Tuesday, August 28, 2007

The Superficial Japan: Polite but ever so Rude

Service in Japan is super-extra-duper-nice/polite wherever you go. If someone isn't being extra-special-unbelievably-nice to you... one complaint could get them fired. Everyone works with the most pleasant of pleasantries... and believe it or not it is one of the bigger culture shocks about Japan.

The politeness level increases so drastically that it seems annoying and unnecessarily inefficient... at first. The first time a lady asked me what I wanted at McDonalds, only to question my order by asking, "Are you sure that's what you want?" I was thrown for a moment. I had to think if I had ordered wrong in Japanese. So I reiterated by pointing at the picture. She asked me the same thing a second time, "Are you sure that's what you want?" She didn't look stupid, I thought. But why does she keep asking me if what I ordered is what I want? It was so foreign to me. Anyway, I again confirmed and she, finally, typed in the order on the register. This was back in 2003 during my first trip to Japan, and it seemed to really slow the 'ordering' process down, but now that I can look back on it I can see that I'd take an extra few steps of courtesy over the rude arrogant behavior of the American fast food industry --which by the way has NEVER gotten an order of mine right.

Once you get used to the Japanese way it's wonderful. When I go back to the States... I dread going to any food service place... actually any food place period (with the exception of grocery stores which are all automated and I can do 'self-checkout' without having to worry about the grumpy 52 year old grandma still in shock that she is working at Wal*Mart, or wherever, because her knocked up daughter is on her third child and she and her jobless fiance had to move in with the grandparents).

I never been to a place in the U.S. that is even half as friendly as your standard Japanese McDonald's service. Which is very sad, for America. But American's are too self absorbed anyway. Hey, I should know, I am one. If we notice someone being extra polite in America, we'd probably consider it dubious behavior and likely insult the person and greedily grab our food and run away. But that's the American way. Take what's yours and... well... screw the rest. To each his own. (P.S. A friendly reminder from my pal Patrick, "Don't Mess with Texas!")

Japan, however, has a totally different sentiment. In Japan 'to each his own' is the most foreign of foreign concepts. That is until you get on the tollway and onto the Interstate. That's when I think the Japanese homogenius harmony and politeness that exists within the culture goes right out the window --of their cars.

Driving in Japan is unlike anything you could ever experience, and the only word I can think to describe it is: DENSE. Not only literally, as in the traffic is so dense it gets jammed, or the smog is so dense I can't see the road, or the smoke inside the car is so dense because all five of my Japanese friends are heavy smokers (oddly the majority of them women --double oddly, which is normal in Japan), but the most literal sense of the word *dense applies to the unique driving manners of the Japanese, or lack there of.

For work related purposes I must drive every week to my distant Japanese Elementary School which are randomly scattered across the countryside. Some of which aren't even near any towns. In addition to that I enjoy taking road trips (more or less). Sayaka and I car pool making it cheaper than the trains and buses, but just by a little, like ten dollars or something. As you can guess, I drive a lot... and I've driven all over Hiroshima, Osaka, Fukuoka, and Kumamoto --just to name a few of the big and challenging cities I've driven in. I've been on roads so narrow that my tires have scraped the curp --on both sides! And yeah, that's the easy part. But the shock I can't seem to get over, because it's a shock that continuously reminds me of Japanese society's double face, or "MASK," is the explicit rudeness of self-serving-drive-for-your-life and get there no-matter-the-cost mentality that goes on here.

Now you're probably thinking that's not so bad, after all, being American I should be used to that by now, right? Right. But the problem isn't anyone's attitude, it's the fact that society in Japan acts one way --very specifically and intentionally acts in this peaceful, respectful, actualization of conformity for the sake of harmonizing. Which isn't a bad things, since it's necessary in such a crowed and heavily populated culture as Japan's, but other than saving yourself a few hurt feelings by thinking of others first (before you speak and act) it really does nothing in lessoning the already unusually high societal stress/tension. Thus the manners of Japan are more or less a form of "conformity" aided by various cultural and linguistic elements which allows the Japanese to 'interact' smoothly and prompts an air of super-mega-ultra politeness. At least to your face. The truth is, the moment a Japanese person gets into their vehicle --it's no holds bard against the world-- and traffic rules... they might as well not exist.

When you think about it, this is a complete attitude swap, i.e. a personality change. One mask comes off --and the hideous truth comes out. People here are just as self serving and petty as anywhere else, especially when it comes to 'having your way' and telling everybody else to jump off a cliff. Which is perplexing to me for a couple reasons, 1) it seems not only double-faced but goes against the already instilled societal requirements of politeness and respect, 2) it is contradictory to the vigorous training everyone goes through in the strenuous driving education courses. Courses which make sure you take every extemporaneous precaution and step of learning the road rules before you qualify for taking the actual test --which you most likely will have to take six times before you pass. Not to brag, but the good news is I passed on my third try --proving I've got what it takes to join in the insanity. It also puts me in an extremely rare percentile of very good drivers in Japan.

On a side note, I've been driving 15 years without incident, which makes me 3 times "Golden License" according to their rules. Of course only 3 of those years have been time driving in Japan. The "Golden Menkyo" is the herralded trophy piece which proves you are an 'ultimate driver' and everyone wants one. Including me. The problem though isn't my driving... but everyone else's. Try going five years without an incident here... it's not easy.

Every day (every day!) I get cut off. At least three times a week (at least!) an impatient person breeches the in-town speed limit to pass me in a 'No Passing Zone' because 50 Kph (30 Mph) is just too slow for them. In town, what are they entirely inconsiderate? To drive my point home I've been passed twice in front of the Police Station! This proves they're not thinking about the consequences, or just plain not thinking at all? Where'd all their consideration go, I wonder?

At least once a day (everyday!) a person zags and cuts diagonally in front of me making an illegal right hand turn across oncoming traffic (oncoming traffic! What, do they have a death wish?) -causing me to break hard-and-heavy. Obviously they're in such a hurry they can't wait their turn... apparently, they are in such a hurry they forgot all of their manners back at home.

Every single day (everyday!) I will dash through a yellow light (as we all do) on my way to work only to see in my rear view mirror the car immediately behind me dash the red. And then the car behind him. And also, the two cars following them. I'm NOT exaggerating. Just two weeks ago I counted seven cars running a red. Where are the police? Donuts don't mean the same thing here. It's all very puzzling.

And finally, unique to country roads is the infamous 'go around' which, due to a lack of turning lanes, or lack of space altogether, cars will cut inbetween the sidewalk and the parked car signalling to turn and dodge around them. In American where the roads are wide enough for a Jumbo Jet to land, it's not such a risk. But in a tightly packed country like Japan, with every little country road criss crossing and intersecting the next, the danger is obvious. If there are people trying to cross the street just in front of the car you are going around --then sweet dreams folks. I hope you had a good life. I've seen bicycles and scooters get taken out by this maneuver. Completely flattened. It's not pretty. And this is just the in-town driving. God help you if you decide to go onto the freeway.

Although, from their point of view this drive-or-die mentality is the norm. It's odd to note though, that it goes directly against their everyday efforts toward maintaining a 'peaceful, non-stressful, politeness' which exists everywhere else in Japanese society.

Being jolted between the two faces of Japan's social extremes, one of social grace and the other so self-absorbed it's hazardous to others, is extremely perturbing. One day I will be thanking people for taking their time to consider me and be so gracious with their generosity, and the next day I'll be cursing the rude sonuvabitch who just about wiped me out on the free way endangering all the passengers (in both vehicles) and everyone else on the road. At least in America you never have to worry about the 'jolt' from one to the other extreme. In Japan though, you get the sense that there is something very superficial to this 'perfect harmony' and the realization of which is only something disappointing, it's merely a mask they wear on the face, and constantly makes you wonder if anyone is really as polite as they pretend they are?

Of course, in the end who am I to take such generosity for granted? Even if they change their mask when they get on the road, at least they're wearing the right one when they engage and interact with others on a day-to-day basis. And that's what counts.

Have a good one!

Saturday, August 11, 2007

Japanese Drivers License, Domestic Squables, and Warding off Typhoons

Sorry for the lack of interest in my Blog this month. I've been busy getting my Japanese drivers license (which is a major pain and hassle), busing back and forth between Hiroshima City and my home town an hour and a half away for work related meetings, seminars, English camps, and tomorrow the Orientation for newly arrived JETs. Between all this and battling typhoons I've just been bogged down by work in general.

Sayaka and I also hit a rough patch in our relationship this month, our first truly volitile situation in four years of a wonderful and loving relationship, and whether the extra stress is due to my hectic work schedule or other things... I've been neglecting my blogs in lieu of the matter to try and smooth over and amend our difficulties. That's about all I can share for now, but I hope you continue to check for updates in the near future.