Sunday, March 6, 2016

Japan is a strange place

Samuri armor, Los Angeles County Museum of Art

     About 2 a.m. Sunday, Chicago time, I'll be stepping off a plane at Narita airport in Tokyo, if all goes as planned. I decided, since I dredged up old columns on LA for my trip to Los Angeles last month, I shouldn't almost immediately subject you to a week of that regarding Japan, and would try to provide some fresh reporting in real time. But travel and jet lag being what they are, I thought, until I can get myself situated and both experience something noteworthy and find the opportunity to tell you about it, not to mention a Wi-Fi connection, that I'd set the scene with some thoughts from my last visit to Japan, a quarter century ago.

     The army of reporters swarming over Nagano, dazzled by the Olympic glare, seems to have lost sight of one noteworthy aspect of Japan: It is a tremendously strange place.
     Not to the Japanese, I'm sure. They grew up there. They're used to it.
     But to Western eyes — all right, to this Westerner's eyes at least — spending even a brief time in Japan, a few years back, was enough to fix it in my mind forever as somewhere between the Twilight Zone and Shangri-La.
     For instance: umbrella condoms. That's certainly not what they are called there, but that's what I called them. You go into a department store and there are huge rolls of long plastic sheaths designed to slip over your wet umbrella so as not to cause inconvenience while you shop.
     In the places without umbrella condoms, there was something even odder: big umbrella racks. People would leave their umbrellas at the front of the store, with a reasonable assurance that the umbrellas would be there when they returned. Strange, right? Like believing in the tooth fairy. They did the same thing with their shoes at the entrances to temples and certain restaurants. In my country, that practice would result in a lot of barefoot, angry people.
     Frankly, I got the impression that in Japan they could have numbered cubbyholes at the entrances of stores for people to place their wallets in — so the store could rub oil into the leather, or polish the credit cards — and not only would people do it, but the wallets would be there when they got back.
     Some of the weirdness was close to genius. I have deep, sincere admiration for Japanese bathrooms. Many are modular units — the entire room molded out of a single piece of fiberglass. Some toilets have the sink built into the toilet tank. When you flush, a spout of water automatically fills the sink, which drains into the tank. It's very clever; no dirty faucet handles to touch, and the water used washing your hands is then used to flush the toilet later.
     The system seems even more sophisticated when you realize that nearly every other toilet in Asia is a hole in the floor between two footpads.
     Not in Japan. In Japan, taxicabs have a mechanical device that allows the white-gloved driver to fling the rear door open for you, so you don't have to undergo the agony of touching something as dubious as a public vehicle's door handle. Not that I could afford to take a taxi in Japan, but the concept is still admirable, nevertheless.
     There is also something called Tokyo Tower, a giant television tower about the same configuration as the Eiffel Tower, but several times larger and painted orange (again, strange). Go to the top of Tokyo Tower, and you can see the entire city, though God knows why you'd want to, because Tokyo is a cluttered agglomeration of charmless architecture that looks like 100 downtown Dallases assembled together in a 10-by-10 grid.
     In Japan, they have graveyards for fetuses. I happened upon one next to Tokyo Tower. Each grave had a tiny stone statue of a baby. The mothers would knit little caps and bibs for the stone babies, and stick toy pinwheels next to them. Poignant. When the wind picked up, all these pinwheels started going. It was eerie, particularly when I got a translation of some of the messages that had been left at the graves. For example, people who were feeling guilty about an abortion wrote something like "Dear Baby — we're awfully sorry about this. Forgive us . . ." Supposedly the buddhist monks who run the place make a fortune.
     Service is big in Japan. That's one of its best features. Whenever I buy something in a store in Chicago and observe the listless clerk deigning to ring up the sale and fling my purchase in my general direction, I think about how they do things in Japan. I once saw a Japanese clerk run — run — to get an item for me. I stayed at a resort where dinner was brought by a woman in a kimono who crawled into the room on her knees, carrying the food on a lacquered tray. Try finding that at a Sheraton.
     I was in Japan to visit my brother, who worked at a firm there. And the oddest thing of all was something my brother's boss did. He arranged to take me out for a drink. It struck me as unusual, but I was game and went along. (Japan is a drinker's paradise. They sell bottles of scotch from vending machines on train station platforms).
     We sat in a hotel lobby, he, smoking away (everybody smokes there), me, perched on the edge of my seat, wondering what this all was about.
     As it turned out, he just wanted to get to know me. See what kind of family his employee came from. Determine whether I was on a mission to bring my brother home. Just a concerned, friendly employer looking out for the best interests of his company and his people.
     Weird, right?

                     —Originally published in the Sun-Times, Feb. 8, 1998


  1. I'm looking forward to your viewpoints on visiting Japan Neil.

  2. It's 12:36 Sunday morning in Chicago now as I happily read this, having wondered if there would be a blog post to read. I guess you're about 1-1/2 to 2 hours from landing.

    Interesting column from 1998 -- I'd always heard how amazing Japanese toilets were -- and looking forward to your current experiences there. (A woman actually crawled on her knees to bring you dinner -- that IS weird, alright, not to mention a tad too subservient.) I would hope the customs have been relaxed somewhat in that regard by now.


    March 6, 2016 at 12:55 AM

    1. I cringed at that, too, Sandy.

    2. I think Neil might have over emphasized the "crawling." You can see the same thing here in Korean restaurants, which aren't known for great service, much less servility. Asian restaurants often have private rooms with a raised platform on which diners sit and servers enter without their shoes and sometimes get on their knees to deliver the food.

    3. Still, being served by someone on their knees is pretty messed up to put it mildly.

      I did watch the video of what the research is going to be on, and seriously went back to the article to make sure I typed it in right. I about lost it in a fit of giggles.


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