Photo: Vasit Buasamui/Shutterstock

Why We Need to Stop Treating Other Countries Like Our Playgrounds

by Turner Wright Jan 15, 2018

Recently, a YouTuber named Logan Paul went viral for taking the time to film, react, edit, post, and promote a video of a suicide victim in Japan… during a religious holiday… in a restricted area. I’m not here to talk about that: there are people smarter than I am and more personally affected who can judge him for his idiocy.

What I can speak about, however, is everything else he did in Japan, which the focus on the suicide video has made us overlook (I’m not going to link to or embed his videos): Paul films himself throwing stuffed Pokeballs at the police and random people on the street. He jumps out of his vehicle in the middle of the street and starts talking to Japanese people waiting at the stoplight in their cars. In the Tsukiji Fish Market, he surreptitiously jumps on the back of a loading cart and then surprises the driver on camera. Though he is tossed out of a few places or asked to stop (at least from what we can see), most of the people in the area just go on with their day and ignore him, with some just looking at him strangely but without any verbal or physical retaliation.

When you’re in another country, learn and follow the rules.

Traveling to a foreign country can be confusing for even veteran travelers. There’s a maze of cultural customs and rules — laws and etiquette — to uncover, and often as foreigners, we’re left wondering if we should just be ourselves abroad, completely adapt to cultural norms, or strike a healthy balance between the two. In a country like Japan, the third largest economy on the planet, with the infrastructure to match, this maze is even more daunting for foreign residents and first-time visitors.

Japan lives by rules. The rules that govern the country make it the orderly, absurdly safe place we know. Many foreigners who come to Japan as a tourist may know what they’re doing is wrong, but they chalk up their failure to conform as a minor inconvenience and something that surely won’t cause any lasting harm, e.g. eating and walking, talking loudly, littering when they can’t find a rare garbage can. They fail to realize just to what extent their mistakes disrupt the structure of Japanese society.

In all countries, but Japan especially, it’s best to enter with a conservative approach and then feel your way around to learn the rules and decide when and if they’re worth breaking. When I first moved here and couldn’t figure what garbage was thrown out on which day of the week, I typically let my recyclables pile up in my apartment before just paying attention to what my neighbors were doing. Rather than assuming everyone just wanted to be in my stereotypical Japan pictures (e.g. a shrine at sunset), I quickly learned how to ask “may I take your picture?” in Japanese.

Just because you’re getting away with it doesn’t mean it’s okay.

Why was Logan Paul able to get away with as much as he did? Throw a Pokeball at a random person in some other countries and you might get punched in the face. Destroy a Gameboy and then lie to the shopkeeper about it, and he’d probably tell you off and make you leave. Interrupt a functioning business by jumping on to their vehicles, and security would detain you or hand you over to law enforcement.

The truth is, Paul could have done a lot worse in Japan and still gotten away with it, without much risk of deportation or arrest. Most Japanese people have a strong sense of social responsibility when it comes to not inconveniencing or bothering anyone. Even Yakuza, gangsters who have their run-ins with the law and commit acts of violence, conform to more Japanese societal norms than outsiders would believe possible: not being late to a meeting and bowing to superiors, for example.

This Japanese practice of maintaining the harmony of the group, whether for a rude person answering a phone on a train or a YouTuber treating the country as his personal playground, can come across as indifference to an outsider when it’s anything but. Because approaching someone doing wrong would just draw more attention to the situation, many people in Japan just let him finish whatever act of idiocy he wants and move on. This is more likely to cause less disruption overall.

Other countries aren’t our playgrounds.

Paul’s actions aren’t due to any ignorance of Japanese customs, but rather an act of narcissism, a disregard for anyone’s pleasure but his own. Being abroad doesn’t automatically warp the fabric of reality, as much as some travelers would like to believe. Thailand may condone foreigners going mad at the Full Moon Party on Kou Phangan, but if you do anything that crazy on the streets of Bangkok or in a Buddhist temple, it’s safe to assume you’ll meet someone’s wrath. Burning Man may be in the United States, but you can’t do what you do there everywhere else in the country: try walking around the streets of Dallas dancing in costume on drugs and see what happens to you.

Just because Japan has this image as a fantasy land of Pokemon, Godzilla, and anime doesn’t mean the entire country was created to cater to their fans. If Paul had gone to a Pikachu parade — and yes, they happen often — or some other private event and thrown Pokeballs at people there, it might still have been a bit of a faux pas and a rude thing to do, but at least he would have been in the right environment and caused less of an inconvenience.

There are plenty of opportunities for weirdness in Japan — naked festivals, concerts, nightlife — but just as anywhere else in the world, there’s a time and a place for everything. Most Japanese understand that Paul’s behavior wasn’t the result of him being American or even ignorant of Japanese customs; they recognize that he just has the maturity and personality of a pre-teen.

The burden is on all travelers to stop people like Logan Paul from being an embarrassment to the human race, especially when abroad. I know all too well how it can come across as arrogant to approach a stranger committing a subtle cultural faux-pas and stating “THAT’s not what you’re supposed to do,” but in situations like the aforementioned, educating someone is more beneficial than standing back and watching the views explode on YouTube. As guests in another country, we don’t have to blindly follow every custom, but we should at least make an effort to abide by their rules.

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