Don’t Trust the Lines in Japan

Japan is obsessed with queueing up, but sometimes there’s something fishy afoot.

EDU Vision/Alamy

In 2007, a curious item from Reuters popped up in some news feeds: “Beijing Institutes Queueing Day.” This was in the lead-up to the 2008 Summer Olympics: The People’s Republic of China, the article said, wanted its citizens to be on their best behavior. National Voluntarily Wait-in-Line Day was one weapon in a larger arsenal. The powers-that-be wanted to project a wholesome image of China to the world. “Where there are more than two people,” read the official announcement, “they should wait in line.”

Whoever chose the eleventh of every month to observe Queueing Day was inspired: 11 resembles two people standing in a line. The Capital Ethics Development Office plastered bus stations everywhere with signs, variations on a theme: “I wait in line and am cultured. I display courtesy and am happy.” Or: “It’s civilized to queue, it’s glorious to be polite.” Or: “Voluntarily wait in line, be polite and put others first.” Or: “I care about and participate in the Olympics and set an example by queueing.” Or (my favorite for its spare elegance): “I am a member of the queue.” Did the campaign work? At least one day a month it did. On the eleventh, Beijing residents (I’m told) exhibited some preeminently straight and well-disciplined lines. I don’t know whether or not on the twelfth people returned to the established modus operandi of crowding.

While people in Beijing were still dutifully practicing their line-standing skills in the lead-up to the Olympics, across the Sea of Japan a small scandal was brewing. In 2008, the McDonald’s corporate branch in Japan was forced to respond to allegations that it had paid at least a thousand people to stand in line for the release of the Quarter Pounder in Osaka. These line standers were paid a thousand yen (roughly twelve dollars) an hour, plus the cost of their meal. At one point, they made up about half the people in line. McDonald’s pleaded guilty the way corporations often do—by blaming the franchise owners, claiming that they had acted without official consent. The corporate branch promised never to abuse the public’s trust in this manner again.

On the face of it, this would seem to be a counterintuitive approach to marketing. Isn’t the point of fast food that it’s fast? Wouldn’t long lines turn away paying customers? But really, this sort of thing happens all the time in Japan. A video game console is released. The Japanese news reports how many hundreds have been waiting in line for days. Only later is it revealed that a percentage of these people waiting in line were paid to do so. An up-and-coming Korean pop singer flies to Tokyo. A tabloid reports that eight hundred fans line up waiting for him at the airport, with footage suggesting a large crowd. In reality, there are really only one hundred at the airport, eighty of which were paid to be there. Et cetera. Lather, rinse, repeat.

Why is this tactic effective? Unlike China and most of the rest of East Asia, the Japanese are inveterate queuers (they make the Brits look like rank amateurs, in fact). In the aftermath of the 2011 tsunami, for instance, the Japanese received international attention for their almost complete lack of any sort of looting. Instead, everyone calmly and patiently queued up, sometimes upwards of twelve hours, waiting for supplies.

In fact, the Japanese appear to enjoy standing in line, or at least enjoy the anticipation that comes from standing in line. When offered a choice between vendor A and vendor B, each selling a similar product, a Japanese resident will choose the one with the longer line. It’s not uncommon for people to wait several hours to get into a popular new restaurant. In Japan, the wait is part of what gives a product its value.

In Japan, fads breed and die daily, but the queue remains. Nearly every day, Japanese television features a barrage of reports from the front lines, reporting on the amount of time one has to wait to get into this or that trendy establishment. The wait time becomes an essential part of a company’s promotional tools. But as we see with the case of McDonald’s, this can lead to abuse. Why not simply pay people to drum up interest by standing in line? The practice is part of a long-standing tradition, dating back to the Meiji period at the turn of the last century, when department store owners would hire people to mill around in their shops. These phony line standers are called sakura (not to be confused with the cherry blossom of the same name). For some, this is a full-time profession.

How did the Japanese become such eager line standers? It’s a difficult question to answer (not much has been written on the subject, at least in English). I would simply point out two things. The first is that, isolated on all sides by water and restrictive immigration policies, Japan is much more culturally homogeneous (and hence more culturally unified) than China or the United States could ever hope to be. More emphasis is put on the collective identity. What’s best for the group is what’s best for the individual.

Second, Japan industrialized much earlier than other nations in the area, starting in the late nineteenth century. Like the Chinese today, the Japanese of the Meiji period—following the fall of the shogunate in 1868—explicitly sought to civilize their populace by incorporating Western elements into their culture (in architecture, the economy, social norms and practices, and the introduction of department stores). They self-consciously turned their backs on their “hopelessly backward” Asian neighbors. (And sometimes, like many countries in the West, they used the perceived backwardness of their neighbors as an excuse to colonize them.) As we see today in China, being civilized (literally, adapted to life in cities) is a form of social currency, which a person or nation might use to flex some social or geopolitical muscle. Often enough others will fall in line.

Excerpted from Why Does the Other Line Always Move Faster? The Myths and Misery, Secrets and Psychology of Waiting in Line by David Andrews. Copyright © 2015 by Workman Publishing. Reprinted with permission.