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Japan’s experiments with needless regulations

They span a spectrum of areas, from cultural practices to public behavior, influencing how individuals navigate daily lives
People walk along a street under cherry blossoms in the Ningyocho area of Tokyo on March 28.

People walk along a street under cherry blossoms in the Ningyocho area of Tokyo on March 28. (Photo: AFP)

Published: November 17, 2023 03:59 AM GMT
Updated: November 17, 2023 05:25 AM GMT

In recent years, Japan has experienced a notable surge in the implementation of stringent regulations, a phenomenon that distinguishes it from its Asian counterparts.

The trend reflects a broader societal shift, where the balance between tradition and modernity is being renegotiated. Unlike some of its neighboring countries, Japan has been actively embracing and, in some instances, tightening the reins on various aspects of public life.

These regulations span a spectrum of areas, from cultural practices to public behavior, influencing how individuals navigate their daily lives.  For example, the appearance at various festivals of signs prohibiting the handing out of candy to kids.

This particular tradition began with concerns voiced by mothers who were apprehensive about their children receiving "junk food" they had expressly forbidden at home. However, it's widely acknowledged that the act of elders offering candy to youngsters is a time-honored custom, especially in the Kansai region.

With the rapid proliferation of such newly discovered “rights” — like not being handed a candy — there is a palpable risk that many cherished, innocent, and heartfelt practices may soon fade away.

Moreover, the once-relaxed ambiance at renowned destinations like Universal Studios Japan (USJ) is undergoing a subtle transformation. A remarkable shift has occurred in the form of regulations explicitly dictating that visitors cannot wear attire deemed to be in violation of “public order.”

"Virtual complainants, whose identities remain unknown, wielded sufficient influence to prompt sudden regulatory action"

This change was spurred by a specific incident involving five Instagrammers who, seeking to expand their follower base, posted provocative selfies taken within the park, featuring outfits that surpassed the typical exposure levels by Japanese standards.

What adds an intriguing layer to this regulatory shift is that the impetus for the new rules did not originate from USJ itself as one would expect but rather from anonymous individuals airing grievances online. The virtual complainants, whose identities remain unknown, wielded sufficient influence to prompt sudden regulatory action, thereby illustrating the increasingly potent role of public opinion, even when absolutely unvetted, in shaping behavioral guidelines.

Many visitors to Japan may not know this but for an extended period now, the joyous sound of children playing with a ball in many Tokyo parks has been stifled. Also in this case, this restriction didn't emerge from a longstanding municipal decree but rather resulted from the persistent grievances of a solitary ojisan (elderly man) who, seemingly annoyed by the playful exuberance, made repeated calls to the local public office demanding stringent rules for absolute quietness.

What is particularly perplexing is the collective acquiescence to this individual's demand, despite the conspicuous reality that Japan offers numerous affordable residences in the serene countryside, where the pursuit of absolute silence can be serenely fulfilled.

Instead of pointing to such alternatives as should have been done, the authorities yielded to the demands of this singular complainant, metaphorically slapping the faces of those innocent children engaged in the simple pleasure of playing.

This scenario stresses a broader concern about the balance between individual freedoms and the sway of isolated complaints in shaping public life.

The unquestioning submission to the preferences of a solitary individual, without considering the broader implications or exploring alternative solutions, reflects a potential erosion of the vibrancy and spontaneity that characterize public spaces.

"There is also the risk of over-regulation driven by a few subjective opinions"

And yes, Japan once was a place where children could play freely in the streets with no regulations limiting their imaginations and actions just like what happens to this day in many Southeast Asian countries.

The story of children denied the simple pleasure of playing with a ball serves as a microcosm of the broader challenge Japan faces in reconciling tradition and old practices with the egotistical needs and desires of a diverse population.

If the impetus for regulations stems more from anonymous online voices than from the community establishments themselves, there is also the risk of over-regulation driven by a few subjective opinions.

The famous case of the elderly Japanese individual falsely claiming disability online and targeting businesses for alleged lack of wheelchair accessibility serves as a poignant example of the potential consequences.

If this trajectory persists, Japan may find itself inadvertently curbing further the already stifled individual freedoms in response to the whims of unidentified solitary trolls.

What is perhaps even more striking, though, is the conspicuous absence of counter-claims, a notable absence of voices challenging the imposition of such, in many cases, absurd restrictions and advocating for a more well-thought out and common-sense approach to communal rules and guidelines.

*The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of UCA News.

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