Friday, December 04, 2009


Japan, part 2: the culture

No discussion of a trip to Japan could be complete with some comments on Japanese culture, and how it appears to an American. When I made my first comments about the trip, on arrival in Hiroshima, I said this:

My first real exposure to Japanese culture was something I hadn’t been told about and wasn’t expecting: when train personnel left one Shinkansen car at the front, to go to the next one, they opened the door, turned to face the passengers, and bowed, before turning again and going through the door. The conductors did this, and so did the young women pushing the food carts. Every time.

When my colleague and I checked into our hotel rooms in Himeji, we had a similar experience. After getting our room keys, we made for the wrong elevator — the end where our rooms were uses a different elevator. A woman on the hotel staff, who was sitting near the elevator we went to, asked to check our room keys, and saw that we needed to use the one at the other end of the hall. In the U.S., she would probably have just pointed and said we needed to use the elevator down there, but this wasn’t the U.S. She led us down the hall, running ahead of us. When we got to the other elevator, she motioned with her arm as if holding the doors open for us. And when we got in and pressed the button for our floor, we saw that she was bowing to us, and she held the bow until the doors closed.

A few things occur to me about the custom of bowing. In these cases, it’s clearly stating that the people involved — the train crew, the hotel staff — are in positions of service, and are putting us above themselves in the social hierarchy, at least for the moment, at least while they’re serving us. No response is expected, and, indeed, it would be odd for the train passengers to try to bow back to the crew.

We do have some sense of not turning our backs on people: when we leave the house of a friend, we don’t usually just walk out and go — we turn back to face them again, and we wave. But our process of acknowledging someone in the way the Japanese do isn’t formalized as it is there, and it’s certainly very common for someone who’s serving us to simply turn away without a word or gesture, and walk away.

We also shake hands, of course, and that’s also very different. For one thing, it’s approximately symmetric: you offer your hand, I accept it, and we shake hands as peers, whether or not we are. There’s little difference in form between shaking hands with me and doing so with the President of the United States.

The bow, though, is very much asymmetric. First, and most obviously, it is simply given, and does not require any acceptance from the recipient. The depth and length of the bow can be adjusted, varying the statement that it makes. It’s a much more interesting and flexible social custom than the handshake.

There’s some perception that Japanese society is more relaxed, but that’s clearly not true in general. There’s a great deal of pressure to produce, succeed, move ahead; office workers often work long hours, still seen coming out of their office buildings at 8 or 9 at night. And you can always see people running on the streets of Tokyo, crisp-suited men and smart-skirted women running to catch a bus or a train, running to cross the street, or just running to get to where they need to be.

But what does seem to be true is that the Japanese place a great deal of importance on down-time, craving quiet and simplicity. Places to relax are austere, to western senses, with very simple furnishings and calming decor. A park or a garden will have a simple bench in a clearing, but it will be in a place where you can sit and hear water quietly running, or leaves rustling very gently.

The complete opposite of that is the tolerance for crowds. When I visited the Tokyo National Museum, the Heiseikan building, which houses special exhibits, had two exhibits of Japanese cultural treasures. Some of these were things used in the emperors’ houses, and much of the rest were scrolls and panels of writing — the writing of the adopted Chinese script is an art in itself, and the ability to make words look beautiful on the page is a renowned one.

The special exhibitions were very popular, and I arrived soon after the museum opened, at a very busy time. The special-exhibit halls were extremely crowded, and what really surprised me was that as I entered the first hall, I encountered a thick crowd, five to six people deep, packed against the glass. There was no hope to see anything without pressing into the crowd and being moved along with it. It seemed more like a Black Friday “door buster” sale than a scene at a cultural museum. I don’t know what was going on in people’s minds, but no one seemed to think this was at all unusual. As for me, I was very happy to finish the special exhibits and move on to the much more serene Honkan building.

Their smoking policy is interestingly reversed from ours: there are areas of the cities where they do not allow smoking on the sidewalks (though note on the sign that the fine is only about $10 for smoking, littering, or failing to pick up after your dog[1]; the fine for doing graffiti is up to $500). A strip to assist blind people, on a sidewalk in HimejiBut most restaurants do allow smoking, and it’s hard to find non-smoking restaurants, or even ones with effective non-smoking sections. So, in many places, one can smoke in the restaurant, but one has to put out one’s cigarette before going outside.

Speaking of the sidewalks: they are blind-friendly. The photo to the right (click to enlarge) shows a sidewalk in Himeji — Hiroshima and Tokyo both had these as well. The yellow strip has texture that can be felt under foot, and the ovals tell the direction the sidewalk goes. When the texture changes to small circles, it designates an intersection or turning point. I suspect there’s a national law that mandates this. It seems useful.

Japanese elevator buttons, including 13 but skipping 4The syllable for "four" sounds like the syllable for "death", and so the number four is associated with death and is considered unlucky. Things don’t come in boxes of four, for example, and buildings do have 13th floors... but skip the fourth floor, as you can see in the photo to the left, of the elevator panel in my Tokyo hotel.

This is one case, at least, where we have it better than the Japanese: “triskaidekaphobia” is just such a cool word.

[1] And, by the way, I saw very few dogs, in particular contrast to New York City.

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