Thursday, 7 January 2010

"Position vacant: man-who-stands-on-street-corner-holding-baton. Must be able to work as part of large team and be able to maintain concentration and politeness over long, possibly uninterrupted, shifts. Ideally should have experience of assisting lost tourists. Experience as private traffic warden at quiet pedestrian crossings an advantage."
Ok, so I don't understand much Japanese, but this is how I imagine the job advertisement. Everywhere I go, there are roles which simply wouldn't exist anywhere else. They stand at every possible access point to street maintenance works, often in groups large enough to outnumber those actually performing the task, stopping and guiding the few people who don't find their own route around them down a parallel street. Yet they remain alert and cheerful, happy to help. Is this a short-time job or a career? Do they take turns to guard and repair? Are they happy to be doing it? Up and down the country, the face says yes. The same goes for the car park attendant stopping the occasional trickle of Thursday afternoon traffic to allow shoppers arriving infrequently on foot, such as me, to pass. He does so boldly, even keenly, as finally the situation justifies his presence - yet I would have been comfortable waiting for the car to cross before me.

What is the future for these workers, or for their distant cousin, the Narita Escalator Attendant? (Note from Editor: Sorry - this reflection is becoming a sadly consistent theme ..... get over it, Marc, and study). And, come to think of it, why were there no less than six students holding orange signs which read シートベルツ ('seatbelt') at the roadside of the last relatively quiet junction? Were they working or volunteering?

I go for a walk around my new neighbourhood. See more French-named places, including a local roadside "Cafe Raffine" which, ignoring the sign, looks just like a house. And I see more 100-yen shops, many more. Five minutes from my studio, I find a large shopping centre with supermarket; there's a large-ish 100 yen store on the first floor. I continue up the road for 10 minutes - there's another plaza and 100-yen store. Then I pass two more. Even a convenience chain store such as Lawsons has its own 100 yen version.

If astronomers do not yet know whether there is life on other potentially life-supporting planets in the universe, they are open to the possibility that there could be millions of such planets or there could be none. Well, Japan's shopping universe has galaxies of plazas sprouting Daisos and its competitors wherever you look, and life is certainly cheap and plentiful. (Whilst 100-yen is the benchmark, in Tokyo I've seen competition from 83 yen stores or somesuch. How the pricing cartel loves a lone maverick, to prove - not necessarily correctly - that it is not a cartel.)

Looping back on my way home, two red baton-wielding men rush out purposefully from the foyer of a huge hotel, raise their hands and stop the oncoming ring road traffic to allow a large limousine to exit, for all of fifteen seconds, before heading back towards the entrance. They then clear away something apparently ceremonial from the hotel front. I never hear car horns. Just another day in this strange consumerist constellation of quiet, shiny malls where little is left to chance, least of all my safety...

Footnote: Well. that's how it seems. In fact, Okazaki and nearby Toyota consistently have the highest death toll from road accidents of any city in Japan. Hopefully, though, we can comfort ourselves in the knowledge that toilet duck ingestion 'mishaps' are on a downwards trend.

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