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The simple elegance of a Japanese umbrellaAug 8-11, 1999  Tokyo, Japan Part I

Admittedly, our first impression of Tokyo most likely doesn't serve it well. In fact, it's probably neither fair nor accurate. But the first thing that hits us, square in the eardrums at the Narita International Airport, are the number of kids here. At least there seems to be a lot of them. Well, no actually maybe there aren't that many. Maybe it's just that we can't help but notice the few that are scattered around. They draw our attentions because nearly every one of them is either screaming, crying, or having a temper tantrum. And so it goes here in Japan. The first three to four years of life is practically blissful for the average Japanese. A time of little discipline or hardship. What's the reasoning behind such lax child rearing?

All work and no play makes Johnny-son a dull, dull boyIt's thought that this period of reprieve is important for balance, providing a stark contrast to the next 30-40 years of strict social rules, conformity, and hard work. All descriptive of our second impression of Japan - that it's orderly, disciplined, methodical, and mechanical. Maybe it's the handful of subway rides that we've taken, now well into our second day here, that seem to best epitomize the Japanese culture. It's trains, simple wonders of modern transit, are not only clean and well maintained, but also apparently very punctual. Now boarding the fourth or fifth train of our stay, we notice that you can literally set you watch to the subway's arrivals and departures - down to the second. We've even been told that on the rare occasion that a train is late, the conductor will graciously give anyone who requests one, a written and signed apology, as the boss won't believe the oft used (especially in NYC) 'train was late' excuse without one.

Giant video wall - downtown TokyoThe Japanese boss also won't believe the not so oft used (except maybe in NYC) excuse that ' on the train somebody stole my briefcase with that important report in it' excuse either. For on these trains, there exists very little interaction, let alone crime, between riders. Nope, orderly and calm is the way of the day. And please, little or no eye contact or speaking to those next to you. These riders make it a point to keep to themselves, often going so far as to make sure that the paperback they're reading has a thick paper bookcover so that no one can else can see which comicbook or novel title has their interest.

Sleeping and reading comic books, two favorite subway pastimesOr, like the fellow next to me, they partake in the ultimate form of privacy - that of drifting off to sleep. But it could be that it's not privacy they really want, but just a little rest. I guess that wouldn't be surprising considering the grueling work schedules and extreme pressures that most of them face. Even on our way to our hotel, at 11:00pm last night, the train was packed with commuters. Some looked as though they were just leaving the office, while others looked a bit squint-eyed, their staggering giving off the evidence of a just ended extracurricular meeting, most likely a gathering over a few sakes.

Containers of sake stacked to the skyThose businessmen, with ties loosened to one side and wrinkled jackets draped over their arms, provided an almost comical contrast to the fanatical organization around them. Organized to the point of having lines down the middle of the stairs, complete with arrows and wall signs indicating on which side one should walk up or down upon. And did I mention clever and efficient? There are rolling ticket takers to avoid crowds at popular bus stops. The weather forecasts are delivered with graphs detailing sun vs. rain along the time axis and temperature along the other.

Up to the right of the line, down to the left pleaseThe Japanese have train seats that spin around to the forward direction with the push of a pedal, and parking garages with large plates that whip cars around on the spot, making the best use limited space. There's even almost constant guidance for the blind, with special dotted and dashed tiles embedded in all of the sidewalks and walkways. Yet with all of their cleverness, the Japanese have yet to figure out how to make things, well, 'comfortable', at least for visitors. For example, although color-coded and detailed, all of the station names on the fare maps for the subways are entirely in kanji.

East meets west as kimono clad diners munch at McDonald's And, although numerous and convenient, 98% of the ATM's in the city refuse to accept bank cards other that those issued in Japan (but indicative of Japanese politeness, the machines do have a little animated lady that bows, as what I think is an apology flashes on the screen, also in kanji). We almost can't help but feel like uninvited intruders, as we watch the goings-on, customs being observed, and daily habits and rituals being followed, without having as much as a clue as to what's happening. For instance, the 'take off your shoes, but don't step on the floor with you un-shoed foot' thing. Or the 'always bow, and remember, how deep and when are very important elements' thing. We find out that there's even a special Japanese word for those like us who don't understand. Gaijin, literally translated 'outside person'.

All dressed in our yukatas and ready for bed streached out on the floorAnd maybe it's my imagination, but it feels like people covertly stare at outsiders like us. Or it could have nothing to do with our social blunders, but simply the fact that we just look so different. Spotting people that look anything but oriental is a rare occurrence, even in cosmopolitan Tokyo. The government and society have worked hard to keep the country 'pure', resulting in just barely over 1% of Japanese citizens being of non-Japanese decent (most of those are Korean). This being the case, it's difficult, if not impossible, to ever make ourselves part of the scene. And because we sort of stand out in the crowds, we find that even the small children stare at us with a certain curiosity, sometimes even exclaiming "gaijin!" as they pull on their mother's arm.

On your mark, get set, GO!!I mull these thoughts over in my head as we zoom along at almost 170 mph on one of Japan's famous bullet trains, heading for our next stop, Osaka. I stare out the window and wonder how all of this is effecting my behavior. Am I slowly slipping into shyness, making sure not to offend with something as 'direct' as a glance into their eyes? Maybe. But from now on, I'll just be myself. To heck with this timid and/or shy nonsense, proper for Japanese culture or not. Not that I plan to be intimidating or rude, I'm just finished with walking around staring at the floor.

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Last modified: October 10, 1999    Photographs and text 1999 Scott and Laura Kruglewicz. All Rights Reserved.

 

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