Mathias Barra is a French polyglot speaking 6 languages. he is also a Writer.
Western countries and Japan aren’t just opposed geographically. The way people act sometimes feels like day and night. Something obvious to me makes Japanese people oblivious. Something obvious to Japanese people makes me oblivious.
One of those is the importance of following rules.
In the western world, rules exist to be broken. There are undeniable ones we learn to follow — such as not to kill or steal — but most are there to be played around with.
We all know we should wait until the light is green to cross a street. Yet, in the western world, most people cross as long as they see they have enough time. In Japan, I’ve seen that happen only at night, in the suburbs, with no car even in the far distance. People wait, patiently, for the light to turn green and cross.
Why waste time when you could be crossing and spending it better somewhere else?
Japanese rules have made me feel all sorts of ways. From disappointed to amazed. From angry to curious. From shocked to indifferent.
Yet, the main thing I learned was how well the country runs. In Japan, everything seems smooth. Don’t we all want a life in which even trouble isn’t a problem?
Here’s what Japanese rules have taught me and how they helped me develop a better discipline.
Hard to Set, Easy to Follow
Rules may be easy to state but making them accepted is a whole different story. If you have a child, you know this truth better than anybody else. You can repeat a rule over and over again, it seems like it enters through one ear and slips out the other instantly.
If you think you’re having trouble with your children, try to multiply the number of rules by at least 10. Welcome to the Japanese society. Rules exist for every little thing. Even interactions between people have strict rules.
The enormous changes in grammar used. The way you set your glass when toasting with someone older — Your glass must be under the other person’s. The places where you sit in the metro or even the metro car you can or can’t get in.
In France, most parents focus on the important rules and let the rest pop up in their child’s life. Why? Because it takes years to integrate them well.
One of the skills we develop the fastest in France is adaptability. We know the general rule and then adapt based on the current situation. It’s a useful skill but what’s the point if you can’t follow through.
In Japan, it takes longer for children to learn the rules due to the sheer amount and their specificities. But when they are set, they are ready for life in Japan. The moment they visit another country, they realize that even with fewer rules, a country can still work just fine, but that’s a story for another day.
When rules control your life, you save mental energy for more important decisions. What’s automatic doesn’t weigh on you.
In most Japanese companies, the dress code is a black suit with a white shirt (both for men and women). During the week, no need to ponder what to wear, the choice is already made for the employees.
Discipline is setting rules for yourself.
It takes time to set the right rules and make them become obvious to the mind. But that’s the effort required to get rid of a cluttered mind.
Discipline isn’t a mental action. It’s a habit. Like any other, our brain combats the change at first but then begins accepting it. One day, being disciplined isn’t an effort anymore, it’s just who we’ve become.
I’m still in the middle of that process. Setting strict rules and following them is a complicated task. As a French person, all my brain tells me to do is to break the rules and find a different way. After a year following a rather strict morning routine, I don’t need as much effort anymore.
Breaking the Rules
Rules exist to simplify our lives. They are based on the common assumption of an average situation. Yet, our lives aren’t constant lines. They evolve, suddenly change course, take a 180 degree turn one day only to make another the next.
Rules reduce friction on average days. But they shouldn’t stand in extreme cases. If someone who wants to hurt you is after you, you should have the right to cross the street if no car is about to pass.
Setting discipline for yourself works the same way. Create rules and remember they ought to be broken in verified extreme cases only. The important aspect here is to remember that you can break them.
No one rule will ever be enough to fit every situation possible. Not even combinations of multiple rules will be able to do it. And this is a magnificent fact! That’s what keeps life interesting.
Discipline provides freedom of mind. A free mind grants a simpler life. A simpler life makes it easier to react to the unexpected, and enjoy it even.
Japan is an easy country to live in thanks to its rules, but it’s also what makes it hard to understand at first. The lack of flexibility shown may be what helped the country develop faster in the industrial era, but it may also be what slows it down now.
Discipline is crucial but it’s nothing without adaptability. The world evolves and we need to do so as well.