol’ Obasan exits an elevator and sees a guy standing in front of her and the doors, so she gives him a subtle but stiff elbow/shoulder… as in “what are you doing? Get your shit together.” They do a lot of assuming in Japan.

(Hmm, that was longer than I thought it was going to be…)

As for how this relates to bjj, I… can’t remember. Wait… ok, got it. I started going to the nogi class twice a week as well, and as mentioned, I feel like a brand new beginner again (not that I’m very experienced in the gi or anything). That, combined with the feeling of after nearly a year of bjj I should have all the basic movements and etiquette  sorted out and not really be fumbling about, not knowing what to do. New, complicated technique? No prob, start slow, methodically work through drilling with my partner, try to implement during rolling. But at nogi, I’m caught off guard by how foreign (and fast!) it all feels, although it’s only been a couple of classes. Specifically, I can’t shake the feeling that my cluelessness is annoying my partners, especially since the nogi class is generally a much more experienced group (last night: 3 purple belts, our bb instructor… and me:/).

But the thing is, I don’t actually think they’re annoyed with me, or at least not greatly so. It’s mostly me assuming all my insecurities have been realized. In my mind: “Aww man, I don’t know what to do here. I’m f’ing up this drill and wasting their time. They must hate that they have to drill with me.” (Note: I needlessly say “sorry” a LOT, because I’m a Japanese and Canadian;) But in actual fact they’re very nice and supportive. I don’t think this is unique to me, we’re all insecure about ourselves in some way. But when you make assumptions for other people about your insecurities, you’re just taking an already awkward and challenging situation and cranking the dial all the way to the right.

Anyway, we all do a lot of assuming. Some of the time it’s for good reasons and it ends up being helpful, but sometimes its needless worrying and doesn’t benefit anyone. No one likes to feel stupid, but sometimes you feel stupid because… you are, at least at that moment. Worrying about it just makes it worse, so keep showing up to class, working hard and it’ll sort itself out. (/end of self-peptalk post)


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