How important is it to obey rules in Japan?

Yes, the picture on the side is shaky and not very clear, partially because it was early morning for me when I took the picture, plus this man riding on the subway is just one example of a more and more common sight in Tokyo. There is no need nor importance to actually recognize the shown salary man.
Officially on the line shown in the picture the seats in the car at the back of the train are reserved solely for women from 07:30 to 09:40 in the morning and then after 22:30 in the evening again. The goal is to have a safer environment on trains, so that women are protected from chikan (痴漢, or チカン), simply because groping is still quite common in Japan in packed trains. Let me point out the man depicted on the train has no connection with the topic of groping, contrary he is just an example of a Japanese, who has become less strict about following given rules.
Another example is the increase of the illegal parking in the streets, although stricter rules have been in place the last few years and police in combination with private companies try to track down all the parking offenders, I have not seen much of a change. Potentially main streets have become less crowded on the side, but the picture below shows a typical back street of Tokyo full of illegally parked cars.

I wonder whether the issue is really about breaking a law, but more about trying to make the best out of their own lives. If the other train compartments are too crowded, why not sneak into a women’s car? If you cannot find a quiet spot to park your car for a while so you can sleep, why not doing it in a back street? Moving one step further to a bigger topic: Olympus and Woodford. Where there actually rules broken or simply managers tried their best to keep a company alive with their perceived most suitable approach? While you might have read a lot of other articles, take your time to review the excellent article by Sophie Knight, when talking to Chris Berthelsen, because unlike other articles the Japanese business culture is taken into consideration.

The more I know and have learned about Japan, now after 10 years I begin to wonder what is more important: Stability and harmony in life and do whatever it takes for the larger share of the company/society to protect it, or follow what is perceived as the “right” rules, even if it negatively affects some innocent bystanders? Is it correct to save hundreds of jobs to keep the economy going even though the law might not be followed properly? Where do you draw the line in a society that has extensive experience in working grey zones. I must say a part of me appreciates life in Japan without the strict Western black and white – right and wrong – approach, but there are times when I get lost in the grey.

Brought to you by Sibylle Ito (伊藤シビル)

9 thoughts on “How important is it to obey rules in Japan?

  1. Very nice post. I just stumbled upon your blog and wished to say that I have truly enjoyed surfing around your blog posts. After all I will be subscribing to your rss feed and I hope you write again very soon!

  2. I very much admire the way Japanese culture respects the rules for the right reasons known sometimes only to themselves. For them, these areas are not grey but are bright white with the light of unselfishness! We Occidentals should meditate upon adopting much of this mindset! By the way, I discovered your blog through a tweet you sent cocomino3 encouraging him to continue with his blog to aid understanding of daily life in Japan over the rest of the world.

    • Dear Granbee,

      thank you very much for taking time to comment. Just one example, I have learned in Japan to be more considerate how my behavior effects my co-workers or then the company output overall. I do apologize now for taking a day off or having kept someone waiting. At the same time, I am in a lucky position as an obvious foreigner, I can take the easy route, when I am too tired of following the unwritten rules.

      Hope to see you here again.


  3. Sibylle,
    It’s interesting to see how the Japanese seem to start neglecting some of the rules. I have been learning (and experiencing) about Japan as a country were everybody waits in line for their turn.
    But who are we kidding with this? These are ordinary people who were already used to cross borders to escape from daily routines and social pressure (think of manga, pachinko, karaoke and extreme TV shows). The emperor and his family are descending to become ‘normal’ people, the internet has opened the world after years of self-proclaimed isolation, the country is changing albeit very slowly. It’s great that you notice and capture it in this post!

    • Dear Emiel,

      I truly appreciate your comments, thanks.
      Just recently the speed of change in Japan was compared to glacier speed. Looking in from the outside nothing much seem to happen, but at the same time you have the advantage of a rather predictable economy, which can make it much easier to forecast for example expected sales. There are always many viewpoints and so far Japan has kept my on my toes to judge what seems “the right way”. No matter what there are aspects of business/cultural approaches that work very good inside Japan, but do not make sense abroad. But still, pressure and changes is leaking into Japan.

      All the best from sunny, cold Tokyo,


  4. Thanks for the mention Sibylle – I’m glad that some of these thoughts were of interest…… and thanks Sophie for taking the time to chat with me (and lay it all out in a comprehensible format) – nice work.



  5. Wow, thanks for the mention Sibylle. Some might think I went too far and became an apologist for Japan but that wasn’t my intention; I’m glad you recognised it.

    • Dear Kishicut,

      to be honest with you I was waiting for an article like yours. I had some ideas in my head, but I was concerned that I might be completely off with my thoughts. Harmony at the workplace is a wonderful thing to have, but I doubt whether it will support Japan to keep its place in rapidly changing world. Furthermore your quotes from Uniqlo founder are on spot! Simply a marvelous article! Congratulations.

      All the best,


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