As I force another swallow of my yakisoba – garnished only with purple cabbage, carrots, and not nearly enough yakisoba sauce; not terrible for a first attempt – the salary-man* next to me furtively takes his feet out of his sandals, stretching them a little with obvious pleasure. He smiles at the refreshingly energetic wind and swaying trees, while I smile at his endearing action. It feels like salary-men are stereotypically the most tiring people to deal with (in Japanese, people usually say 難しい = muzukashii = difficult). They cascade into the trains at 7 AM in their uniformly black suits, slacks, polished shoes, and briefcases, most with the recently popular “cool biz” haircut; never seem to smile when they are working; present you with unreadable faces or (what feel to me like) egregious bows when you inadvertently ask inappropriate questions, and otherwise ensure that the bureaucracies they work at function bureaucratically. Or so I hear.
Perhaps it’s partly due to this veneer of uniformity, but public space in Japan (and even private, depending on who you’re with) feels highly regulated. For example, there’s the obvious I-was-eating-a-sandwich-on-the-train-no-one-else-was-and-people-kept-looking-at-me. There are the more blatantly obvious scenes, like a police car inching along behind you in a residential neighborhood, loudly reminding everyone to “follow the traffic rules and remember to always think of others so that our neighborhood can be brighter and more fun.” But there are also more subtle things, like a great-aunt mentioning in passing that she heard your great-uncle arranged for you to meet with your other great-aunt. When interpreting this information, you are intended to realize a number of things: a) Think of who might have communicated this to your great-aunt, b) realize that it was probably your great-uncle, c) realize that he went to a lot of trouble to arrange this meeting and probably called because he was not feeling so great about having to do a favor like this for an adult, d) realize you have not yet thanked your other great-aunt for meeting with you, or thanked your great-uncle for arranging the meeting, and e) realize that you should contact relatives on you own. I’m exaggerating a little, but you see how someone might be inclined to err on the serious, formal side in any given interaction. It feels very much like constantly, consciously performing some kind of role (though this may simply be because I have to work to understand these norms, since I didn’t grow up with them).
This is why I love finding moments when people ooze just a little bit outside their roles. It’s a nice reminder that, despite the sense of constant policing in Japan, almost everyone secretly wants to break outside the rigidity of public interactions.
I noticed something similar when I realized the salaryman sitting next to me on the train was practicing ballroom dance steps. For a second, it was like sitting next to Richard Gere in“Shall We Dance?” Another time, the girl walking in front of me evidently had a dance routine stuck in her head, because she kept practicing it – not ostentatiously, but with small twitches that fell into a pattern if you bothered to notice. Having been unable to resist shaking my head to Rosinha de Valenca’s “Summertime” just minutes ago in the train – I was embarrassed, but I couldn’t help it – I couldn’t resist a smile. What other personalities are hiding behind the uniform “salarymen*?”
*In Japanese, サラリーマン, which refers to office workers/businessmen. The feminine equivalent is OL (“office lady”).