My Japan Times JUST BE CAUSE Col 70, Dec. 4, 2013: “In Japan, no escape from The Eye’s perpetual policing glare”


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Hi Blog.  Thanks once again for putting this article on the JT Online’s Top Ten for more than a day.  Channelling Foucault’s Panopticon, here’s my latest.  Arudou Debito

In Japan, no escape from The Eye’s perpetual policing glare
The Japan Times, DEC 4, 2013



(More about these “Eye” signs at

Hey, all you residents heading abroad for the holidays, here’s a little experiment to try on yourself: When you return to Japan, take note of an interesting phenomenon that starts just as you deplane and plug back into Japanese society.

You’ll feel a palpable and intractable pressure — a pressure to conform to The Order, that standardized way of doing things in Japan. You can use it to get what you want, or you can defy it and feel the burn of its stare.

I call this pressure The Eye.

Of course, you can find The Eye in all societies. Also known as the “evil eye” or “hairy eyeball,” it’s a glare you get when you’re doing something the crowd doesn’t like. Humans as a species have an innate sensitivity to the feeling of being watched. Perhaps it’s a primal instinct to keep us in formation and out of trouble.

But The Eye in Japan is so powerful that it doesn’t need a crowd. Just step out into public view and you’ll feel it. And because it is so constant, normalized and pervasive, it triggers a conditioned reflex.

Consider the reflex triggered by Chinese water torture: The victim gets water dripped between the eyes and blinks it away. Enough drops over a long period and the victim’s self-control erodes, and he blinks uncontrollably even without the dripping water.

The Eye similarly conditions you. It makes the feeling of being watched involuntary — to the point where you feel the need to look around before doing something unusual in public.

The Eye thus compels you towards collective behavior: Mustn’t be forceful or push back against the status quo, lest you get hairy-eyeballed.

For example, call upon a Japanese student in any classroom and ask his opinion about something. The Eye turns on him like a heat lamp on the back of his neck. He’ll pause, look around and wonder — if not flat-out ask — what the consensus opinion is.

Even if you clarify that you are asking for his personal opinion, you’ll generally get evasion or a noncommittal answer.

Understandably. After all, nobody wants to stand out in the spotlight and push against something, especially if they have no stake or emotional investment in it. And even if they did, who wants to be judged for it? Life is less complicated for an anonymous member of a crowd. The Eye thus keeps Japanese classrooms quiet.

Of course, peer pressure exists in classrooms worldwide. But even outside class, where there are fewer “peers” to worry about, the lack of individual push-back in Japan is marked and noticeable.

Let’s say you’re walking down the street in the middle of the night and you see a “don’t walk” red light at an intersection. Assume there are no cars coming, so you could actually cross safely. In Japan, people often still don’t cross. You wait for it to turn green, especially if somebody else is there ready to look at you funny if you break ranks.

Or let’s say you’re walking down that street again and see a cordon of orange traffic pylons around half a sidewalk that squeezes pedestrians into one lane and inconveniences everyone. After sizing up the situation, you notice that the cordon serves no practical purpose because it’s Sunday and no one’s working on the site.

Yet you still don’t move the pylons over. You squeeze into the narrowed foot traffic and silently negotiate with oncoming pedestrians who can’t decide which side to walk on (as often happens in societies that lead with the right hand yet drive on the left).

The Eye thus forces everyone to assume that something beyond individual control is probably there for a purpose, and that no individual should stand out by interfering.

Rarely are there enough standouts to balance the scales, or even tip them in the iconoclast’s favor. It creates the inverse of “breaking ranks”: If only one person reasserts the status quo, the rest will generally fall into line.

Now consider the extra pressure on people who often cannot avoid The Eye: the non-Japanese (NJ).

It is said that privacy in Japan is the art of not being seen. This means that natural standouts, such as Japan’s “visible minorities” (i.e. the NJ and Japanese who don’t “look Japanese”), cannot opt out of The Eye’s glare. They attract attention no matter what they do — even if they do absolutely nothing.

Granted, sometimes that works in the NJ’s favor — that is, if they happen to appeal to a desirable standard (e.g., tall, well-groomed, moneyed and male). They attract the attention of the Giggly Ingenue and Bored Cougar. In other words, they get “the look,” not The Eye.

But that also means they don’t get left alone. They have to endure more intrusions into their space. Random bystanders barge in and try to be A Gracious Host to The Gaijin Guest.

Not to mention the other people who hijack The Eye for their own purposes: the Culture Vultures, for one example, who ostensibly want to practice their English with any NJ face, but in actual fact harbor a gaijin (foreigner) fetish.

Such fetishists want to “study” anything NJ do, believing it to be somehow symptomatic of how all foreigners behave, right down to checking on what’s in their supermarket carts or garbage bags. Some even follow NJ around and photograph them surreptitiously, as if tracking rare animals. It can get creepy.

As for the motley NJ who don’t fit that aforementioned desirable standard, The Eye eventually convinces them that they really are somehow deviant and undesirable. And many go a bit nuts due to their apparent inadequacy. They’ll be ignored, but studiously so.

On the other hand, there are NJs who do “look Japanese” and can “pass” as such. By donning drab colors, effecting a sullen public mask and adopting unobtrusive behaviors like everyone else, they can escape The Eye.

But these are the exceptions that prove the rule — the rule being that NJ in Japan are naturally viewed as suspicious. And the law as enforced reinforces that.

As detailed in previous Community Page articles passim, aside from the (now remotely trackable) “gaijin cards” that must be carried 24-7, racial profiling by Japan’s police is normal and legally sanctioned. Probable cause is not necessary for search and interrogation of NJ, since every one of them is potentially a visa overstayer. NJ are also given extra and distinct procedures in criminal jurisprudence, incarceration and public registration.

Then there’s the extra scrutiny from neighbors, encouraged by extralegal intrusive regimes such as government online “snitch sites” (see “Downloadable discrimination,” Zeit Gist, March 30, 2004) and unlawful visa checks by hotels, businesses and workplaces (“Gaijin card checks spread as police deputize the nation,” ZG, Nov. 13, 2007). All of these practices are part and parcel of The Order for NJ — for NJ in Japan must be watched.

But less considered is how Japan’s top-down enforcement mechanisms are also enforced bottom-up and side-to-side — for everyone.

That is how The Eye is manifest. And it completes the circuit of the system by making everyone watch and police one another.

Usually I like to conclude a column with advice about what to do about the issue in question. This time, however, shikata ga nai — there is no escape from The Eye. In fact, you’ll even resort to hairy-eyeballing someone yourself if you see aberrant behavior, glad to be the one staring for a change.

The only escape is to head back to the airport and exit Japanese society. As many Japanese do.

Then you’ll notice the opposite effect. Japanese free of The Eye often go overboard in their conduct, doing loud, brazen things in public they’d never dream of doing in Japan, given the sudden easing of societal boundaries.

Tabi no haji wa kakisute (“throw away your shame while on a trip”) is the Japanese proverb that justifies such behavior: You don’t know anyone around you and you won’t be there for all that long, so you can do even shameful things if you like. After all, few locals will police them like Japanese would police NJ back home; overseas, cultural relativism turns many a blind hairy eyeball.

Break over, they’ll come back to Japan and plug right back in. As will you.

Scholar Kenichi Yoshida once famously wrote that “Japan is a circle.” I’d amend that: It’s a closed loop of perpetual policing.


Debito Arudou adapted this essay from the introduction of his 2011 book “In Appropriate: A Novel of Culture, Kidnapping, and Revenge in Modern Japan,” now available as an e-book for ¥935. See Twitter @arudoudebito. Just Be Cause appears on the first Thursday Community page of the month. Send your comments on these issues and ideas to

9 comments on “My Japan Times JUST BE CAUSE Col 70, Dec. 4, 2013: “In Japan, no escape from The Eye’s perpetual policing glare”

  • In the 14 years that I previously lived in Japan, the only place I never felt the eye was in some of the Southern Ryukyu Islands, so I said bugger it and moved there. Not there now, but bought a block of land and will be back for retirement. Yes, the death of the various Okinawan languagtes (I refuse to call them ‘dialects’) due to Japanese colonialism, was a complete debacle, but somehow I found that the spirit of the Okinawan people lives on, even though they themselves face oppresion and ridicule in naichi mainland Japan. This colonialism is also an unfortunate and underplayed aspect of my own non-Asian country in its contemporary dealings with other Island neighbours. Southern Okinawa (I am deliberately being relatively vague), remains to this day, the only place in Japan where I felt truly welcome and at home. Whilst I’m not religious I can find no better words than to say god bless the Southern Okinanawans, and long may they live and their culture and language recover yet again.

  • I’ve heard of this although in Japan it’s commonly referred to as “the eyes of country are upon you” or something. I’ve always thought of it as a big brother type of social control (control through intimidation and the like). I knew Japanese had weird fascination with foreigners but going through their garbage? following them around? Last I heard that was called stalking.

    The revelation that Japanese people let themselves go while abroad is rather surprising. I was under the impression they held tightly to their societal restraints but I guess when one’s no longer under the watchful eyes of their fellow peers anything goes. Very enlightening

  • hey Johnnie, can I rent a house from you in Okinawa? Seriously. I want to move there.(if Debito doesn’t mind us getting in touch). Its arguably the only place in “Japan” with an open mind about “foreigners.

    But then Okinawa is not really “Japan” per se, as it used to be an independent kingdom. But even before 2000 or so and the resurgence of the revisionist Right, I used to love (actually feel sick) at the knee jerk reactions of your average Tokyoite when I had the “cheek” to suggest how unique Okinawan culture was. Or how Scotland in Britain is like Okinawa in Japan, i.e. a different country within a state.

    To which I invariably got the Borg-like, monotone statement: “Okinawa IS Japan”. A clear case of post 1972 re branding, if ever there was one. Never mind the UN census that identified and where Okinawans self-identified as “Okinawan”.

    I was even challenged on the use of the adjective “Okinawan”- “Hmmmph@! IS that even a word?” said one disgruntled housewife. But I could then defend myself by saying that in English We Westerners appropriate loan words and change them (a bit like a certain other country, but the irony was wasted) e.g. Osakan, Tokyoite, etc.

    But this raised eyebrows. Conservative Japan wants to control the narrative, even the English grammar of how they themselves are described.

    This was when I started to get disillusioned with the average Taro’s lack of internationalism if it meant internationalism within Japan, or decentralizing control just a little bit.

    Mainland Japanese- like mainland Chinese- are in denial about a separate Okinawan (in the Chinese case, Hong Kong) identity, even though it most certainly exists. Prominent local Okinawan cultural figures and politicians e.g. Kina Shoei, are quietly adamant that Okinawa is a separate culture and country that happens to now be part of Japan.

    In a world where decentralization and federalism is coming to even the most conservative holdouts, Japan stands out-yet again-as a clichéd, out of date Land that Time Forgot where every conversation just confirms all the sad stereotypes your bigoted granddad said about Japan, that you (or I) the naïve j-apologist desperately wanted to disprove in your youthful enthusiasm, and then you found out where still sadly, true.

    You wanted to hear individual opinions but all too often you were handed the hackneyed Party line.

    With absolutely no compromise, no acceptance of a possible third way, or a non Yamato identity within the borders of the Empire of Japan. Hence the Eye. So they can check everything, Winston Smith!

  • The thing is that social control practices and vigilantism have long been deeply ingrained in the Japanese psyche, since at least the Edo period. Just think of the marvels and effectiveness of 村八分/murahachibu (, which Japan only officially – and reluctantly – left in the 20th century, but whose spirit remains pretty much alive in the many insidious practices of “surveiller et punir” that anyone who has lived there long enough cannot help noticing (and often suffering).

    No wonder that fascism has found such fertile ground in Japan, up to this day. The beauty of of it is that it doesn’t even require secret police or party militia or dear leaders. It has been so completely internalised by the populace that every individual – or perhaps I should say every group member – is a potential vigilante, keeping the pecking order and purging any undesirable or unruly elements.

    Some critics (Etsuko Yamashita, if I’m not mistaken) have coined this garden variety “soft fascism”, because it’s a leaderless ruling system of interdependence in which no one takes responsibility as an individual person, but everyone is invariably punished if s/he dares questioning or deviating a single milimeter from it.

  • And here goes, apropos, a kotowaza that says it all about the power of The Eye and the absolute need to comply with it and reinforce it if you wish to have a quiet life in Japan in the long run:

    Give a dog a bad name and hang him.


    And you’ll be far more easily hanged, of course, if you’re a foreign “dog”…

  • @ Baudrillard,

    Not to derail the thread, but I once suggested (half for fun) to my former J- colleagues that Okinawa should be given a referendum on independence just like Scotland, since I’m sure that the US would be happy to sign a new defense treaty with an independent Okinawa, thus maintains the current military deployment in the region, but relieving itself of its obligations to Japan. Okinawa would be more secure and prosperous, but what would happen to Japan?

  • @ Jim, and how did your J colleagues respond? Let me guess “OKINAWA IS JAPAN”. Ah the joys of the Borg Collective.

  • Hi All,

    I guess I’m a bit late to this threat – I used to live in JP for a few years, and sometimes still read Debito to see if anything changes over there. What this describes is EXACTLY how I remember Japanese society – there is this *incredible* conformism. If I didn’t do things like a conservative Japanese person would, I would get lectured; socially ostracized; looked at weird; and sometimes I ran into serious complications & buerocratic trouble. This would extend to absurdly small issues, like swimming at a public beach where one company manager thought one should not swim. “It can get creepy” – absolutely.

    I do have to say, this is slightly off tangent, that leaving JP was a huge relief for me, not the least due to the release from this absurd system of “The Eye”. I had a major resurgence of my scientific career, got much fitter and made more friends in the first month in the new country (Australia, also not where I was born) than in 5 years in Japan.

    @Jhonnie Wad, Okinawa was where I was living, it definitely did not seem very open-minded to me, but maybe it’s worse in the mainland. It seemed to me that every native thought I was US military (despite my long hair), which I am not, and that probably did not build sympathies.

  • In a sad case where even the local Japanese find their own evil eye glare too much:

    “..Stem cell scientist found dead in apparent suicide…Scientists around the world have expressed regret at losing a renowned researcher and concern at the “witch-hunt” that followed the revelations…”*

    Conform or die…literally!



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