Japan: Jaywalking in Tokyo

I did something ordinary that made me feel extraordinarily odd. I jaywalked.

It was about 9:30 Friday morning. I left the office in search of a Citibank, so I could use my Tucker Federal ATM card to get more yen. Since I was going to be in Japan longer than expected, I needed more spending money. I got disoriented coming out of the office, so I wandered for about ten minutes before finding the bank.

By the way, I wasn’t lost. I knew exactly where I was in relation to the office. I just didn’t know where the bank was in relation to my position. My position was known; it was the bank that was lost.

Now back to the story.

I found Citibank halfway between two crosswalks. After wandering for blocks I was eager to get my money. So rather than heading to the next light I dashed across the street between cars. I jaywalked. In any American city, jaywalking is a daily event. In most busy American cities, it is the only way to get from Point A to Point B in a reasonable amount of time.

In Japan, it appears to be a cardinal sin. For the first time ever, I felt guilty about jaywalking. I didn’t get a ticket. There wasn’t even a policeman in sight. It just felt wrong.

The feeling confused me for a moment, but I quickly identified the cause. Japan is a polite society, almost to the point of annoyance. The formality embedded within generations of feudal rule creates a very polite environment. Tokyo is spotless and relatively safe because it’s just plain impolite for it to be otherwise.

Littering, like jaywalking, just doesn’t happen here. I’m no litterbug at home, but I’m extra careful here. I pickup my cans and cups, even though I know a cleaning person will pick up the conference room after my meeting. I’m pretty careful to avoid putting cans into the trash instead of the recycling bins.

So my little act of jaywalking was out of character for my polite surroundings. This is a society that thanks people for being thanked. I hear the common phrases for “thank you” and “you’re welcome” in most every public announcement. Newscasters bow and thank each other on television when they switch stories.

Six days into my trip, and the culture has influenced me. Once on American soil, I’ll probably revert to such despicable behavior as crossing against traffic and not saying “bless you” after somebody sneezes. But for now the polite setting forces me to look both ways and wait for the light to turn green.

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