Where to Stand on an Escalator: a Trans-Pacific Tale
I had just landed after a 12 hour flight from Tokyo. The tired and masked faces surrounded me as I collected my things, thanked the flight crew, went down the jetway and entered into Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport. In the winding maze to Immigration and Customs, I encountered an escalator, an escalator whose passengers were standing exclusively on the right side. In my hazy, jet-lagged and travel weary state, I too had auto-piloted myself to the right side of the escalator before realizing what I was actually doing.
I was in America. All the rules and customs that I had learned before my travels in Japan were useless once again. In Tokyo, it is customary to stand on the right side of an escalator, so that people that wish to climb the escalator can do so on the left side and pass you with ease. In America there are no such customs, people rarely think about the right or wrong way to ride an escalator if there even is such a concept.
It is strange that Japan seems to make up rules for things that don’t need rules, and even more strange as an American that everyone, without fail, follows them. I think it is this sort of behavior and thinking that made me so attracted to Japanese culture in the first place. Whenever someone asks me “Why do you like Japan so much?” I simply respond with “Because it is so different”.
When I say it is different, I don’t mean the food is different or the buildings look different or that everyone smokes, I mean that Japanese culture is fundamentally different from American culture, one of those fundamentals being the perspective of self.
Japanese people think and act collectively. They have many behavioral rules and many more linguistic rules to go about their day without offending anyone. A commuter train could be absolutely jam packed full of people and be as quiet as a monastery, you could walk on a busy street and see not a scrap of trash, there could be not a car in sight and a Japanese person would still follow the crosswalk lights. Japanese people not only have a large set of social rules but people actually follow them.
It was incredible for me to witness as an American, where individualism is a highly valued quality. Your goal is to always stand out from the crowd, from school science fairs to job interviews, being unique and interesting is an important trait to success and this bleeds into our social norms.
Dependence on other people is seen as a weakness and an inability to “pull yourself up by your own bootstraps”. It’s seen as a big taboo in American culture to move back in with your parents, and is a general mark of failure as an adult. Whereas in Japan it is relatively normal, and the whole industry of Love Hotels is built upon the idea that many Japanese people live with their parents and need somewhere for “private” affairs.
General communication also demonstrates the individualism of Americans and the collectivism of the Japanese. Americans love to talk politics and debate; unwilling to let a difference of opinion go undiscussed. There is the pervasive trope of the “Loud American” and for this reason Americans are often thought as the worst kind of tourist. Japanese people are rarely loud and rarely willing to discuss politics even with close friends, except maybe after one too many drinks.
For the longest time I considered the Japanese collectivism to be the ideal society, but I think that the ideal society has elements of both. The innovative and self-motivated spirit of individualism can lead to egotistical narcissists. The respectful and inoffensive spirit of collectivism can lead to people who feel like their lives are unfulfilled and their dreams are unattainable.
I think that the reason why so many Americans find Japanese culture amazing is because of our individualism, because we dream of a society where everyone is like us and we fit in because we are all the same. Where you are the main character and everyone else is a supporting role. No one that dreams of a collectivist society imagines that collectivist society disagreeing with their very individualistic views. No one dreams of a collectivist society that excludes them but many find themselves in such a situation.
I still stand on the right side of every escalator. Even though I was only in Japan for 2 weeks, the impact it had on me was tremendous. I think that if there is anything that Americans can take away from Japanese collectivism it is the mutual respect for our fellow man. We don’t have to follow a list of arbitrary societal rules, but just try to be better humans even if it is as simple as allowing people to pass you on an escalator.