Looking Samurai in the Eye

Samurai Statue Photo by Don Kelloway I’ve been playing a new game recently and the results have been very interesting. The game was inspired by reading a random article from the Art of Manliness blog about the importance of eye contact in establishing and maintaining trust and cooperation between us humans. Like many of us from the geek end of the social spectrum, I really suck at it.

So the game, which can be played whenever you are walking through your neigbourhood or city’s streets, is designed to build confidence in making eye contact and give you an amazing new perspective into the lives of the people milling past you who would otherwise¬† be just another ghostly pair of shoes.

The Rules

The rules are simple:

  • As you walk along, make sure you are wearing an open, friendly expression on your face.
  • When you are about four paces from someone you are about to pass, look them in the eyes.
  • Note that this does not mean a lazer gaze that will melt a hole clear through the back of their skull; eye contact means looking at each eye in turn taking in the brow and bridge of the nose as you pass gently between.
  • Whatever the reaction is, enjoy it.
  • If they return your gaze, do not flinch away. Smile.

Four paces is plenty of time to exchange a glance and a smile and to get a fleeting but meaningful glimpse behind the masks that people usually wear.


Playing the game for the past couple of weeks has made feel much more confident about making eye contact. In fact, it has simply made me feel more confident all of the time. Now that I’m over the initial hurdles, I’m beginning to wonder why I was so shy about this before – this is a behaviour I have known I needed to improve for a long time but never before looked the problem in the eye.

The Results

The common reactions I have had are perhaps easy to guess, ranging from the studied avoidance of meeting my gaze to the quick refocussing from me to the horizon beyond, pretending that no contact happened at all or that I am in fact invisible. I don’t think this is because I am a terrifying looking, foreign apparition –¬† sometimes in this city I really can feel not only invisible but as if my invisibility somehow extends out from around me to at least the next nearest seat on the train. It’s not that often noted phenomenon at work this time (and the game can in fact be a powerful way to bust straight through that ‘normal’ invisibility barrier). The fact is that almost no one ever looks at anyone else in the eye at all. They aren’t avoiding my gaze, they are avoiding everyone’s gaze.

It’s understandable, you pass so many strangers everyday in a big city that it’s impossible to let every one of them affect you, to become more than a face in the crowd – the experience could be overwhelming. Sadly it is all too short a step from there to devoting your full attention to your phone, your comic or someone else’s shoes and none what-so-ever to the people around you.

A lot of people in this huge city must be terribly lonely.

The actual hit rate of establishing eye contact has therefore been relatively low, but my timing has been improving so there is a bit of uptick there. The actual met gazes, however, have included some fairly deep communication. One or two could merit a post on their own.

Salarymen have the lowest hit rate overall, but the older guys are far more likely to engage for that fleeting moment and what I see most often in their eyes is a sort of tiredness, not exactly like exhaustion but also not quite like relaxation. One of the younger Salarymen I did catch had a gaze of unadulterated hatred, I actually felt a little sick before he broke his stare and fired it up at the office building he was heading into leaving me with the impression that, although my intrusion into his personal space had irked him, what he hated was not me but his own Salarlyman life. Poor bastard.

Girls are easy. Young women go to extraordinary lengths to make men notice their eyes; magnifying contact lenses, inches of mascara, spectacle frames with no glass. What’s often lacking, sadly,¬† is anything more interesting than “Ooh! Is this foriegn guy finding me cute?” to be read in there. The exceptions are therefore all the more rewarding; a young Office Lady in the classic all black skirt suit was lost in thought before she caught my eye and suddenly snapped her full attention and obvious intelligence on to me. I was for a moment the most interesting thing that happened in her day – I was examined with a great level of curiosity, and I wonder if I’m in a japanese blog post about it somewhere – I’d dearly like to know more about what she was thinking about.

I can’t name you any outstanding wins from the standard young-men category. Many guys seem to be experts at the change-of-focus and tuning-you-out-of-their-world trick. The exceptions happen in Koenji and other wee towns where punks or other counter culture folks live and in all these cases what I feel is a lot of I’m totally chilled – about you, about me, about the world around me. Funily enought, most of the older ladies I have caught also have this same easy-going zen-like state going on.

Finally, there are the old samurai.

I often hear how some people are full of Bushido spirit or are trying to follow the samurai path. In all too many cases this seems largely like a good excuse to be a dick to anyone you do not like. And they do not like foreigners because they have no concept of the way of Bushido. Or something.
I am not now talking about those chaps. I am talking about true possessors of the Bushido spirit – the real remainants of the old samurai.

This has been the most surprising and exciting find of playing the game. These guys are well hidden – this man did not look like he was well off, in fact a single meal or a missed night’s sleep and he could be mistaken for homeless. I am not totally certain if I made a mistake in assessing him as *not* homeless.
But what a gaze! Like a sharpened katana, but still wrapped in silk. Dangerous and beautiful but hidden under a soft sheath that could be discared in a second and brought to bear. My mouth actually fell open – it felt like a thousand candle searchlight had been cast across my soul. It was so intense and so unearthly a look I was being held with that I stopped in my tracks.

Back when I studied Tai Chi, one of the movements in the form is the glance, where you simply cast your eye to a new position. My teacher said that even the glance was a weapon that could be used to injure an opponent, such was the power of a true master. This was not bullshit.

And with that look I learned two things: I can indeed look my own shyness in the eye and learn not to flinch. I have many years of study in this game ahead of me to ever feel that I have truely mastered the art of eye contact.
With a small smile, the master of the game released me and continued on down the street.

9 Replies to “Looking Samurai in the Eye”

  1. I’ve tried this before too, it’s weird. I wonder how the fact that you are in Japan affects your results. In my experience Japanese people don’t like making eye contact with other people, especially not a scary Gaijin.

    Also I hadn’t noticed you’d been blogging, I’ve stopped checking my RSS feeds, you should tweet your blog posts more often.

    • I do tweet them, but generally only once and in my timezone! You’re right, I should tweet them a couple of times to at least I guess.

      I actually did of bit of checking about eye contact in Japan before embarking on this and discovered that it is considered very important – eyes are the sole conveyor of emotion… this is why good Japanese actors can have ridiculously over expressive facial expressions, it’s only the eyes that the audience are looking at.

      That said, the scary Gaijin factor will have an effect but I’m finding doing this to be fun and confidence building none-the-less.

  2. It funny, living in Glasgow, I find as I get older that the neds no longer take eye contact as an initiation of hostilities they way they did when I was younger and before that growing up on the West Coast.

    I can only presume age and wisdom now radiate from my gaze…

    • You probably aren’t conveying as much fear as you did when you were younger.
      In my experience, neds only show hostility if they think they can intimidate you. If you look scared of them, they capitalise on it. If you appear confident, they don’t mess.
      So you are right, it is age and wisdom that has brought about the change and it will certainly be conveyed in your eyes!

  3. You wouldn’t have the same experience in India or Argentina, perhaps either. It would be playing the game of trying to avoid eye contact with the many neutral, curious, and observing stares there.