the Tokyo experience – part 3: people

The people

What better way is there to challenge your own certainties than to confront yourself with other ways of living and thinking? As it is, the way we think, feel, work, enjoy and treat each other is not just given, it depends to some extent on the culture we grew up in. In what way then does being a human in Japan differ from being a human in Germany? Obviously as a tourist with only six days’ time I could only scratch the surface of this matter. And even this is not easy when you don’t speak Japanese, since you don’t get really far with English. If you address someone in English the response you generally get is sheer horror. You can watch as the panic rises in the other person’s eyes and then they cross their arms in front of their face. I guess this is just supposed to mean “I don’t understand English” but to me this gesture always felt kind of aggressive, which stands in sharp contrast to the Japanese politeness. This proves that gestures are not as universal as one might think. I always felt wholeheartedly sorry to cause people such agony. Once we went into a cell phone store to ask about SIM-cards. Instantly, all employees seemed very busy. They probably hoped we would just go away. Twenty minutes later, when they couldn’t ignore as any longer and we finally got the chance to speak, two employees disappeared into another room. An additional ten minutes later they returned with a little pocket computer in their hands. On its screen a translation programme had written the following words “Not speak English.”

Of course there are exceptions and several times we got so lucky as to get into a conversation with Japanese people. One woman even showed us her home. It was connected to a temple because her husband was a monk. The flat looked beautifully Japanese with Tatami mats and her husband’s calligraphies on the walls. In the living room however, comfort had won over tradition: the lady had just bought a new Italian sofa because with the age it had gotten too uncomfortable for her to follow the Japanese tradition of sitting on the ground.

Due to the language barrier even the smallest everyday situations turn into a big challenge. The first one was expecting us right after our arrival when, deadly tired after the long flight, we had accidentally travelled one stop too far with the Tokyu train. After some minutes of wild gesturing we managed to persuade a transport employee to let us through the gates onto the opposite platform. We then reached the next level of difficulty a few days later when we discovered one evening that too much had been charged on Mr Calabria’s underground ticket because apparently he hadn’t properly touched in at one of the many gates we had passed during the day. How can you explain this using your hands only? I don’t know how we managed to do it. In Japan, you really experience what it feels like to be a stranger. Our European phenotype already made us stick out. Even in Tokyo there are not so many foreigners. What a contrast to a city like London where you find people of all colours in every single tube carriage and where you’re immediately treated as a Londoner even if your English is bad. For foreigners wanting to settle in Japan it is probably not easy to become a fully accepted member of the Japanese society. The people are friendly to visitors like us, but they always keep their distance. In the city of Kamakura, Mister Calabria once talked to a teacher who had just left the school building. In an instant, a dozen 12-year-old female pupils came running by with their eyes and mouths wide open. Without even trying to hide their astonishment, they gathered around Mister Calabria and the teacher, giggling and whispering behind their hands. It must have been an exciting experience for them to see their teacher talk to a STRANGER (and such a curly one to boot).

lost in translation?

If there is one thing the Japanese culture is famous for, then it is the complicated rituals of politeness. Being a foreigner, I could fortunately count on some indulgence. Adding a little bow here and there seemed to be fine. Actually, this custom of bowing is just right for me. In general, I tend to feel awfully uncomfortable when I have to talk to somebody or – heaven forbid – when I risk to cause even the slightest inconvenience. In such situations I would want to apologize twenty times for even existing. In Japan, I can do this in some way – through bowing. Of course, if you were Japanese you would also have to assess the social status of the person you’re talking to and then be terribly careful to choose the appropriate words and expressions of politeness in order to avoid losing your face. I wonder what it feels like to live in such a culture. Anyway, when you go shopping, everyone is extremely eager and ready to help. They set the whole world in motion when you have a question and they express their keenness to serve with every gesture. As a customer, you truly feel like a king here. This feels really weird to me. After all, I’m from Berlin, capital of the sassy mouth.

Without a doubt, you can feel very safe in Tokyo as most people strive to behave correctly. Unfortunately, this also tends to makes them inflexible and cumbersome. If you’re having a problem in Berlin, you can either come across an asshole who will only bark at you, or you might come across a nice person who might even help you more than necessary. Once, a bus driver in London left us coldheartedly in the middle of nowhere because there was a problem with our card. Another time however, an employee at the station simply opened the gates for us and waved us through with a wink of the eye and a big smile. In Japan though, you hardly notice whether you are dealing with an asshole or a philanthropist because on the outside everyone is wearing the same mask of correctness. The mask helps taming the roughness and badness of people, but it leaves little space for cordiality and one’s own initiative. While in the Western countries everyone wants to be different and strives to prove their originality, in Japan it doesn’t seem to be well considered to break the conventional patterns. We could observe this delightfully when Mister Calabria tried to joke with the employees who were showing the way around a construction area in the tube station. Every few meters the men were showing the direction with their light sticks, although the way was unmistakably marked with huge arrows on the walls and the floor. So Mister Calabria made eye contact with one of the men respectively, pointed in the wrongest possible direction and asked for confirmation with his eyes saying “So this way, yes?”. Had we been in Germany or Italy, the men would have either laughed or rolled their eyes in annoyance. In Tokyo however, four out of five men took Mister Calabria seriously and were very eager to show the right direction.

One thing that I found quite disturbing in Japan was the weird ideal of cuteness for women. Women in advertisements or in TV often look like little girls or even dolls. When Japanese girls take pictures with their friends they love to do so in photo booths that make your eyes bigger, your cheeks smaller and your skin smoother. In other words: they make your face look more childlike, thus appealing to our cuteness instincts. The most distressing example of this ideal are the waitresses in the Maid cafés in Akihabara who, in their sexy maid costumes, have to play the role of a naïve girl admiring the guests. At the same time, many young girls wear the skirts of their school uniform as high as even possible (you couldn’t wear your skirt like this in Berlin without getting a lot of very uncomfortable looks). This infantilisation of women combined with the sexualisation of girls left me feeling quite uneasy.

For more about Tokyo check out part 1 and part 2