The Rightness of Japan

The Lonely Planet guidebook to Japan has the following to say about Osaka:

"This isn't to say Osaka is an attractive city; almost bombed flat in WWII, it appears an endless expanse of concrete boxes punctuated by pachinko parlours and elevated highways."

And contains a similar description for the temple-rich capital city of Kyoto,

"First impressions can be something of an anticlimax. Stepping out of Kyoto Station for the first time and gazing around at all the neon and concrete that awaits you, you are likely to feel that all you've heard and read about Kyoto is just so much tourist-literature hype."

Few are the travelers who have never been to a land they couldn’t envision moving to at once. Usually, it’s easy; a sun-drenched beach where tall drinks float on the hands of waiters in a never-ending procession straight to your veranda; or perhaps a town of cobble-lined paths snaking their way past the very galleries and cafes the famed artisans of history books once prowled; or maybe a mountain village with but a single dirt road, several papaya plantations, and a nice villa from which to soak in the surrounding rainforest. Who couldn’t get used to that? It’s an idyllic setting… on the surface. Seldom do we get a chance to peel back the glossy layers of our destination and reveal the warts. Rarer still do we see the heart. Life as it really is can be easy to miss for the dreamy traveler.

It is in this regard that makes Japan so different from everywhere that I’ve been. Osaka in January, with its endless sprawl of concrete cubes, pervasive gray skies, and bouquets of cherry blossoms existing only on postcards and signage, is a place that reveals its most vital of organs to the visitor without delay. It’s what I had come to call its “rightness”. And it’s more attractive than any travel brochure photo I’ve ever seen.

As I made my way by train from Kansai airport to my hotel in Osaka’s business-focused Kita district, north of the rivers that bisect it, I felt myself slipping deeper and deeper into a cloak of invisibility. I was primed for this most different of cultures, but at a blue-eyed and shoeless 6-feet in height, I expected to stick out a bit. And I’m sure I did – complete days went by in Osaka without me seeing another westerner -- only the Japanese are too polite to ever let you notice. Eye contact, a friendly konichiwa, a pair of pursed lips ever-so-slightly turned up into a smile: these are the things I sought to capture on the streets of Osaka, and later Kyoto, but they proved as elusive as a geisha in Gion.

The bustling train stations, streets, and maze-like underground shopping malls may be filled with millions of people, but you wouldn’t notice it by the sound. Mihan, a pretty early twenties college student who works part-time at the guesthouse I stayed at while in Kyoto, commented to me one night that the people of Osaka are boisterous and loud compared to those in Tokyo. In this land of ultimate courtesy and politeness, I had to bite down hard to not laugh aloud and risk offending her. The truth was, as I had seen and heard it, was that nearly everyone, regardless their age, sex, or status, walked with a sense of purpose and self-induced isolationism. Earbuds were as ubiquitous as the bottles of Kirin-branded green tea I grew to enjoy. Many were texting. Endlessly texting and when not texting, they were watching television and scanning the web on their high-tech phones. Save for a few instances of what I would suspect was school-age giddiness and travel-induced excitement shared by friends, nobody spoke. That is to say I heard very little voices beyond the constant chorus of arigato go zai mas emanating from every kiosk, shop, noodle stand, and, to be certain, every staffed position in the city. The Japanese are quite indeed very thankful to those they do business with.

The silence was even more pronounced on the network of subways and buses that I eventually came to rely upon heavily for my daily site-seeing activities. Talking on a cell-phone was a much frowned-upon no-no, as was conversation above a whisper of any kind it seemed. The signs that are there to warn against the former behavior seem to only exist for the benefit of the visitor, those of us who are used to our senses being assaulted by others … and returning the favor in kind. It’s not a rule sent down by an oppressive regime, but rather one born from a very deeply-ingrained sense of public courtesy. Not about to speak for tens of millions of people, but my semi-informed opinion is this is a land whose people place far more emphasis on the collective than they do on themselves. They sacrifice or find workarounds for situations in which their personal desires – say, calling a boyfriend while on the subway – might interfere with the contemplation and serenity of others. For as much as I love my high tech toys, I would trade them all in a second if only there was a way to export this silence and courtesy to the west.

The rightness I came to fall in love with goes far beyond the Japanese’ reluctance to gab on a cellphone while out in public. Truth be told, if someone was to explain to me, prior to my visit, all of the behavioral idiosyncrasies that make up this society, I would have surmised that Japan was indeed one very stuck-up place to live. There is little doubt in me that I would have made a remark about there being a huge need to yank a few million sticks out of a few million you-know-whats. But being there, if only for a week, and seeing the people conduct themselves first hand, has given rise in me a deep sense of societal jealousy.

The examples are endless, so I’ll name but a few.

Shoes. Everyone, whether they’ve been overseas or not, knows to take one’s shoes off upon entering a house and, in many cases, a restaurant in Japan. The streets and sidewalks, though they may appear spotless for western standards, still harbor the grit and grime of the outdoors. The Japanese, unlike, say, an American household practicing “Japan-style” living, take it further though and ensure a pair of slippers just inside the entrance to the bathroom. A detail easily overlooked elsewhere. In restaurants, patrons will find an array of slippers near the hall leading to the restrooms that they may choose from. Sadly, I’ve yet to find any within two or three sizes of the elevens I need, but tiny slippers beats the alternative. Inadequate slippers aside, this was but another notch in the belt of the Japanese way of thinking through all the details. Not unlike the rack of umbrella bags many restaurants have ready for guests who stroll in on a rainy night.

Being that the primary purpose of this trip was to meet with a software developer whose games I will be writing the strategy guides for this year, I made sure to school myself on the intricacies of exchanging meshi and following the proper protocol during the meeting regarding sitting, standing, and the hows and whys of addressing people correctly. Although this level of formality is certainly foreign to me, I soon came to see that its roots extend into other forms of communication, and are not merely for business appearances. Take, for example, a group of friends going their separate ways after a night on the town. They bow and thank one another for the good time. The key being to bow. One of the many things I came to learn this week was that bowing doesn’t have the implied sense of servitude that we may see it as. It’s about respect and loyalty, certainly not about obedience. And while I knew that was the case for business meetings and official greetings from one service employee to a customer, I never would have expected to see a group of twenty-something women, buzzed from too much sochu or sake perhaps, bowing their goodbyes at the end of a hot night out in Kasharawa. The younger generation may be rebelling in their dress, but tradition and dedication to their upbringing is alive and strong.

Tim, my editor and travelling companion for much of this trip, brought with him instructions to go to a McDonalds restaurant while we were in Japan. I admit, I balked at the initial suggestion. I visit the golden arches rather infrequently at home in Washington and seldom without an immediate after-taste of self-loathing and a burp of shame. Yet, I obliged, and was most pleasantly surprised. Nevermind the impeccable d├ęcor, soft piano jazz music, and friendly, polite service, but both my Egg McMuffin and Sausage McMuffin w/Egg looked exactly like the photo. This has never happened to me before. Never have I been to any fast-food restaurant in the USA, regardless the chain, where the sandwich wasn’t smooshed into an unrecognizable mess or, at the least, assembled so sloppily that it bore no resemblance to the photo on the menu board. Not the case in Japan. It would seem that, and again I have multiple examples that bear this out, that people simply care a lot more about their jobs there, regardless how menial we might perceive those tasks to be here in western society. There is no other way to put it, than to say my Egg McMuffin was assembled with care.

I thought this Mickey D’s example may have been an isolated incident until we went to Mister Donut (as an aside, let me assure you that these western-style chain restaurants were only visited early in the day or very late at night… we went native for lunch and dinner every day). Here we sat, eating donuts and drinking coffee in a crowded upstairs sitting area, when a boy, no more than 17 years old, came to give us a refill of our coffee. He was polite. Gracious. And, ultimately, thanked us for allowing him to serve us. It was nice, I thought, and something he felt obligated to do for foreigners. But that wasn’t so because moments after refilling our cups, he walked over to a table of young teenage girls who were busy reading their manga, and he treated them with the same courteousness and respect he did us. I can only surmise that he didn’t view us as tourists or foreigners or his elders any more than he viewed them as his countrymen or his juniors. Instead, he viewed us all, no doubt everyone he would pour coffee for, as simply his company’s customers. And serving his employer’s customers was , at that moment, the most important thing in his world. At least on the outside.

This level of service and dedication to one’s employer was on display everywhere we looked. As was an overall sense of courtesy and politeness that, frankly, I came to cherish. For although I considered myself nearly invisible on the street, it never took more than a tap on the shoulder and a polite sumimasen to get all of the assistance I could ask for. Never was I met with a short-tempered frustration about my inability to speak Japanese. Never was I ignored. And never was I made to feel like my request was a burden or that I was putting someone out. Heck, the one time I know I screwed up – I was in Gion on a Friday night and staring at the skirts across the street and walked straight into someone – it was the guy I nearly knocked on the ground who apologized to me.

In hindsight, he might have been staring across the street too… you should have seen those girls.

Probably on the way to their shift at a hostess bar.


A digression, although a pleasant one. Shall we continue?

As the days went by and I began to really get the feel for this land of the rising sun, I noticed a change in the way Tim and I spoke about Japan. It was no longer with a mystified admiration, but it was with an affection and, speaking for myself, a sense of sadness that we knew our time in this culture would soon come to an end. Gone would be the soothing beeps and chimes of the train station and garbage trucks, forgotten would be the high-tech public toilets and spotless restrooms, and out of lives forever would be the money trays and the reluctance to hand money directly from one person to another. Gone would be the cute.

For as much as I wanted to get home to Kristin and had to get home for work, I didn’t want to leave. I spent my second to last day in Kyoto on a long walk through the city’s northwestern corner. I took the bus to Kinkakuji Temple, then proceeded to walk several miles along tree-lined streets, past fantastic single-family homes belonging to city’s wealthiest of citizens, and eventually down a busy boulevard back towards town. My walk would take hours and as it grew colder, and I hungrier, I stopped in at a jazz bar. I was the only person in the place and took a seat at the bar and ordered a coffee. The bartender knew no English and I had all but exhausted my knowledge of Japanese in the act of ordering my drink. Nevertheless, I felt at home. I sat and thumbed through my phrasebook in silence and the bartender sat off to the side reading his paper. It was mid-afternoon and I felt a chill coming on.

I coughed twice and sneezed once. Details I normally don’t track, but what happened next forced this recollection.
The phone rang. The bartender talked briefly before hanging up then set to boiling a pot of water. I continued to read my book.

Two minutes pass, the kettle whistles, then he sets an elegant tea cup and saucer down in front of me.

“Hot ginger,” he says, then fakes a sneeze. “You feel better, okay?”

Is someone giving me a cup of free tea because I sneezed a big deal? No, nor am I saying it wouldn’t happen here in the USA or in any other country for that matter. Especially if you’re the only one in the cafe. But when you combine all of these little things, they amount to one very big thing: the rightness.

I love where I live. I love travelling around the United States and seeing the sites and the parks and cities. I’m not quite sure even if I could up and move to anywhere in the world that I would necessarily want to do so. But that all being said, Japan isn’t only making better cars and better televisions and gadgets of various sorts. They’re making a better society. Or, at the very least, one that’s a whole lot more livable.

When it comes to society and the American Dream and, let’s face it, the overall superiority complex many Americans have towards other cultures, I can’t help but think that ignorance may indeed be bliss. We indeed have it pretty good on the surface, but where it really counts, when it comes to unveiling our warts and our heart in comparison... knowledge and experience only bring the sorrow of what might have been. Or what, if our parents are to be believed, used to be.


I began writing this essay on the train to the airport, right after the woman charged with cleaning my train car exited the train with her cart of supplies and bowed to us and thanked us for waiting.


Criscipline said...

Beautiful post - I really enjoyed reading it and I'm so glad you got to have that experience and I hope you get to go back sooner rather than later.

I'm curious though - what did you mean by "Gone would be the cute."? I don't get that.

LOL - the word verification is guisha - one letter off from geisha.

jeff c. said...

Great post Doug!

I got "eacilly" for word verification. Sounds like "easily". No connection to your post. :-)

-E said...

Great write up once again Doug,

The McDonalds comment is very common from anyone that goes to Japan. They truly do take pride in their jobs you will find that in a lot of Asian countries that I’ve been too. Customs, True Respect for their elders and I like the strict School Uniform policy and back when I lived there they went to school 6 days a week. There is a good bit we could all learn from other countries. What I think pushes them in Asia and not so much here is. If they don’t do a good job they are gone and there is someone else that will. While here in the US it is all about what will you do for me and not what can I do for you.
The closest I’ve come to seeing this service type or behavior is in Nampa, Idaho. Super nice and there to help you type of people not grumbling I have 15 more minutes to go on my shift type of attitude.

Doug Walsh said...

Thanks for the comments everyone. It's great to know even the longer posts get read and the effort was enjoyed.

That's funny about the word verification.

Regarding the "the cute". Everything in Japan seems to have an angle towards cuteness. Everything seems to have a cute cuddly mascot, the sounds and noises are always pleasantly soothing or, at the least, comical buzzes ripped from a cartoon, and it would seem that the females make a pretty conscious effort to act a lot younger than they really are... up to a point.

For example, look at the photos of the tako-yaki stands I took in Osaka. They each have little sea creature mascots, stuffed animals hanging on hooks in the form of octopus, etc., etc. Everything is just very cute there.

Lindsay said...

You truly have a knack for writing...I love reading about your travel adventures, and can't wait to read about your round the world trip travels :) Glad you are back safely and that you had a good time.