Below is a collection of articles I have written on my observations in Japan. The articles may appear to draw conclusions, but it is my most earnest desire that they be considered for your own contemplation.
|The Cell Phone"|
On one of my monthly trips to Japan, I climbed aboard the Limousine bus at Narita. When the bus is empty, I like sitting in the first row as it provides a wonderful view. One of the nice aspects about arriving in Narita is that the scenery on the way to Tokyo is filled with green. Little by little, this green of rice paddies, hills, and trees turns to the gray of factories, apartment buildings, and roads; the view of green is quite pleasant while it lasts.
However, this time the bus was already quite full. Fortunately, there was an empty seat next to a window. It happened to be in the second row. The older Japanese gentleman sitting in the aisle seat graciously let me in and I started to relax for the long drive into Tokyo.
No sooner had the bus began to roll on its way, when I heard a phone ring. It was a lady sitting in the first row aisle seat. I thought to myself, “she should have set it to ‘manner mode’.” She answered the phone and began speaking so quietly that I could not hear her. I could not tell what language she was speaking, but it was neither Japanese nor English. I thought, “Well, that is so quiet that it is not distracting at all.”
I remember when cell phones first started gaining popularity in Japan. Businessmen would stand on the trains screaming into the phones at a volume two to three times what one would use if the person was standing next to you. I remember how annoying those callers were. I was not alone in my objections and soon ‘manner mode’ signs began showing up on the trains and elsewhere.
What is remarkable however is that either the technology or the callers got better. Now, when someone talks into a phone, the voice they use is more like that of a whisper. That could be the end of my story. I could say that I was just surprised that as a technology spread, people in Japan adapted well. They became more aware of both the technology and how with its use, they impacted the people around them.
However, my real surprise was when the kind older gentleman sitting next to me took his hand and twice slapped very hard the seat of the lady in front of him. He spoke in a very loud and angry voice. He said, “no phone” in extremely clear English. The lady hung up her phone and became very quite. I suddenly had a hard time relaxing for the long drive into Tokyo.
Tokyo is a city of lights. The tops of tall buildings flash to warn the pilot of the plane or helicopter that never passes. Billboards electrify Shibuya, Shinjuku, and other major centers. New buildings such as the Mori Building in Roppongi Hills incorporate light as almost an architectural part of the building as a thick blue light moves down its length
However, the most beautiful time in Tokyo for lights is winter. During the winter months, little shops to large complexes are decorated with fantastic holiday lights. Places like Ebisu Garden Place are set with a wonderful balance of glittering lights. There are a multitude of places to enjoy a long walk while absorbing the night spectacle. It is almost like an electric version of the cherry blossom season (though much colder of course).
I do miss very much the lights of Omote Sando. The long boulevard which is often compared to a Parisian boulevard with its canopy of trees had a splendid light decoration. Sadly, the decoration was discontinued as a victim of its own beauty. It became so well known, that the number of visitors overwhelmed the nearby residents.
Ebisu Garden Place has apparently taken at least part of this spot. As I walked through it one day, I noticed a set of lights and a full camera crew. I went up to the camera crew to ask them what they were shooting. They told me that it was an NHK series on world evolution. I asked what a place like Ebisu Garden Place had to do with a topic like that. They replied nothing; it was just a good backdrop for the announcer of the program.
Japan has notably higher costs of electricity than most places in the world. For industrial electricity, the price for Japan and the US respectively are $.12 and $.04 per Kilowatt hour. For residential electricity, the price for Japan and the US respectively are $.18 and $.08 per Kilowatt hour. The price is more than twice the price. Japan is even more expensive than Germany and France.
With higher prices one might expect less, but I believe that we can expect an ever-growing incorporation of light. The introduction of LEDs which today have quickly found their way into signal lights promise to be incorporated more and more. Consuming energy less than 20% of typical lights and lasting at least 7 times longer, I believe it is only time before the artistic usage finds its way into all manner of buildings. Before too long, we might discover that at least at night, the festive lighting of the holidays continues throughout the year.
One of the early things I learned in coming to Japan is that much of spoken humor and jokes are based on the misplacement of words. In American humor, the jokes are based on the misplacement of context. The different focus in humor makes it difficult for an American joke to be told to Japanese and Japanese joke to be told to Americans. The Japanese would have to understand the context in order to understand what is misplaced in that context. The Americans would have to understand the variance of words to understand the misplaced word or pun (dajare).
The result is that an American can sit in a Japanese movie theater watching an American movie and find that he/she is the only one laughing. Likewise, that same American may be fluent in Japanese, but be the only one silent at Japanese party when all are laughing at a subtle pun.
That is not too say that contextual jokes don’t work on Japanese and puns don’t work on Americans, but the focus is different. The more an individual can identify with the story, the more effective the humor becomes.
I remember one Japanese contextual joke that I heard over 10 years ago.
This is the story:
A businessman goes into a ramen shop. He is running very late, but is also very hungry. He calls out to the back of the shop that he wants a bowl of ramen. He hears a voice saying, “right away, sir.”. As he waits he notices that he is the only person in the shop. 5 minutes go by. He also notices that the shop is very old, dusty and dirty. He thinks about leaving, but is very hungry and has no time to stop elsewhere. Another 5 minutes go by. He calls out, “when is the ramen coming?”. “Right away, sir”, he hears in reply. Another 5 minutes go by. The businessman who was rushing to his meeting and stopped to get a quick bite, yells out, “Is it ready?” From behind the counter he hears a voice, “Coming right away, sir”. An old man appears. The old man has on a white smock that is brown and very dirty. Slowly, very slowly, the old man approaches the businessman carrying the bowl of ramen. As he draws closer, the businessman looks down and sees that the thumbs of the old man are in the soup. In disbelief, the businessman says, “YOU’RE THUMBS ARE IN THE SOUP!!” to which the old man replies, “Oh, that’s okay. It’s not hot.”
In my own experience, I have lived such humor. I was to meet a Japanese colleague in Tokyo. My colleague told me in Japanese that we should at Mitsukoshimae at 13:00. I confirmed, “Mitsukoshimae, in Ginza?” to which he replied, “yes”. At 13:00, I was waiting in front of Mistukoshi at the corner in Ginza across from Wako. However, I could not see my colleague, so I gave him a call on my cellular phone. He answered and I asked when he would arrive. He said that he had already arrived, so I looked around expecting to see him. When I did not see him, I said, “I am near one of the two lion statues at the entrance” to which he replied “so am I.” I looked again, but still I could not find him. It took a while, but we finally realized that I had heard “Mitsukoshi no mae in Ginza” while he meant “Mitsukoshimae station in Ginza”. There are two separate Mitsukoshi stores in Ginza. Not only was the word misplaced, but so was I.
I was sitting in the lounge of one of the elegant and ornate hotels that grace Tokyo. My wife, daughter, and I were enjoying some quite time as we escaped the heat of a Tokyo summer.
The service of the hotel was impeccable. The staff were quick, courteous, and very attentive. Soft music played in the background. My young 4 year old daughter who can never sit still, managed to find herself also relaxing in this pleasant atmosphere.
Suddenly from far across the room, I heard a woman shout. I could neither see the woman nor understand what she said, but the voice seemed angry. The shout was soon followed by the sound of glass shattering. A few minutes later, I saw a man leave with a cloth held to his face.
What I learned later surprised me. The woman had taken her glass of water and had thrown it at the man. It was not the water that she threw, but the actual glass. The sound I had heard was the glass as it shattered on his face. The glass had cut him and he started to bleed. He left the lounge to go to Emergency at the local hospital.
That was the end of the commotion. The woman remained seated with her friends. No police came. No one was asked to leave.
This incident struck me as being very odd. Throwing a glass at someone is assault. If the glass actually strikes the person, that is battery. Those are not civil offenses. Those are criminal offenses. Violence allowed is often violence repeated. The man may very well have deserved the anger directed towards him, but violence is not what society condones to express such anger. Yet, no one moved to intercede.
As I talked with those around me, the common opinion was that since the action was between two parties who knew each other, interference from the hotel or the police was not appropriate.
In fact, the incident was not between just two people. It was between two people and society. What if the glass had hit someone else nearby? What if my daughter had witnessed the incident? Children often imitate adults. Would my daughter conclude that she can be violent when angry? Certainly, the pleasant atmosphere of the lounge was disturbed.
In Japan, I have rarely seen such outbursts in public. They are perhaps more common in the US. The rarity perhaps increases the severity and leaves people more unprepared with how to react for both those participating in and those observing such an outburst.
Perhaps that woman will never return to the hotel. Perhaps she regrets what she did. Or perhaps she felt justified. I learned that she stayed for an hour finishing her ice cream sundae as if nothing had happened.