“This is shopping? It looks like war!” This is one of the comments I received from one of the 100+ students who saw the dangers of Black Friday for the very first time. I was asked to give a presentation at a senior high school on a serious topic regarding foreign culture, and I thought it would be timely to talk about the holiday season. That is, a brief comparison between the shopping culture in Japan, the UK, Canada, and America. None of the students (or teachers) had ever heard about these foreign holidays, but it was interesting to see their reactions, which they submitted to me via survey.
I took videos from YouTube and showed them in several classrooms, in a high school a few hours out of Tokyo. I explained what was happening in the videos as well as relevant cultural and historical facts that helped describe the context. I won’t retell everything I said here – for that, you can see my recent article on Black Friday madness – but I will provide every video I showed them.
I have also translated their responses below to show you what the students thought about the contents. So the links in the following sub-sections contain all the videos I used. Skip to “Reactions” if you aren’t interested in what specific videos were presented.
Japan: New Years’ Shopping
As a baseline, I wanted to show what Japan’s biggest shopping day looks like. This wasn’t news to anyone, but it will be to those of you reading from outside Japan. Japan has a very interesting system of shopping on New Year’s Day, whereby people line up to get the famous “fuku-bukuro,” (“lucky bag”). What’s in a fuku-bukuro? Well that’s the point – no one knows. You never know what will be inside them, but the thing that makes them worthwhile is that they almost always contain far more value than what was paid for them. For example, the contents might be worth 4 or 5 times more than what was paid… but of course, you may be stuck with something that you’ll never use (such as an article of clothing that doesn’t fit, or an electronic device you already own).
Obviously the contents depend on the store, but one English-speaking Japanese reporter made a great video where she explains the item-swapping tradition that occurs in downtown Tokyo:
Contrary to what was said in the video, some of the students I gave this presentation to said that this is not the only story where people engage in this behaviour. There were other students that also said that they had never heard of this item-swapping.
UK & Canada: Boxing Day
In the interest of time, I wouldn’t be able to show all of the Black Friday footage I wanted to unless I made the Boxing Day explanation relatively brief. I started by showing a video of shoppers running into a store in the UK, explaining that this is what Canada looks like in many places too. The students were quite surprised to see the huge mass of shoppers running in, but what I specifically pointed out was the part at the end of the video showing how the employees ended up closing the doors on the would-be shoppers. Presumably this was, as I told them, to allow for some shoppers to shop in relative peace first, and let the customers come in waves. I mentioned that American stores don’t do this.
Then I showed the video of Boxing Day in Canada. I used this longer video to talk more about the holiday in general. I pointed out that there is an increase in police on this day, which you can see near the end of the video. Some policemen are shown clearly (with “police” written on their backs) riding horses.
U.S.: Black Friday
I wish I had more time to explain that I believe the lack-luster economy is one reason why Americans so value lower prices, making them more emotionally volatile and therefore dangerous. But these things take time, especially for an audience of internationally-ignorant high school students (that statement is not intended to be pejorative; it is a fact). I instead explained that on one particular day of the year, people line up for hours before opening time, and get a little too excited when it’s time to shop.
The first video I showed was the now famous video from the entrance of a store in Buffalo, New York. I suppose as a testament to the Japanese sense of humour (i.e., lots of physical humour, including slapstick comedy) the students (and a teacher) laughed when one of the injured shoppers almost collapsed in front of the camera at about 1:10 into the video. I didn’t show all of the video, but the first minute and a half or so, explaining that hundreds of people can’t possibly fit into the small door, which is why the jam injured so many people. But that video was regarding when they simply set foot into the store. The next video was one of people fighting over Xbox 360’s, due to the much higher demand than supply:
The next video I showed is really an amalgamation of a few videos. It starts with shoppers enthusiastically running in – nothing too dangerous. Then it moves into a clip of a man being violently wrestled to the ground by police officers and tazered (something that was not reported on the news, as far as I saw). The other videos regard the infamous pepper-spray incident. It was around this time where I began to mention some of the incidents I didn’t have videos for, which I talked about in a previous article; such as the attempted robbery where the victim ended up being shot, and the shoppers who was trampled to death.
Then I showed the video of the old man who was thrown to the ground by police, in an act witnesses describe as police brutality. And with this, I explained that America has a lot of problems with people claiming that police abuse their authority. I mentioned that there are ongoing debates about whether they are too quick to use violence; especially now that they have weapons like tazers at their disposal.
So as to make them understand that the U.S. isn’t just a dangerous and chaotic place, I showed two very important videos. The first was of a fight between some female customers. The part I wanted them to see was when an employee comes by and basically tells them “shut up or get out.” This showed that the shoppers can keep people under control, and that it’s not always complete mayhem.
The last video I showed was the most important. I told the students that the videos I just showed were not normal; in fact, they only made the news because they were essentially abnormal. The last video was of a Sears store opening its doors, where the staff told customers to follow them, and all of the shoppers calmly walked inside, completely contrasting to the UK Boxing Day video and the previous Black Friday videos. If anything, it looked very “Japanese,” and no one got hurt.
The reactions that follow are separated individually, based on the responses from a survey that I had them fill out. A roughly equal number of boys and girls responded, but I suspect that there were more thoughtful answers from the girls. I didn’t include every students’ input, because there’s a lot of repetition and some that just aren’t interesting enough to mention. So these don’t reflect the quantity of people who gave these opinions – after all, this isn’t scientific research, just a very unscientific cultural investigation. In many quotes below I only used an excerpt from what they said (not all of it is worth relaying). I translated them in the style of what I expect an equivalent English-speaking high school student would say.
Most reactions from Boxing Day and foreign shopping culture in general involved a genuine surprise. Opinions certainly varied depending on the person:
- Boxing Day seems kind of like Japan. Every country is very excited.
- Boxing day is calmer than Japan.
- I was surprised to see how different Japan is to foreign countries.
- I wish they had [Boxing Day] in Japan.
- I wouldn’t last in the UK boxing day but I wanna try it in Canada.
- It’s interesting to see that they don’t have fuku-bukuro [abroad], just sales. And the police was riding on a horse! (lol) Anyways, I wonder what the guy who got tazered did! (Yikes!) He probably just wanted a video game. lol…
- I was surprised to see them close the doors!
- Holy shit! (LOL) I don’t want to go to Black Friday! Wow. Japan is comparatively peaceful. I was surprised foreign countries don’t have fuku-bukuro.
- Both men and women were out shopping [on Boxing Day]. People weren’t yelling stuff out. It’s not so different from Japan.
- Wow do I ever NOT want to try Black Friday! LOL… And to think, being in the same world and having such a totally different culture. How eye-opening.
Many disapproved of Black Friday or the U.S. in general:
- Some scary shit! It’s like it’s not even shopping.
- It’s dangerous.
- Well that seems just like them [Americans].
- On Black Friday everyone’s confused and messed up.
- American shopping was shocking, but Japan and other places follow the rules.
- Looks like lots of injuries occurred [in the US].
- Wow it’s pretty violent there. Much more docile in Japan.
- Committing a crime in order to buy some shit is pretty unbelievable. Don’t run and cause trouble, just follow the rules.
- Stuff that’s unthinkable in Japan is… totally thinkable in the US.
- It’s a shame to see the lengths people go to in the US just to shop.
- The US seems fun, but I ain’t shopping there anytime soon.
- I had no idea the US was so different from Japan. It’s scary there. And in comparison, Japan is definitely safer, with people properly getting in line and such.
- I think the police ought to think twice before acting.
- The foreign police went a little overboard, didn’t they?? I’m glad Japan’s safe.
Then there were those who seemed to me to be a little too patriotic:
- Japan would never have this; it’s safe here.
- The U.S. is violent. Japan does it well and so is very safe <3!
- Luckily, Japan does it right.
- Japan is peace! America is scary.
- Japan is great. Nothing crazy like that happens here.
- Japan has better manners than other countires. It’s a safe place.
What I was most interested in was the responses from some of the students who seemed to genuinely understand the situation (at least in the context of the rest of their responses, which I’m not necessarily including below). While they may criticize, I think these responses were more thoughtful than some of the others above:
- I understand their feelings, but it’s not good to be violent.
- It’s nice to see at the end that they’re not all crazy there.
- Black Friday was scary! I’m glad to have seen those last videos, where people were properly lining up and going through, just like in Japan. But I think it’s a little more relaxed here in general.
- If they lined up like in Japan, they wouldn’t get hurt. I think the US takes it a bit too far here.
- Well after seeing that last video, I kind of want to check out Black Friday. …But yeah, I don’t wanna die, so I’ll stay home!!
- The police being present while shopping?? That’s scary… I’m glad this Black Friday stuff isn’t actually normal.
- It was awful to see what happened in the US. But at least they do shop peaceful in some places. I don’t think I’ll ever forget what I saw in those videos. (lol)
- An accident while shopping? That’s so sad. Shopping is supposed to be enjoyable.
- After all the trouble it took so many of them to come there to shop, this kind of stuff happens. At least it’s good to see that not all of the US is like that. I hope they can merely enjoy their shopping experience.
Many of the students wrote longer reports, though I took the important excerpts from most of them above. Actually, the following is also an excerpt from an even larger report, but I was interested in the last few things she said, which I reproduced here:
The US is unique. It’s so congested – Canada is totally different. Everyone’s running around [in the US]… it must be tough on police. It’s shopping, but it seems like war. At least there are some places where they follow the rules. There were many different situations, but the feelings of wanting to shop is all the same. If everyone would just play a bit safer, it would be a much better experience.
There were a few students who compared it to war, and I bet many Americans would agree to some extent on that analogy.
How Dangerous Is it Really?
The main things I tried to avoid in my presentation was a) making them all think that Japan is the greatest and safest country on Earth (I probably failed on that one), and b) making them all think the U.S. is unbelievably dangerous. But after I gave my presentation, I came across an article from Cracked that I really wasn’t expecting. I was trying to emphasize that the cases I showed were the minority, and that most days don’t include such chaos. But the Cracked explanation says the opposite:
It [only] seems like people are more violent on Black Friday because the national media doesn’t pay attention to violence at retail stores until it happens on Black Friday. Wesley Strellis walked into a Walmart a little after noon, picked up a metal bat from the sporting goods section, carried it to electronics and methodically destroyed 29 flat screen TVs. There’s the case of the 55-year-old man who punched a 72-year-old store greeter in the face for asking to see his receipt, and the guy who walked into a Walmart and pissed on a case of steaks. And who can forget the man who lit three racks of clothes on fire in the men’s department when Walmart wouldn’t let him return an item. There are crazy people in this world who do crazy things. Often times at Walmart. CNN didn’t report on any of those stories because why would they?
So I don’t know what I should have said… but I still tend to believe that it’s not that dangerous or crazy there. But what do I know.
Do you think these reactions are fair?