The Land of the Rising Sun greets you with dignity, composure and grace all the way.
Even as Japan recovers from the devastation wreaked by nature's fury, its people retain their dignity and composure. They remain ever-willing to assist, although communication barriers can sometimes lead to funny situations. An account of some lighter moments from a recent visit to the country
The Chinese have[n't] made it
Japan, and all the wonders it was working with technology, were a part of my growing-up years. Back then, in many homes National was the telly of choice, Fuji was the film roll, Canon the camera, Yamaha the motorbike the neighbour's son rode, Citizen the watch, and so on. Except for the juta not being Japani everything else seemed to be. Buying or gifting Japanese proficiency meant you had invested in the best.
That was in the 1980s. By the time I visit Japan in 2011, I find I have to hunt for the ‘Made in Japan' label at consumer stores. It's not as tedious a task as it is in the malls of the West, but it's a job nonetheless. For each Japanese label present there are seven Chinese labels vying for attention. The 100 Yen stores have items that are Japanese in preference but, as with their cousins — the Dollar stores, are Chinese in production. I browse through a lot and finally pick up a set of miso soup bowls. The salesgirl assisting me beams and says, “ Hai (Yes)! No China. This Japan!” I buy it.
A-wash with pleasure
What bliss to visit a country of fellow bottom-washers! Characteristic to Japan, they have made technical art out of a routine, light years away from the modestlota. And thankfully, it's not as tricky as the futuristic faucet systems in hotel loos. All you need to do is press a few buttons on the panel beside the toilet seat and experience an automaton mop-up. Japan's revolutionary toilets began making news ever since Toto arrived on the scene with its Washlet, which has since attained generic status. Statistics speak of Japanese homes having more washlets than laptops. The tissue-roll — considered one of the barometers of a consumerist society — is nowhere near the top-10 household items. The washlet, described as a bidet toilet, has features such as the delightful seat warming, anus washing, bidet washing, dryers and so on, with the latest ones being able to check blood sugar, blood pressure and BMI. Need a fart-disguising sound? Install the Otohime, also known as Sound Princess, a faux-flush tone that saves embarrassment. The washlet's prime endeavour is to provide comfort and hygiene alongside being a water-saver. At some places there's a spigot atop the tank, allowing users to conserve by washing hands with water intended for the next flush. Even squeaky-clean public toilets boast similar features. As across Asia, Japan has squat toilets and has revolutionised these too. Unlike in India, the Japanese have used technology to make a conventional need more convenient. As a start, will star hotels in India please ape East rather than West and include an elementary water-wash feature (yes, the process has slowly begun) rather than just the eco-foe tissue-roll.
A kind gesture, when words fail
Communication remains a challenge, even in bustling Tokyo: signboards and brochures are either in Kanji or Katakana script and the population speaks Nihongo. Written English is by far more understood than spoken. Sometimes the verbal can lead to the hilarious: on my saying I'll ‘manage' I was asked if I wanted ‘marriage'. But the Japanese are a beautiful people and make a genuine effort to help. At my wit's end once, trying to locate a particular street in Roppongi, the entertainment district, I saw a ray of hope when a shop assistant ran and got a pamphlet that announced ‘Map' in English. Happily I bowed and said my “ arigato-gozaimasu (thank you very much)” and marched out of the shop. I spread out the map and it was all crystal clear… It was in Japanese.
Take a bow, beautiful people
During interfaces, I was often reminded of the dialogue in the film Hum Hain Rahi Pyar Ke where a crisis-ridden Rahul Malhotra (Aamir Khan) chides his assistant: “Mishraji (Mushtaq Khan), aap jhukte rahenge, kuch karenge bhi?” when he finds the Japan-returned Misharji bowing non-stop prior to seeking help from a group of Japanese tourists. While the film spoofs this emblematic Japanese etiquette, I saw in it a disarming custom of bestowing honour on the other person during any interaction. According to tradition, quite like in India, physical touch is avoided. So the Japanese humbly bow to all, with such dignity and grace, it almost seems poetry in action. They bow even after you've said goodbye and turned to leave, and continue doing so while you or the vehicle is still in sight. What particularly left an impression was the lined-up airfield ground staff in Sapporo bowing as soon as our aircraft landed. They were extending a welcome, without us knowing.
Auto giants in name only!
Japanese auto brands are household names in India, so meeting persons with surnames such as Honda, Mazda or Suzuki would bring on a smile. Some would realise that and quip, “Oh, oh! Not from the car family.” I would routinely bump into a familiar last name. The only time I didn't, I was a co-passenger to a sales executive on a local bus in Hakone; and he belonged to the city of Kawasaki.
Published in The Hindu Business Line, June 10, 2011