Sunday, January 2, 2011

An Anecdote From my 2010 Trip to Japan.

I originally wrote this as a response to a blog post, but decided to transcribe it here, as it's pretty lengthy, and most people I know probably haven't heard this story. Also, I need to start blogging again.

I went to Japan for the first time this year, and suffered from some minor culture crash and depression about 4 or 5 days in. My problem was that I couldn’t engage anyone; people could have given less of a fuck about me in Japan than anywhere else I’ve ever been in the world. Not even just because I was white, but as a human being in general. No eye contact, if someone bumped into me, I’d get the stink eye, even though it was them who bumped into me, and even though I’d apologize. I’ve never felt smaller and more insignificant and less a part of the human race than that fourth day in Japan, alone in Akihabara. Everyone and everything seemed dense and impenetrable, and that dealing with me was a chore no one wanted.

Then, one night, I went out with some friends to another district to drink. We were staying in Shinjuku but went somewhere else… I can’t remember where, but it was a few stops on the JR Line, at the behest of our host, my friend Jim's business acquaintance who had been living and working in Japan for awhile and was basically fluent. We went to an Izakaya, then a bar, and had a few drinks. I’m not a big drinker, so I didn’t get so wasted as to have my judgment impaired.

My two friends and I made our way back to the JR Line, hoping to catch the last train, which pulled up just as we got on the platform. Now, at this point, we’d only ever used the JR Line during the day, and mostly during business hours or after rush hour, so we’d become comfortable with being able to get on the trains; the horror stories we’d heard about overcrowding were a myth to us at that point. This was our first encounter with the terrifying lack of personal space that the Japanese put up with on a daily basis.

The doors opened, and no one got out. A Thousand thousand eyes peered back suspicious and full of contempt. My one friend, Wheeler, had no patience for 'Last Train Shenanigans' that night, just jumped on like some kind of rabid rugby player, pushing his way into the packed in crowd of late night commuters. My other friend, Jim, usually pretty reserved, just shrugged, mumbled, “Holy shit…” and followed. When both of them had been swallowed up by the displeased mass of the crowd, I hesitated and panicked; people were shaking their heads at me. This was the first time anyone had made any effort to communicate with me, in any small way, and it was, “You are not welcome here.”

I had been self conscious about being overbearing and what I assumed the Japanese would consider to be ‘Typically North American’ while in Japan, and overcompensated by trying to be more polite than my tragically Canadian sensibilities usually made me. So I ran. I ran as fast as I could down the platform, looking for an ‘In.” Every train was full, and every door had people looking at me with that same mix of suspicion and content, shaking their heads. The chime sounded, and the doors began to close. I made my decision to stop being polite too late, and jumped, only to bounce off the door.

“FUCK!” I shouted as the train left, a little panicked and unsure of what I could do. The cell phone I’d rented had lost it’s charge, as I’d made no phone calls up to this point and the battery seemed to hold a charge longer than I was used too, so I’d forgotten to check it before I left. A $200 dollar taxi ride to a location I wasn’t sure of the exact address of, was not how I’d hoped to spend my night. I began making plans to keep myself awake until the trains started running again, whenever that was, or possible attempt to walk it, having made sure to bring a map and compass with me wherever I went, though that seemed unrealistic and dangerous.

“That was the last express train. Why don’t you take the regular line? That’s what I’m going to do,” came a small, obviously female voice.

At first I wasn’t really sure that I’d actually heard that; I had been drinking, but I was in complete control of my facilities, so, though shocked, I turned around and confirmed that it was indeed someone speaking to me, which I was now unused too at this point… at least when I wasn’t around my friends.

Somehow I had managed to be stuck on this platform with the only English speaking native I’d encountered up to this point in Japan; a cute, slight, fashionable girl, somewhere in her twenties, but probably younger than I was (being a few months from turning 30 myself), who had responded to my universal cry for help.

Things blur a bit after that; we talked a bit, while making our way to the other platform, and waiting for the train, and I may have been a little to enthusiastic about having a conversation… not just with an attractive woman, but with ANYONE. I think I mostly spun some bullshit about the differences in the TTC (Toronto’s frankly horrible public transit) and the clean efficiency of the JR, my loneliness and the inaccessibility of the Japanese people, my surprise to meet someone who could speak fluent English. She listened politely, and tried to reassure me that Japanese people weren’t as cold and inaccessible as I thought, without presenting any evidence to the contrary other than herself.

Eventually the train arrived, and I took point, no longer concerned with being polite. People shook their heads again, and I just nodded back, “Oh, YES,” and jump on, making room for my Platform Savior. We became separated by a few people, but were still close enough to talk, though it was awkward with so many people around. We parted ways at Shinjuku, as she was going much further than I was. I bid her farewell, and thanked her again, as the doors closed.

Standing there on the more familiar Shinjuku platform as the train sped away, I was suddenly struck by what a stupid fuck I was, as I’d never gotten her name, nor given mine, nor made the point of asking for her number or e-mail, as it had seemed gauche at the time. In retrospect, it was probably the stupidest moment of my life.


My Japan Game is WHACK, dawg.


Nadia said...

Haven't been to Japan. Would love to go, but I bet I'd find the cities as intimidating as hell. I've discovered in recent years that Toronto the perfect size for me. I experience culture shock in New York, and that's a city where, contrary to the stereotype, the people are actually very polite in their own blunt, sandpapery way.

Interestingly, this is the second instance of Japanese rudeness that I've heard in as many days. Another friend was complaining about how people just don't give up their seats to old people/people with children on the Tokyo trains, which I found surprising.

As for the TTC, well, all it can be is itself. Not to shift the blame entirely off the system, but let's face it, how long as it been since any level of Government has given a damn about funding it? The Liberals slashed the funding for Transit City, which Rob Ford killed altogether, and forget getting anything from the Tories, ever. All that, and to be frank the TTC still provides the best service in Canada. Sad, I know.

Halliday said...

Nadia>I actually have a story about giving up my seat to an elderly woman...

I can't remember the specific day, but I think it was on our way back from Akihabara, we were on the JR Line, which was fairly full, all seats taken, but not crowded, and I had two huge bags of stuff I'd purchased at Mandarake.

An older woman, probably mid 60's, not too old, and her daughter got on the train. I think the woman may have had a cane, which is why I thought to do it, but I got up and motioned for her to sit were I had been sitting. The reaction I got was as surprising to me as my giving up my seat was to them.

Their eyes went wide, and for a moment they didn't seem to get it... then they did, and they sort of stumbled over themselves to show their gratitude. It was such a huge reaction, I didn't really know how to take it... I was clumsily thanked at least 7-10 times in the best English they could muster.

It was then that Chris informed me that people in Japan don't give up their seats, and that my doing so, as obviously laden down as I was, was actually a pretty big deal. Not, like, a social faux-paus but sort of an unprecedented act of selflessness.

So, yeah... that was weird. I've given up my seat here in Toronto before, and was not even acknowledged... it's sort of an expected, but in Japan, the smallest act of selflessness is apparently a huge deal.

I wouldn't really call it rudeness, more like lack of situational awareness. Japan is... dense. It's a constant assault on the senses; light and sound is a constant, night and day. Vendors yelling on the streets, TV's playing commercials, loudspeakers pitching products, neon lights strobing; it's thunderous and constant. So everyone walks around trying to tune everything out; their situational awareness of what's going on around them extends about a foot in front of them, and everything else is ignored. People were constantly bumping into me, or walking right at me without looking up, or backing into me, etc etc. Generally I managed to slip by, get out of the way, or avoid most people, but no one else was making that effort. That's just how they roll. It's hard to judge, because you don't have to deal with it day in and day out.

The TTC is a fucking JOKE compared to the JR. Japan's public transit is fucking astounding, despite the obvious flaw of ending service at 11:00 at night. Clean, efficient, and always on time.