Monday, February 20, 2012

"Japanese Politeness, Tipping, Population, Etc. 1959/2012"

Another look back at "All the Best in Japan" by Sydney Clark (published by Sidgwick and Jackson Limited in 1959) - this time about the things that the author liked and suggested visitors would also like.

"Those Things You'll Love - Your first shocks of pleasure, following your initially grim impressions of Tokyo street traffic, occur when your taxi reaches your hotel. To your amazement you'll find that when you pay the taxi driver - who hasn't, after all, killed you or anybody else in his mad dash - he will promptly pass you your change, all of it, and drive swiftly away in search of his next fare. He expects no tip and you should offer him none unless he has done some very special service for you. Where else but in Japan could this phenomenon occur?"

This is still true enough, although I would add that over the years, I've had some bad experiences with taxi drivers in every country I've used them in, including Japan. Not all drivers are honest, and some find one way or another to overcharge their passengers. The way that's happened to me here, is with drivers not going directly to the destination. In one very blatant case, I asked the driver to "Stop here please" and he keep driving until the meter went up, and then stopped (so I had to both pay extra and walk back to where I had asked the scoundrel to stop in the first place). Of course, from a taxi driver's perspective, they have to put up with abuse from bad passengers, but I've never done that myself and so don't appreciate being a victim. As it currently stands, I prefer to walk an hour than to take a chance on a taxi driver being honest.

"At the door of your hotel, whether it is the celebrated Imperial, the eagerly desired goal of most American tourists, or some lesser hostelry, bellboys or bellgirls, bowing from the waist, will welcome you and relieve you of your luggage. After you've registered they'll take you to your room, install you politely, bow again and disappear. 'Wait a minute,' you'll say, calling down the corridor. 'Here. This is for you,' as you offer a gratuity. Again he or she will bow and politely decline it. That, as least, has been my experience over and over again, or it was until I learned not to offer tips. Even in the Imperial Hotel, the very nucleus of U.S. tourism, exactly this happened to me on three early occasions."

Not having to tip everyone for everything in hotels in Japan is a really wonderful thing. It's stressful being thrust into the role of direct employer of the people working in hotels and restaurants. I prefer for them to get their wages from their proper employer and think the employer should pay them enough that they don't have to go around with their hands out all the time for extra cash. I think tipping is a truly horrible custom.

As for the Imperial Hotel being the "very nucleus of US tourism"; in 1959, you got 360 yen for 1 dollar, but that's down to about 80 yen for 1 dollar now. As a result, Japan is now a very much more expensive place to visit for someone coming here from a foreign country than it was in 1959. The Imperial Hotel is a luxury hotel and either people with a lot of money to spend or business people on expense accounts are the type of foreign guest that comes to mind now.

"You'll love the schoolchildren as tourists. At every Buddhist temple, Shinto shrine or other tourist sight you'll see them being herded along by their teachers, for sightseeing is a very definite part of every child's schooling. They all wear uniforms, in deference to democracy, so that there shall be no obvious difference between rich and poor. ......."

This is pretty much still true, although some schools allow regular clothing. I've had several people tell me that they liked having a uniform, as it eliminated the pressure to competitively dress. The "at every Buddhist temple" part is the sensation you'll often have when visiting Kyoto and Nara, but not so much in other areas of the country.

"The multitudes of these children-in-uniform, encountered everywhere you go, will constantly amaze you, even when you grow accustomed to the spectacle. They flow around you like a human river. Often you have literally to plow your way through them. To us these giggling kids are a delight, but to the Japanese government they are a constant source of worry, for the country, with some 90 million inhabitants, is already overpopulated and the national tally has been increasing by a million or more a year. Last year, however, there was a ray of hope, for the net increase was only 935,000, the first time since the war that it has been under a million. You and I will leave population worries to whom they may concern and will selfishly enjoy these swarming, scurrying, buoyant youngsters."

I admit it took me several years to fully get used to seeing school children in uniform out and about here, there, and everywhere at all hours and even on national holidays. In the beginning you ask yourself "Why are they in uniform on a holiday?" and gradually it sinks in that there are a vast number of schools in Tokyo, and sometimes the students will wear their uniforms for a school concert, etc., and so, with the very large number of schools, someone is bound to be in uniform pretty much on any given day.

About population growth - the author mentions 90 million and growing in 1959, and mentions that growth was slowing, but that people were worried about overpopulation. It grew to its current (approximate) 127 million, and now has slowed to the point where it's actually declining, as many people are not having children, or only having one or two children. The big worry now is that - in the words of hysterical TV talking heads - "Japan will disappear" which is utter nonsense of course, but bloody TV always tries to be sensationalist to get people's attention, and then a certain percentage of the population unthinkingly takes the hysteria at face value. (Lest this cynical comment be taken out of context, I hasten to say I'm referring to human beings on planet earth, and not criticizing the residents of any particular country.)

"You'll love the built-in courtesy of all Japanese, young or old, rich or poor, for nothing quite like it exists anywhere else in the world. I'll grant that among the Japanese themselves the formalities of politeness reach heights, or depths, that seem to Westerners absurd. ...... Self-depreciation is also a part of this traditional formality. A hostess offering a superb dinner, impeccably served, will apologize for the poor and meager quality of her hospitality. A person giving a costly and elegant present will ask forgiveness for venturing to proffer so small and worthless a gift. But you and I won't be often exposed to these traditional customs. ....."

Yes, being polite is one of the nice aspects of Japan. As for some aspects seeming "absurd" to Westerners, well - the author had tourists in mind when he wrote "you and I" but as I read this as a long-term resident, I realize that I have fallen into the same habit. It's not as strange as it sounds, as it's just a matter of not being boastful and not loading guilt onto a person by saying "I'm giving you this wonderful thing", etc. In short, it's manners, and once you're used to how they're handled here, it's just the way it is.

"And finally - for I must abridge this catalog of virtues - you'll love the Japanese instinct for beauty. It is an instinct that you'll see, and cannot fail to see, in parks, in works of art, in the widespread passion of flower arrangement ..... We of the West tend always to put comforts first and beauty second. With the Japanese it's quite the other way around. In Japanese inns, for instance, which are very rarely blessed with central heating, the rooms will be cruelly cold in winter and bleakly chilly in early spring and late fall, but to the Japanese customer this doesn't much matter. What does matter very much is that the room shall be decorated with restrained and faultless taste, and there shall be one or two exquisite objects d'art in the elevated alcove (tokonoma), which is an essential of every room, perhaps with one lovely scroll on the wall above it, a scroll having a 17-syllable poem or tradition or an inspirational message painted on it. And it matters very much that the room's windows shall look out upon a bit of a garden, perhaps with one tenderly groomed pine tree visible, and a mossy stone lantern under it."

While the comments about beauty hold true, people's expectations regarding indoor heating have changed a lot in the past 25 years or so. In the eighties, I found it pretty much as the author describes it in 1959, but I'm finding that just as I have gotten used to doing without central heat in the winter, the locals have suddenly gotten used to being warm all the time and - for example - some open-air drinking places in Yurakucho now have to put up plastic sheets and place heaters all around the tables, or customers won't come. So it's come full circle, where they're destroying atmosphere in the quest for comfort. Personally, I find heaps of irony in the fact that I'm now walking around, shaking my head, and thinking "Young people are so weak! Where's their will power? It's as if they think they'll keel over dead if any room they're in is less than 25 degrees. And they don't appear to see how hideously ugly the plastic sheets and heaters are. It's a shame - what's becoming of the world?", etc.

Lyle (Hiroshi) Saxon


jacqui + erik said...

yes, the no tipping is absolutely fabulous in japan. it's annoying to have to deal with here in america. waiters/waitresses often get paid $2.50-$3.50 per hour here in the states, so they RELY on those tips. and often times, you get customers who hate tipping, so they just dont tip the poor waiters, or, they only give like 10% or less of their meal total. it's ridiculous having to rely on some stranger to pay you (even when you did a really good job, they can not tip, or tip low).

and kindness in japan is also something surprising as an american. we knew before going how the culture there is just overly kind and helpful, but many dont, so it's a HUGE contrast from america. people here can be so rude (even working in businesses/stores). there is a fast food chain where the workers are ALWAYS over the top friendly and nice, and to us, it's a welcomed strangeness because you just dont see that here. where in's EVERY fast food place haha...if someone here is unhappy, or having a bad day, they definitely show it more while working than in japan.

and we had a few times where we looked lost, and random strangers would come up to us to try and help while in japan. i dont think you would ever get that treatment in other big cities like NYC or chicago haha...the kindness and hospitality of japan is like no other, and that's one major thing we really miss about the country.

Lyle (Hiroshi) Saxon said...

Thanks for this comment, because I've so gotten used to how it is here, it just seems normal. I'd probably be shocked in the US. Actually, one of the times I went back, I remember looking around for someone who would go to a register so I could pay for something, and when I finally found someone, they looked really annoyed that I wanted to pay for something! I don't think that's ever happened to me in Japan. Over the years, I've had a few bad experiences, but not many - and when paying, I can't remember any shop keeper looking irritated!