Preconceptions prior to arriving in a new place can really mess with the enjoyment factor. Let’s say you’d envisaged your Hawaii visit to be all surfing and hiking in the sun, followed by cocktails on the beach as that same sun set in the evening. It sounds lovely, and it would have been, had you not booked a room in the tourist-soaked shopping glut of Waikiki for your visit’s duration, when what your fantasies had you imagining was the beauty of Kauai.
There’s a quadrillion and one anecdotes the travelers of the world could share but I’ve got a feeling you’re one of those people who has their own, and you know exactly what I’m talking about.
So, what about Japan? What do you expect before visiting? Or perhaps, what did you expect and how much of that changed? What is Japan really like? Your experience will no doubt be different.
According to my unique preconceptions, experience, and all the other ingredients that go in to deciding “what a place is like”; Japan is orderly and I like it like I never thought I would.
The future and past cohabiting within a polite concrete metropolis guided by societal rules that really don’t tolerate breakage – that’s what I had packaged in my mind before I ever touched down at Narita. I wasn’t that wrong…. I wholly expected the language and peculiar ways of Japanese people to result in a far greater culture shock than I actually experienced. Maybe I was just well-prepared…
The Japan I found was well-ordered and made perfect sense, despite the myriad of differences between it and what I was accustomed to. I think it fit me more because it’s probably what I wanted and needed, rather than who I was beforehand. In that sense, it changed me for the better and continues to do so.
Even those who’ve never thought of visiting Japan will surely have caught wind of the country’s rep for being well-mannered, which conveniently presents itself as an example of that reverent attitude I alluded to. Those who spend enough time in Japan grow to understand that they haven’t magically found themselves in a land where everything is rosy and everybody’s nice as pie because they’re so damn happy.
It is, of course, a cultural thing and these people have the same gripes with life as we do. Probably. They’re just a little less likely to let you hear about it. They are yet to tell me about it but I’m sure I’ve unwittingly broken rules.
There’s a quote which could be a Latin derivative, or perhaps the crowning glory of the ramblings from the lips of some old drunk dude in a bar in Milwaukee, but I’m going to attribute it to American author, Anthony Marra, who wrote; “You remain the hero of your own story even when you become the villain of someone else’s.”
Applied to the context of my humble musings on Japan, what he means is that even though I think I’ve got Japan figured out and I’ve managed to slot right in, the truth is that I probably break multiple rules each day and that I’m the villainous Westerner derided over an anonymous Japanese family dinner table on most evenings.
Either that, or I’m never discussed over any dinner table, ever. I don’t know which is worse for my ego…
Regardless of my place in it and the reasons why, the orderliness of Japanese society exists. It appears to be an approach which permeates through many facets of life.
When I was much younger, I remember watching a Tom Green video called Subway Monkey Hour in which the host makes his way around Japan, confusing the shit of out as many polite locals as he can; dropping vibrators on sushi trains, stripping to his underwear at an amusement park, and basically doing as Tom Green does best; act like a total jerk until somebody laughs.
One of his laugh-seeking efforts included running an impromptu survey on a packed train, to decide once and for all, if the people in the same carriage preferred bananas or potatoes. He conducted his research very loudly.
What the comedian received in return was as cold as he deserved. Nobody moved to look at him as he screamed his childish questions repeatedly. Still. Silent. Nothing. Just Tom Green yelling “If ya like bananas, I wanna hear ya say “Oh yeah”!”. Then silence. That is, until an older man turned around and simply said “We like quiet”. Of course, Green asked, “But do ya like bananas?”. The old man reiterated; “We like quiet”.
I have no intention of ever conducting the same experiment but I did witness a situation which perhaps speaks of the same desire to be left alone and not draw attention to one’s self in public. Sitting directly across from an elderly couple and an extra seat, I had front row to a scene in which an obviously drunk man came and sat next to the old lady, who was sitting next to who I assume was her husband. My Japanese wasn’t quite up to par at that stage so all I did was watch as the drunk dude began focusing his mumbles at the stern expression on the old lady’s face.
Without missing a beat, she turned to the drunk guy somewhere during what sounded like his third sentence and delivered a whispered few words which immediately had the desired result. He instantly stopped, turned around and left the couple to themselves until they got off the train two stops later. Perhaps now I could understand the exchange in real time but back then, I knew I didn’t need to speak Japanese to know that she had those words formulated and ready for this very purpose.
I asked my Japanese traveling companion what the old lady said. It was something along the lines of, “I can’t hear from that ear. I don’t know what you’re saying”. It was simple, short, and it solved the problem. The problem-solving was, for me, symbolic of Japan society as a whole; efficient and pragmatic. I decided that if it were not Tokyo but New York, perhaps the encounter would have been much louder. The crystal-clear silence and orderliness of a subway journey had been broken for a moment, but just as quickly it had been expertly restored by someone who’d had many people try and fuck with her public zen over the years. This guy was just another loser of that battle.
I’d love to see her take on Tom Green.