Nippon Nuggets

By Kollengode S Venkataraman (in the July 2004 issue)

You would have seen, heard, or read how orderly Japan is as a society. Many Japan watchers both from inside and outside Japan say Japanese could do with a little chaos as it would add some social zest and excitement. But the problem is, if Japanese take this suggestion, they would structure chaos in such a way that eventually, even the chaos would become orderly. It should have a time, place and context, and they would come up with a list of dos and don’ts for being chaotic, as it happens in besuboru ballparks in Japan. 

This is just the reverse of what you see in India. Even in the boarding area in Europe-bound international flights, where people are educated (generally), and affluent (mostly), people are antsy, anxious, and hustle. The airline’s ground staff in India makes the same announcement over and annoyingly over again for passengers to follow the basic boarding procedure. Even when passengers have boarding passes that guarantee them their seats, Indians tend to hustle.

Recently, I had to go to Japan, China, and India on work. Note that I did not say I had the “opportunity” to go to Japan. Opportunity is something that you’ve been wanting to get all along, but somehow found elusive. I went because I had to. Age is creeping on me. Mine was a case of udara nimittam bahukrta vesham (For the sake of stomach, wearing too many costumes) as Shankara said over 1200 years ago. Or in everyman’s Hindi, it was a pate ka savaal … … 

I was not visiting metro Japan such as Tokyo, Osaka, Nagoya, or Kyoto. I was going to interior Japan. Small Town Japan. 

To reach this place, one has to first arrive in one of the international airports, spend the night there, and take a Shinkansen, or the Bullet Train, and go to the nearest junction, and from there take a local train to reach the Small Town Japan.

My flight from the ‘burgh was at 6:00 am in the morning, so, I
had to leave home by 4:00 am.  After a 2-hour layover in Dallas, my 14-h flight to Tokyo left at 10:00 am Dallas time. I reached Tokyo at 1:30 pm Tokyo time the next day. By the time I reached my downtown hotel in Tokyo, it was 5:00 pm Tokyo time, which was 4:00 am the next day in Pittsburgh. So, door-to-door, it was an exhausting 24-h of travel.

The on-and-off bumpy flight resembled driving through Pittsburgh’s pothole-filled roads, but 40,000 feet up in the air. When you look out, you see the tips of the wings of the wide-body plane swinging up and down in turbulence, like birds’ flapping their wings in flight. The flight was nothing to enjoy. I barely slept. So, before I knew, I was fast asleep in my hotel room in Tokyo.

The next day morning, I had to catch the early morning Shinkansen train to Hiroshima at 7:30 am in the morning. Trains in Japan are punctiliously punctual. It is entirely possible that if GMT wants to reset their clock, they may not look at the atomic clock, but reset their clock with reference to the arrival time of one of the Sinkansen trains in Tokyo! 

Not knowing the language, I wanted to reach Tokyo Central Station by 6:30 am. I woke up at 4:30 am the next day. It was already bright, and when I opened the hotel room window, I had this stunning view of the Tokyo Bay in front of me that I didn’t even notice the previous evening.  I wanted to take pictures of the view, and I looked for my camera. It was then I realized the camera was not with me.

I remember having it with me at the Tokyo Central Station. I realized I might have left my camera in the taxi during my ride from Tokyo Central to the hotel. Note that I did not say I “lost” my camera. In Japan, including Tokyo with over 10 million people, one never “loses” anything of value. One only “leaves” them it parks, buses, trains, taxis, restaurants. If you have some way of going back in your memory lane and pinpoint where you left it, you have a more than 95% chance of retrieving it, as it happened to me with my camera.

The only record I had was the taxi driver’s receipt. The only reason I kept it with me because I had to file my expense account on my return.  The receipt had the details of taxi company, the details of the particular taxi I rode, and the time of my ride, of course, in Japanese. I called the hotel front desk to see if they could do anything at all to track the taxi down. Mind you, this is 5:30 am. The front desk people apologetically told me they would try, without assuring me anything.

After about 15 minutes, the telephone rang in my room. Lo and behold, the front desk informed me that they located my camera in the taxi where I rode. Apologetically they informed me that it would take another 30 minutes since the driver was 25 km away.

When the camera arrived, the driver profusely apologized, and refused to take my tip. I had to thrust it on his palm to at least pay for the gas for his 50 km ride. With great embarrassment he took it because he did not want to offend my sense of gratitude to him.

Imagine this happening in New Delhi, Mumbai, Chennai, or for that matter, in New York, or LA, Paris, London, or Rome. Perish the thought.

The flip side of the Japanese conduct of not taking something that does not belong to them is the idea that one ought to be responsible for one’s personal conduct as I found out while reading a Gaijin’s experience recounted in the English language Japan Times. (Gaijin is condescending term for foreigners in Japan, much like gora or kallu among desis.)

A Yankee resident of Japan was traveling in a suburban bus. When he was to drop the money in the collection box, he realized that for his 370 yen bus fare, he was short by 30 yen in coins, even though he had currency notes of 10,000-yen denominations. Thirty yens, even by Japanese standards is a trivial amount.110 yens is roughly one dollar. The Yankee gora was embarrassed, and in his letter in the Japan Times writes that he told the bus driver apologetically that it was not that he did not have money showing the bus driver his 10000-yen bills, but he did not have the coins for the 10 yens. But the driver did not relent.

So, the American was asking his fellow Japanese passengers for help. In the US, in all likelihood, the driver, seeing the plight of a foreigner, would have said, “OK pal, get on.” Or as it happens in rural India or China, someone in the bus would have helped the foreigner with the small change. But not in Japan, according to the Yankee’s story.

One passenger had 10 bills of 1000-yen denomination, which he gave the Yankee, and another had changes for the 1000-yen notes in terms of 500, 100-yen bills, and 10-yen coins.

So, the Yankee takes help from two Japanese passengers, changes the 10,000-yen note into nine 1,000-yen notes and coins for the remaining 1000 yens, drops the correct care, and continues with his bus ride.

I was amazed at both the integrity of the ordinary Japanese in not taking into possession something that does not belong to them, and also by their fastidiousness in subliminally demanding that others be responsible for what is expected of them.

It could be entirely possible that in Japan, one complements the
other to make a perfect whole. That is the reason why Japan ticks, and keeps on ticking despite Nagasaki and Hiroshima in 1944. Its economy has been sluggish for well over 10 years, and yet, there was no large-scale social discontent in Japan. 

Footnote:  When I was in Japan, the leader of Japan’s political party had to resign because he did not pay his premium for about 10 months for his old age pension. Imagine that. While in the US, Rumsfeld and his obedient generals all were saying for public consumption they are responsible for the atrocities against Iraqis held in detention at the Abu Ghraib prison. President Bush said he is disgusted and sickened. The president, who exhorts people to take charge and be responsible to their actions, sees no reason to fire anybody for the fiascos — political, policy, diplomatic, and military — in Iraq. And nobody in authority, particularly political appointees such as Rumsfeld and Wolfowitz, or their assistants, wants to resign. In democracies, the only way to show that you feel morally responsible is for the office holder to resign, or be fired. 

It is not that politicians in Japan are angels. They are as crooked as politicians everywhere. But when scandals explode in the open in Japan, heads roll, and roll relatively quickly. The reasons for this may have cultural underpinnings. In US public life, it is more like lynching, in the political/social sense. The person is figuratively “hanged” in the media (the pedophilic Catholic priests, Protestant ministers’ sexual indulgences, or politicians’ corruption are recent examples), and they slowly twist and turn politically over several months even years, till they are forced to resign, confess, or reassigned. George Tenet, the CIA director resigned, only ofter 30 months for intelligence failures on 9-11; the Catholic Church in the US confesses over pedophilia of its priests after several years of living in denial; US military’s Lt. General Ricardo S. Sanchez in Iraq, was recalled for his tacit complicity over Abu Ghraib prison atrocities. END


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