How American (vs. Japanese) do you walk? | Take the quiz and find out!

DISCLAIMER – This 10 question quiz¬†is massively overgeneralized and entirely nonscientific. It is based on my own experiences and observations. Enjoy! ūüôā

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My characteristic loping walk. (Credit: A. LeClair)

Do cultures REALLY walk differently? 

Well I think so! My first year living in Japan, I noticed specific differences in how Japanese residents versus foreign tourists walked and carried themselves.

In particular, I became fixated on the way that people swing their arms. I concluded that Japanese people tend to swing their arms from the elbow, while foreign (specifically non-Asian) tourists tend to swing their arms from the shoulder. I even developed a nut-brained idea based on body proportions to try to explain my observation. I know this might seem like an impossibly minor and subtle difference. But, as a (once) semi-professional ballet dancer, I was trained for many years to critique tiny movements of my own body. Living in Japan I turned that trained observant eye to the people around me.

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(Credit: T. Fujita)

The walking pace at least differs…

To be fair, there does seem to be some scientific evidence that walking pace varies between different cities. In a provocative paper published in Nature in 1976, the researchers reported that city population nicely predicts walking pace. As cities get larger, the walking pace increases. Walking style is a different question of course.

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(Source: Bornstein, M. H., & Bornstein, H. G. (1976). The Pace of life. Nature 259, 557-559.)

Okay! Let’s start the quiz.

If you are walking and reading this on your phone, excellent. You can observe your natural walking style. If you are reading this on your computer, close your eyes and imagine the last time you walked. Or better yet, stroll around the room. Ready?

Great. Here is the quiz to discover just how American (or Japanese) your way of walking is.

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My dad and I in Fushimi-Inari Temple. (Credit: Amy LeClair)

Question #1 РIf you are holding a bag (like a plastic grocery bag), are you swinging it? Or are you holding your arm stiff so that the bag hangs straight down?

If you answered YES, then you might walk like an American.

Maybe because sidewalks tended to be narrower and more crowded in Japan (especially in the cities)… but I do not usually see people swinging their bags. In contrast, I have seen such wild bag swinging in the U.S. that the bag actually hit the person’s leg mid stride and something came flying out!!

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How I use my cellphone because I cannot walk and look at my cellphone. (Credit: Amy LeClair)

Question #2 – Are you holding your cellphone in your hand?

If you answered YES, you might walk like an American.

While walking around campus today, I took an informal poll. Over 50% of students were carrying their cellphone in their hand. I could rant about how addictive cellphone technology has become and how enslaved we are to our mobile devices. But I’ll just point you to an article from The Atlantic on that topic. In contrast, cellphone carrying seems to be less common in Japan. It might because smartphone technology is still growing in Japan. Just 5 years ago when I was living in Kyoto in 2011, lots of people still had flip phones.

Question #3 – If you are holding your cellphone, are you looking at it?

If you answered YES, you might walk like an American.

Actually walking while looking at your phone seems somewhat hazardous, a bit like trying to drive while texting. This seems like it is starting to become a problem in Japan. This summer in Tokyo, I saw signs warning people to be aware of their surrounding and not to look at their phones. Interestingly, the signs were written in Japanese AND English and Chinese. Wonder who those signs are intended for…

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Question #4 Р As you walk, are you randomly looking around as if to survey your territory?

If you answered YES, you might walk like an American.

Kosuke might have a slightly strange way of walking (given his years in the defense force) but I noticed that he tends to look straight when he is walking. When he gets to an intersection, he looks side to side and then crosses. Otherwise, his gaze is steady. Me on the other hand, I am always looking here and there. Come to think of it, this might be more a personality difference than a cultural difference.

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Question #5 РAre you wearing earbuds to listen to music (or something similar)?

If you answered YES, you might walk like an American.

This behavior seems pretty uncommon in Japan. Even on the train when commuting long distances, people tend not to listen to music. Music “bleeding” from your earbuds is considered a nuisance in Japan. The music also hinders your ability to monitor the other passengers around you and respond to subtle social signals.

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(Credit: A. LeClair)

Question #6 – Are you carrying a backpack…using just one strap?

If you answered YES, you might walk like an American.

Actually Kosuke’s dad commented on this. He thought my brother’s way of wearing¬†his backpack with just one strap was so casual, so cool, so American, so NOT Japanese. Maybe next time Kosuke’s dad comes to the U.S., he can try out this style.

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Question #7 – Do you have flip flops on?

If you answered YES, you might walk like an American.

Flip flops seem relatively less common in Japan. Unless of course you are just making a midnight snack run to the nearby convenience store…

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Question # 8 – Are you moving your arms in opposition to your legs? (In other words, right arm with left leg.) Or are you moving your right arm with your right leg and your left arm with your left leg?

If you answered YES, you might walk like Japanese people did over 160 years ago.

Okay, so pretty much the entire world (including Japan) now walks with opposite arms and legs swinging. But according to some cultural researchers, virtually all Japanese people¬†used to be trained in a special kind of walking called “namba.” In this style, the right arm swings with right leg, and the left arm with the left leg. Try it! I tried it for a day and attracted some interesting looks.

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Question #9 – Are you holding a Starbucks cup full of coffee? Scratch that. Are you holding any kind of food or drink in your hand?

If you answered YES, you might walk like an American.

Question #10 – If you are holding food or drink, are you actively eating it?

If you answered YES, you might walk like an American.

Eating and drinking while walking is slightly frowned upon in Japan. This might seem puzzling given the huge number of vending machines with chilled drinks lining the roads. So how does anyone enjoy those drinks? If you watch closely, you will see the secret. People buy a drink, guzzle it, and immediately throw it away in the garbage provided next to the machine. This might also explain why the drinks from those machines are often quite small. Another tip РIf you do want to eat outside, find a park! No matter how small, parks seem to be accepted as outside eating and drinking spaces.

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Thanks for reading! How did you score? Please feel any comments or questions below. And see you again next week~

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(Header Credit: A. LeClair.) Also my sincere thanks to my brother and to Kosuke. Conversations with both of them in Japan this summer inspired this post!

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