One of the things that surprised me in Japan was how kind people were to foreign strangers. I’ve previously read enough to know that Japan has been a completely closed society in the past, and is still closed off in some ways to outsiders. I also know that it is a culture that can be hard on the individual, which can favor group think at times, and as a result can be casually cruel to those that don’t fit neatly into observed norms. I’m also not blind to the fact that I have a completely superficial understanding of their culture. I was there for a week. For the flight home I downloaded several books on the Japanese and their culture so that I might better understand what I saw.
However, none of this obscures the fact that on a surface level the Japanese are unbelievably courteous. You are greeted with smiles and kindness around every turn. If you need help it is there in spades. If you pull out a map and look lost, someone approaches you to find your way. If you drop something, someone will pick it up for you. If you are sick, like I was when I was there, their medical care is efficient, affordable, and the treatment is on a very human level. At hotels, stores, restaurants, and even just out on the street, they go out of their way to make you feel comfortable.
With only having a basic understanding of their culture, surely I am missing something. I am sure I am not picking up on basic signs that the Japanese would see. I was reading a book written by Japanese students and their professor called The Japanese Mind. It talks about how communication in Japan can be very ambiguous and that it is often in the subtlest of ways that their true intentions are communicated.
None of what I might be missing obscures the fact that the way they behave makes for a seemingly better everyday life. If someone smiles at you or says thank you here in America, even if it is just part of a professional courtesy, it can go a long way in improving your mood. If someone smiles at you, you often find yourself smiling back.
Often it is not the big problems in life that defeat us, but the small everyday indignities that make us suffer. I come from the North East where casual indifference seems to be the norm. When I moved to Austin I was amazed that strangers would wave to me as I went on a bike ride. I was astounded when I went to restaurants and people asked me how my day was with what seemed like actual interest. My first reaction was, “what the fuck do these people want to know about my day for?!!!” I was surprised at how quickly people were to hug me when I saw them, even people of whom I was only an acquaintance. All of these minor things added up over time though and led to a sunnier lifestyle. Austin is becoming more urban in attitudes and behavior as it grows, but it is still different than many places I have been in the US.
The Japanese don’t seem much for hugging, but aside from this they display this casual kindness in spades. Everywhere I went I was treated like what I am, a human being. Even if it is nothing but politeness, this behavior pays off. You feel your soul more relaxed and at ease. Even in the airport yesterday I felt a calmness in the air that I don’t feel when I am home. There at least feels like there is less anxiety in their way of life. I wasn’t alone in that everyone who I traveled with or met that was an outsider felt this way. I want to read and learn and get to the bottom of this, as it was simply an extraordinary experience. However, no matter what I dig up, I can say that there is something to be learned from these people. Being treated like a human being really is as nice as it sounds.