When You Are a Guest in Japan
BY “AWAKE!” CORRESPONDENT IN JAPAN
AS AN honorable visitor waking up to your first morning in Japan, you have the opportunity to get a glimpse of a country that probably has fascinated you for years. What will you discover?
In the lobby of your hotel there will be someone who can speak a little English, but be sure to speak slowly and make very clear what you want. It is said that when one foreigner in Tokyo said he wanted a bus to get somewhere, the hotel manager ordered a large coach.
Due to the tremendous differences between Japanese and English, many Japanese find English conversation very difficult even after years of diligent study. So after experiencing a few language problems, you may decide that a Japanese phrase book would be a good investment.
Are you ready to venture out? Your day may go something like this.
To get to the shopping area of Tokyo’s famed Ginza you decide to go by taxi. But you find that the taxis will not stop in spite of your frantic gestures and your finally resorting to stepping into the path of oncoming taxis, which merely swerve around you. Yet the taxis stop for the Japanese. Why? Is it because of prejudice against foreigners? No, the taxis have set places to pick up fares, so it would be advisable if you quietly went and stood in line with the local people.
Tokyo taxi drivers live up in every way to the standards set by their counterparts in Paris, London and New York. If you like to live dangerously you will find much to admire in their constant changing from lane to lane without signaling, apparently with complete disregard for other traffic. However, as everyone appears to drive the same way, you will have to acknowledge that Japanese drivers evidently know what to expect. Your estimation of Japanese taxi drivers will soar as you realize that they take you directly to your destination by the fastest route and, joy of joys, they do not expect a tip! The driver takes good care of any visitor in his country.
East or West?
Although you arrive at the shops by 9 a.m. you find that they are all closed. You may hastily assume that the Japanese do not work as hard as you thought. So as you wait for the shops to open you take in your surroundings.
Instead of seeing pine trees and ornamental gardens, you observe skyscrapers, office blocks and department stores. You expected to see attractive young girls in the very feminine kimono, but this too, much to your disappointment, has given way to midis, minis and hot pants. If it were not for the Japanese lettering on the street signs and the hearing of a foreign language, you would feel there is little difference between East and West.
Your feet have brought you to some back street and now you are amazed. The Japanese whom you thought to be sleeping are working hard, washing down the back entrances to their shops and scrubbing out rubbish bins.
To buy a phrase book, you go to the foreign bookstore. Here you will find books in many languages on every conceivable subject. The Japanese show their appreciation for these, not so much by their buying an occasional book, but by the hours they spend in the shop reading. The Japanese like to read and learn, and where could one satisfy this desire better than in a bookshop? Now, equipped with your phrase book, you feel better able to face the world and visit your Japanese acquaintances.
An Unforgettable Trip!
You set out to visit the real old Japan. In reality this is easier said than done. Getting to the main station entails a ride on a local train. You find yourself waiting on a platform with hundreds of others. Just before a train pulls in, white-gloved railway workers position themselves at certain points along the platform. In seconds you find out why.
The train doors open and you are carried bodily along with hundreds of others onto the train. Who are the white-gloved railwaymen? They are paid pushers. Their job is to push as many people as they can onto the train. As you pull in at the main station you feel gratitude toward the white-gloved man who pushed you so hard, because you now have plenty of time to make your connection for your country destination.
From the train you are thrilled to see Mount Fuji, snow-capped against a clear blue sky. Soon you are at your destination. From the minute you put foot onto the platform you get the distinct feeling that people are staring at you, and they are! You are now in a place where foreigners rarely go.
Your next challenge is to find your friend’s house. This is very difficult. The address system is different from anything you have ever known. Many foreigners wonder why it is so difficult outside big cities to find an address in Japan. But it actually is just as difficult for many Japanese people.
Streets have no names, nor are lot numbers consecutive. Lot numbers were given in order of application or registration. Mustering up all your courage, gesturing and using your phrase book, you ask someone the way. After ascertaining your country, length of stay in Japan, age, whether you are married or single, the person will begin to handle your problem. It is more than likely that he will start telephoning his friends, tell them all about you, and then decide with them what would be the best way to help you. The Japanese person is not being long-winded; his interest shows his desire to help and befriend you.
Learning to Do It Their Way
You arrive at your friend’s house and are greeted by familiar faces, but language problems remain acute. Before entering the house you have to remove your shoes, and everyone laughs because your feet are too big for the slippers provided. The Japanese custom of bowing will fascinate you, but you will soon be doing the same quite unconsciously, and your hosts will note this with approval.
One room you are shown into is a tatami (grass-mat) room. Tatami is expensive, and to lengthen its days the Japanese do not wear slippers in this room. You sit on a cushion, which you move around the little foot-high table in order to make room for others. The lady of the house hastens to move the cushion back to its original position. You learn a little more of old Japan when you are told that to have the cushion across the point where the tatami mats meet could mean death. A story is told of how, in days of old, the Samurai warriors would plunge their swords up between the mats and kill anyone sitting there. Whether this be fact or fiction, you remember that you are only a visitor, and respect for your hostess requires you to sit where she wants.
While you are here you will try all sorts of food and perhaps will remember most of all your first attempt at eating raw fish. Have you ever tried dipping a slice of raw fish into a sauce while using chopsticks? If not, then there is an interesting experience in store for you. After dropping it a few times and making a mess on the table you eventually get it into your mouth. You keep on chewing and trying to swallow, but it will not go down. If you stop thinking about the fact that the fish is raw you will find your new food very palatable. One thing is certain, when you get back home, you will be delighted to tell all your friends what you ate and how.
The real fun food is noodles. The long thin noodles are served in soup. Your host teaches you to have your mouth very near the bowl’s edge, and while you scoop up a pile of noodles with the chopsticks he recommends that you suck hard. In this way you can also take in a little of the soup at the same time. You are told that the flavor is enhanced if you slurp, and you show that you are enjoying the taste of the noodles if you eat them in this manner. In observing this custom you will notice your friends relax a little, but no doubt they will laugh too as you continue to make rather a lot of mistakes in your use of chopsticks.
When it is time to sleep, you are shown into a big room where bedrolls have been laid out on the tatami. In this country home all the family share the same room, and here they will find a place for their honorable visitor too. The final laugh of the day comes as your hosts notice your long legs and big feet sticking out away past the bottom of the bedroll. This does not prevent sleep though, and soon the house is silent.
There Is No Need to Panic
On the train taking you back to Tokyo a wave of fear grips you as masked people board the train. Two of them come and sit opposite you. You are confused at their orderliness and quietness, but as they remove their masks and blow their noses you realize that the “bandits” are simply victims of the common cold. The mask? It is said that it prevents their colds from getting worse, and you appreciate their consideration in not passing on their colds to others.
Upon your alighting from the train, shouting fills the air. Are you about to become involved in a demonstration? Your pounding heartbeat lessens as your eye falls upon a group of judo trainees running barefoot. As they run, one of the group shouts out something and the group shouts back in reply. This helps them to maintain the rhythm of the run. All the time they are running they are shouting and seem to be thoroughly enjoying it. It is probable that one or two will call out an English greeting to you, much to the consternation of their leader.
Shopping can be quite difficult for those who do not know the language, especially if you want something you cannot see. In Japanese there are several ways of saying the same thing, so when you ask a shopkeeper for something he will usually check to be sure that he has understood you by asking in another way. Many foreigners panic at this stage, but the shopkeeper wants only to help, so it is best for you to repeat slowly what you want, and everything will be taken care of. Souvenir shopping is comparatively easy, as everything is on display.
An Entertaining Evening
On your last evening you may decide to go to see Kabuki, the old traditional plays of Japan. The whole program actually lasts about eight hours. The way Kabuki actors speak is far different from ordinary speech, besides which they do not talk phrase-book Japanese. Do not be discouraged because you do not understand. Neither do the Japanese. Your program will give you the whole story in English and you will be able to follow.
An interesting diversion is provided by the stagehands dressed in black. They also have black veils over their faces. Throughout the play they dart on and off the stage changing sets and handing props to the actors when they are needed. The Japanese will tell you that the audience is not supposed to see them and consequently do not. You are expected not to see them either.
Yet another diversion is heckling from the audience. This actually is encouragement to the players. However, it would be better if you did not try to join in. Your efforts could be misunderstood and you could be asked to leave for being disorderly. Although you may only watch four hours of the program, you will not forget the evening spent in Japan’s past.
How did you feel when you became the honorable visitor? You could not deny that everyone was both kind and hospitable. Japan is indeed a country of strange contrasts; old and new stand side by side, both with much to offer in interest. Such a visit broadens your mind. You come to realize that your way is not the only way of doing things, and you had fun learning.