29 June 2008

Your Blog Author Visits Japan

In early 2001, I made a couple of business trips to Japan. I flew through Osaka and stayed and worked in Kobe for a total of about 3 weeks. At the time, I tried to describe some of what I noticed. Here are a few excerpts.

Kobe gets larger every day. They continuously expand available land by dumping dirt from the mountains into the bay – regularly creating new islands. Eventually this small mountainous island may be a large flat continent.

If you live in Japan there is about a 99% chance that your race is Japanese. Even with odds that high, it still turns out that I’m not.

The Japanese have made more progress learning English than we have at learning Japanese. The drawback, of course, is that once you do something you risk doing it poorly. From a piece of stationary I took away a new mission statement that I wished I’d had when teaching for Covey: “I will be a gladdest thing under the sun. I will touch a hundred flowers and not pick off.” By contrast, I could feel superior because my Japanese was flawless: nonexistent, of course, but flawless. I was told about a sign over a toilet that said, “After using, please remember to flash.”

I was shopping in a department store in a mall and was a little surprised to hear American rap played as background music. I was even more surprised to hear lyrics like, "Where are my bitches? Where are my whores?" I looked around the store but the whores and bitches didn't seem to be there: I found myself surrounded by diminutive, older women, who were modestly dressed and seemingly unaware of the questions that had just been posed.

I learned that one ought not to check into a “Love Motel,” even though they are more common than regular motels. They charge by the hour and expect you to provide your own love. The use of such motels is reportedly quite common among co-workers, particularly boss and secretary. This kind of team building could explain the high levels of cooperation and teamwork evident in the Japanese work place. It might even result in more bonding than the ropes exercise.

My client figures that it costs 2.5 times as much to live in Kobe as it costs to live in Cincinnati. Housing is 7 to 8 times as much. Even electronics made by Japanese firms cost more in Japan. That might be why they feel obligated to give you more than 100 yen for every dollar: just think how bad it would be if they didn’t.

Reportedly, many Japanese rent and have little or no hope of owning a home: this in the second largest economy in the world. The average apartment is about 600 to 800 square feet and may well house three generations. It might be enough to drive you to seek refuge in a love motel.

Kobe is full of pachinko parlors. These are crammed with noisy machines, some of which look like electronic slot machines and others of which are designed to take ball bearings in one end and (if you win) send more ball bearings out the other. I guess that the really big winners set up a machine shop. These parlors are not just full of extremely loud machines; they pipe in even louder music in a vain attempt to drown out the loud machines. It is the audio equivalent of using far too much cheap perfume to cover up perfectly hideous body odor.

The Japanese are rarely fat. Apparently they consider obesity a specialty and expect sumo wrestlers obtain this state for them, the way we expect certain groups of people to take out our trash or issue stocks. There is none of this wandering around moaning about being 20 or 30 pounds overweight; one is either lean or able to break a bull’s back in a single sitting.

I wander through every experience confident of two things: I’ll do the wrong thing and doing the wrong thing is what they expect of me as an American. I find this to be such a calming belief that I’m thinking of adopting it in my daily living when I return to the States.

In the nicer restaurants the chopsticks are quite significantly tapered. This means that squeezing the middle together still leaves a significant gap at the end, making it quite difficult to actually grasp pieces of food smaller than a quarter-pound hamburger. They must do this for the amusement of the waitresses who stand discretely off to one side watching.

Stay in an American Marriott and you have by your bed a Bible and the Book of Mormon. Stay in Osaka and you have beside your bed a New Testament and the Teachings of Buddha. I wonder if you were to stay in the Galapagos Islands if you’d find a Bible and The Origin of Species.

Many Japanese practice Shinto. It is not a religion as we think of it, with rituals and regular times and days for services. Rather than believe in a God they believe that spirits from past lives are scattered throughout the living world and ought to be reverenced. This decentralization of spirit means that there is little conformity in worship. Such a religion contrasts rather starkly with the conformity in every day living. Compare this with our Christianity and a single God to worship in a society full of non-conformists and diversity. Perhaps the opposite of our daily living is what seems to us most heavenly. That might even explain the growing number of people in urban centers who have adopted environmentalism as their new religion.

While watching some older Japanese perform their rituals at a temple – a very open affair given that the temple was outdoors at a popular tourist location – I wondered what they thought of modern science. I turned from this temple to see a sign directing me to the “labatory.” Whether they’d misspelled lavatory or laboratory or simply seen the two as interchangeable, I took it as a clue as to their opinion of modern science.

The Japanese have a network throughout the country that allows one to purchase most anything. It’s not the Internet – it is vending machines. These vending machines sell hot and cold coffees and teas, and soft drinks (Calpiss and Sweat are a couple of the more popular brands – apparently they even drink with the end in mind, a very results-oriented country). I’ve been told that you can even buy such oddities as crickets and underwear through them. They also sell alcoholic beverages through vending machines. Imagine an unmanned machine dispensing beer only a block from a high school when the drinking age is 21. Imagine no students using the machine. Imagine it isn’t even imagined to be an issue. Either you have a very weird imagination or you live in Japan. The glasses and cups in which they serve drinks are enormously small – maybe 4 ounces or so. The apparent benefit to this is that, in a country with lines and congestion in even the hallways and elevators you can at least be alone at the urinal.

Red heads are more common than I would have guessed. Japanese women spend three to four times more on cosmetics than American women (measured as a percentage of income). Many of them highlight their hair, which results in a reddish tint. Add blue tinted contact lenses (and some of them do) to the blonde hair (and some do highlight it that much) and looking on you might almost think you were in California.

There is a lovely odor to this country. In a sit down restaurant they give you hot towels to wash your hands and face after you sit down. The aroma from them is subtle but quite lovely. The floors are cleaned before they even come close to getting dirty, as opposed the floors in public places in the States that are dirty before they ever get close to being clean.

Even in fast food restaurants (yes, I confess to eating at there partly for speed, partly for the sense of knowing just what to do with the food and partly to avoid paying more than $20 for a meal) they serve you with precision and grace. The napkins are neatly folded. The bags are neatly folded. The fish sandwich is neatly lined up – meat, lettuce and bun. I suspected that even the ice in my drink was floating in a neat row. These people pay more attention to a routine task than some American men pay to an entire marriage.

On the trains in Japan people face the age-old question of what to do with the eyes in such close quarters. Do you stare at strangers? Do you look beyond them through the windows to the scenery that flashes by every day? Do you look at the floor, paying more attention to your peripheral vision than to the center of your gaze? In the last few years the Japanese have solved this problem: they stare at their cell phones. At first I thought this a curious answer to the question of where to place one’s gaze. Then I learned that they were checking their email – even surfing the web. [A practice that has become common here since 2001.] Although they are repeatedly instructed to avoid using cell phones on the train, many of them do so rather compulsively. The cell phone has become the modern rosary beads of travel, worried by a motion similar to what little Italian women engaged in while traveling on horse-drawn carriages. Now, instead of receiving spiritual messages of dubious content and origin these modern travelers receive error-free transmissions of dubious value and relevance. They call it progress. And the reason that they are asked not to use their cell phones on the train is because in such close quarters the signals interfere with pace makers – occasionally causing an incident, triggering arrhythmia or even an attack. Changes in technology and culture do not take us beyond this simple truth: communication affects the heart.


exskindiver said...


Ron Davison said...

Konichi what?

Gypsy at Heart said...

Mordantly witty. That's what these observations are. You've got a keen eye. I'm glad it saw so much because what you noticed made for a great post.

And what you answered Chesca...
really funny.

LSD said...

Very nice read! (I don't suppose you stood out in the croud much.)

I'm reminded of a box of cookies I saw in Korea. The maker aimed for market advantage by means of a liberal and wanton use of the english language. One pronouncement read:

"You can find happiness for your family with this cookie."

-I thought, that's great! We need those in America!

Thanks for the laugh Ronaldo.

LSD again said...

A note of caution: When trying to make smart commentary about other people's difficulty with our language, you shouldn't spell crowd with a 'u'.

cce said...

And now I know why you have such a penchant for fortune cookies...Oh, wait, I've got the wrong Asian country, the wrong dessert ritual and now I'm just being hopelessly American in my inability to differentiate these important cultural clues.

Ron Davison said...

Thank you for enjoying this whimsical trip with me.

I fit in quite well in Japan - except for the number of times when I hit my head. At one point I felt like getting a bike helmet. And it would be good to have those cookies on hand. (And isn't croud just the technical, anthropological term for voice (sound) of the crowd?)

actually, that's a great idea: fortune cookies written in faux English, (e.g., "remember to flash").

Suzanne said...

Such spot on observations. I spent a few days in Tokyo once for business. Before I left, my boss warned me not to wear heels as at 5'10 I would be considered too tall...somehow that wasn't a problem.

Ron Davison said...

the height is one thing - but I'll bet the cowgirl outfit was a hit. It is a fascinating place, no?