There is a famous Japanese saying:
Deru kugi wa utareru or in English: the nail that sticks out gets hammered down. In other words, follow the rules and in Japan, there is a big rule book.
Rules are an interesting thing with cultures treating them very differently. I have come to believe that rules are like our legal system – precedent based. Over time, precedent changes as culture and thinking changes. No better example is what you see happening in North and South American around marijuana with some contemporary thought leaders like Bill Gates coming out with opinions you would not have expected. Our world is changing and will keep changing as views, economies, politics and opinions change. That is why slavery is banned and women can vote.
In Japan it is encouraging to see Prime Minister Abe taking the cultural challenges head on with plans such as his push to get women into the workforce, but there is a long road ahead. This is a very old culture with 3000 years of history (unlike my home country).
In the same article on Abe’s efforts, the Prime Minister makes an interesting observation on Japan which explains the conservative mindset:
Japan, he said, had been like a golfer, stuck in a bunker for 15 years, but reluctant to reach for the sand wedge, in case they over-hit the ball and shoot out-of-bounds. Now, he said, Japan had finally had the courage to use the sand-wedge.
The rules centric culture of Japan has benefits. Orderly, clean, safe and if you can figure out how it works – efficient. There is no city in the world that runs like Tokyo. You simply need to take a train in Japan and then compare the experience to a train in India to understand the power of structure and rules.
But it also has interesting drawbacks in the form of risk aversion and the creation of some very odd situations. My recent experience at Haneda is a good example of the danger of rules, in this case at the taxi stand.
The "rule" for the taxi stand is that the attendant must take the next taxi in line for passengers – no exceptions. That means that if you are in line with a family that will not fit into a small sedan, he is not allowed to call a van out of line or from where they queue to assist you.
I learned this after a very difficult conversation with an attendant around why he would not call up a van.
After the back and forth (due to my lack of Japanese language skills), he also figured out how to communicate to me that there is another rule; “the customer is always right”.
In other words, he could not call up a van. but if I decided to walk down the line and call a van to the front, he could do nothing about it.
I wonder how many years will go by before someone decides to fix this rule? Or will the nail just get pounded down every time serving the status quo?
And on a related note with regard to precedent, the evolution of rules often has unintended consequences. This one caught my attention and made me laugh.