Seventeen days sounds like a nice long vacation for many. I think it gave me hardly enough time to scratch the surface of the Japanese cities I visited with James. (Our route was Tokyo – Hakone – Osaka – Kyoto – Tokyo.)
I’d say that we travel to experience new cities largely by eating our way through them, and going shopping in them. Sightseeing for its own sake ranks third. But in Japan, just through eating and shopping, I feel like I’ve experienced something quite unique to Japanese culture.
I have a lot of stories to write about, but the biggest thing I took away from our Japan trip was the willingness of Japanese to put others’ comfort ahead of their own. I experienced this in restaurants we wandered into where no one could speak English. None of the servers or chefs displayed any impatience with us two bumbling gaijin; they went out of their way to connect with us through pictures and sign language, and to ensure we had a satisfying and satisfactory meal. (In fact, many servers appeared impatient with themselves at their inability to communicate with us!) It was a stark contrast to my experience in Paris, where the vibe given off by the locals is that it’s entirely the barbaric foreigners’ fault for not being able to speak French.
Then there were the subway trains. James tried to give up his seat to a lady carrying a toddler in a harness, and she wouldn’t accept it. Lots of other commuters at peak and non-peak hours offered their seats to older people or those with babies – and over two weeks, only once did I see an elderly lady accept the seat. It was odd, but it fed into my perception that people in Japan seem to dislike inconveniencing their fellow man for any reason.
As for me – I found myself speaking slower, smiling and nodding more, and generally trying to display as much politeness as possible to compensate for my inability to speak any Japanese. Because I couldn’t take it for granted that I would be understood, it felt important to at least establish some goodwill in the process. The really funny thing though is that I found myself doing the same after coming back to Singapore, most recently at a sandwich shop during the peak lunch hour. It was noisy and the counter staff were swamped, but by speaking slowly with a smile, I think I made the experience just a bit more positive for both me and the guy who took my order.
I’ve heard a lot of scepticism about how Japanese aren’t really being gracious or nice, it’s just how they’re forced to behave due to societal pressure, professional demands and all that jazz. Still. Here in Singapore, I think we could all benefit from a little pressure to be gracious/nice or simply just more decent to our fellow man.