force a square peg into a round hole
At first I was surprised that the word for "rules" is not honorificized in Japan, because they seem so important to the Japanese. I finally realized that rules are SO sacred that you don’t need to point out that they are honorable, just as you don’t need to tell people not to boogie inside a church or mosque.
We Americans tend to look down on people who follow the rules. Who would want to go on a blind date with a guy your friend described as "he always brushes his teeth at exactly 8PM"? This is a country built on mavericks. We thrill to stories of the self-made millionaire who never finished high school and the movie star who waited on tables for twenty years before getting her big break.
But as much as we hate to admit to it, there are some real advantages to conformity. Japan has twice pulled off an economic miracle that left the rest of the world in slack-jawed disbelief. How? The country can turn in lock-step and move towards a goal as one living, breathing mass. They can tighten their belts for generations, if necessary, for the greater good. The trains are spotless, and kept so by men in suits with ties and white gloves who care that the floor isn’t sticky and that the Superexpress leaves the station precisely on time.
The problem is, rules are not really my strong point. That’s an understatement that would send my friends into fits of hysterical laughter. When I’m in the field I fly by the seat of my pants. I take every opportunity, make very few plans, and do my level best to put a smile to constant use. That worked just fine for me in Vietnam ("Can I drive the train?") and in Peru ("amateur bullfight? I’d love to!"). In Japan it made the blood drain from the face of the man in charge as though a Great White had just cut him off cleanly at the knees.
In other words, Japan is a square hole and I am a round peg. It’s not that I didn’t try. I swore that I’d learn the rules, and learn them I did. I studied day and night. I practiced bowing in the mirror. But Japanese rules are like irregular French verbs on speed – for every one you learn there are a thousand exceptions. My least favorite phrase in Japanese is"in this case….".
I think I got 90% of the rules down and fell about 900% short.
Why the Japanese love affair with rules? It comes from feudal times, when breaking a rule almost invariably meant losing the connection between
your second and third vertebrae, via a samurai sword, for affronts ranging from not bowing low enough to getting blown offshore during a storm and being competent enough to make it back to land in one piece. That would certainly put the "O" into rules for me too.