As our plane descended onto a lush green landscape spreading out beneath a grey misty sky, it was easy to believe that we had flown six thousand miles only to land back in English countryside. However, I was actually arriving in Narita, Tokyo’s main airport, and about to spend eight days in Japan’s capital city. After a misty start, and only one downpour, it was mostly a hot and sunny late-September in the city with temperatures around 25°C / 77°F.
I must start by saying how much I liked Tokyo and it’s people. It is the cleanest, friendliest and politest city I have ever visited. One could be forgiven for having preconceived ideas about the character of the people, but they are a far cry from the stereotypes thrust upon us by TV and film; the incredibly stern businessman, the martial arts hero, or the game show host who laughs manically at the suffering of the contestants. Japanese people are in fact always well-presented, polite, good-humoured and with a constant vibe of unhurried calm. Not once did I hear a raised voice or see an angered face, and people were always happy to help, something that I needed often, especially when trying to buy a train ticket from a machine and finding the right platform.
The streets are immaculately clean. It is socially unacceptable to eat or drink while on the move or in a public place, which means that people are not carrying around waste packaging and so there is no litter or the need for public bins or trash cans, something that caused me only mild irritation until I learned to carry my rubbish back home.
My study of the Japanese language began the day before I arrived and extended as far as saying ‘thank you’, counting to ten, and a few other useful words. It was just about enough to get by. Although I did not expect anyone to speak my mother tongue, I was surprised by how many people were eager to speak English, even though they rarely knew more than a few words. In return, my negligible Japanese was generally treated with both surprise and joy. The fact that a Brit was attempting to speak the local language was a mark of respect, and I will make sure to learn much more for my next trip.
Honour is a national trait that is engrained into the entire society. The ancient Samurai warriors were the apotheosis of this in their code of honour, and this has filtered down through all of modern life where bowing is part of everyday communication. There is a rather complex set of rules in terms of how deep to bow, to whom and at what time, but a modest bow will serve you well in most situations.
In the 1990s when the Japanese economy declined rapidly, many middle-aged men lost their jobs, disastrous in a culture where people often have a job for life. The dishonour of being unable to find work meant many of these men, rather than continuing to shame their families, left them and became homeless. Before that time, homelessness did not really exist in Tokyo. This reminds us of the ultimate sacrifice a Samurai warrior would make if he dishonoured his master; taking his own life. Honour is everything in Japanese life.
For a foreigner in Japan it is easy to make a social faux pas. We have already covered eating in public, but there is also;
- leaving your chopsticks in the bowl; this is only reserved for funerals as a sign of respect to the deceased
- opening or shutting the taxi door; you must allow the driver to use the automatic levers
- tipping; honour dictates that a person always works hard, does their best and receives a reasonable salary accordingly. It is an insult to suggest that they should be rewarded for doing an especially good job when a good job is always required and always delivered
- handing over a business card with only one hand; always pass and receive with both hands and a slight bow
- blowing your nose; Japanese people will wear a surgical mask if they have a cold. Surprisingly it seems to be acceptable to sneeze without covering your mouth.
The culture of sport and fighting has a lengthy history in Japan and the capital is hoping to be the host of the 2020 Olympics. I thoroughly enjoyed visiting the sword museum, showing the perfectly formed blades of steel forged for many centuries. I walked past the occasional Karate dojo and even one Baseball Dojyo and a children’s outdoor baseball game! Baseball is a surprisingly popular sport here and has fed some talented players in to the major leagues of North America.
Then, of course, there is the marvellous sumo wrestling. I was lucky enough to go to one of the sumo wrestling competitions held in Tokyo three times a year, in January, May and September. On entering the stadium, the occasional competitor strolled by in his silk gown, an incredibly impressive sight; these are seriously large and powerful men. It is a grand occasion with history and ceremony. Before the tournament starts, the fighters parade onto the stage to the applause of the audience and there is a demonstration of skill when one fighter goes into a deep wide squat and shuffles forward and upward extending his arms to the crowd. Before each bout the competitors will go through the foot stamping preparations with all the apparent intention of beginning to fight, but will then walk back out of the ring. Only on the third occasion, and after they have washed their faces and upper bodies with a towel, does the actual fight begin. Each time they re-enter the ring, they perform a ceremonial throw of a handful of salt across the floor.
Suffice to say, I hope to return to this great city. The rest of the world could learn a few things from the Japanese culture, in which respect and honour are so much part of life they are as one with breathing and eating.