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Thursday, Sept. 12, 2002

THE ZEIT GIST

The discord and rhyme of Japanese rules


The sea, and Mount Fuji, 'closed' for another year on Aug. 31. Is it madness, or is it just Japan. On Aug. 31, the sea closed on my local beach.

On the Saturday morning, families were swimming and enjoying the continuing heat and sun, the bay busy with water sports.

News photo
Taking a look at Fuji and the beach before they close for the year.

At 5 p.m., a special announcement over the tannoy system: "Summer is over. Many thanks to the lifeguards for all their hard work. Now, would everyone please go home." And guess what? By 6 p.m., the sea was empty, and you could see more sand than bodies and beach mats.

Sept. 1 was still hot, the sea still blue, but the beach near empty. Summer was officially over.

Rules like this used to drive me crazy.

The sea opens July 15 and closes on the last day of August. Mt. Fuji opens to climbing on July 1 and also closes Aug. 31st.

There are set dates for air cons to switch on in offices, days they switch off; the same for winter heating.

People change clothes on set days too: out with the winter woolies Oct. 1, on with T-shirts and shorts June 1.

Okay, the initiated understand that Japan is a kindergarten society. Old-timers also recognize that many of such rules are rooted in a certain sensibility (if interpreted and dictated by a patriarchal state).

The kids are out of school midsummer, so it makes sense to ensure that the sea can be swum in safely. And once the first snow blows onto the peak of Japan's highest mountain, climbing becomes downright dangerous.

But we can no longer rely on traditional weather patterns and have the absurdity of office staff working wrapped in blankets in midsummer because air con controls are set so wastefully high.

Bureaucracy, as we all know, grinds extra slowly in Japan. As for changing clothes, this curious phenomena is likely ruled by lack of space -- that, or a keen desire for extra work.

Summer uniforms will soon go out of the window too.

The kids will exchange short sleeves for long.

JR officials will put away their lovely cream suits for yet another season.

And my sarariman husband will shake out his heavy wool suits from their mothballs and prepare to stoically gaman (endure) into cooler weather.

There are all the other rules too. Traffic lights, for example.

How come that if I stand with the masses and observe the STOP light, even though the road is clear, no-one (including myself) moves. But if I take the initiative and march forward, a good proportion (nowadays) follow. All too often I feel like a female equivalent of Moses, leading forth her people across the Red Sea.

Also the numerous instructions barked over the airwaves -- on streets, on railways station platforms, on mountaintops. Yes, even in Nature.

Like the one on my beach -- lovely Isshiki-kaigan -- that informs me every day that it is time to go home.

Like the one from the local city office that orders me to go grab my red and white rising sun flag and run to the end of the street to welcome whichever members of the Imperial family are coming to stay at their local bolthole of a villa.

Or wakes me extra early on Sports Day to bully me into getting out and exercising and generally being healthy.

Again, to be fair, some of these rules make sense -- like the warnings about fire in the multitude of wooden Japanese homes as the weather gets drier and colder.

Yet many newcomers find the strange and unexplained regulations of Japanese life hard to bear. They take them personally, regarding them as an affront to intelligence and personal liberty.

But remember, our self-righteous, often blinkered determination to kick against the restraints of conformity can look equally odd in Japanese eyes.

A friend who swims off my local beach 365 days a year is considered to be a bit of a nut, including by me.

And I well recall a few years ago bullying my poor, long suffering life partner into putting on his boots and plowing through deep snow to go to the beach. It would be beautiful, I insisted.

The policeman, wrapped around his heater in his guard box under the wall of the royal villa, poked his nose out into the blizzard when we stomped by.

"Excuse me," he said. "But it seems to me that all sensible people would be home in this weather. I wish I could be. Yet there are all these people on the beach, and most of them aren't Japanese. Are all foreigners mad?"

The answer -- well, maybe they are.



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