Saturday, 1 May 2010

I have now spent a cumulative total of six months in Japan, and never had an argument. Neither have I witnessed one. The closest I have come was a dirty look when I cut across a cyclist's path.

One early morning in Fukuoka, in summer 2008, I did once arrive at the after-scene of a fight. Within a short while, no less than four police cars had arrived and the two - yes, only two - brawlers were arrested. This was the kind of thing which would have been ignored in Ealing Broadway, England, on a Friday night.

Why is day-to-day life so peaceful? In a society where agreement is the ideal, even expected, it seems that everyone is at pains to out-apologise one another, even when entirely devoid of blame. Take this experience with hotel staff, who will do their utmost to uphold a guest's honour: Two years ago, during summer, I returned to my hotel in Kumamoto, Kyushu, and asked mistakenly for what turned out to be the wrong room key number. Remembering I was a guest, the receptionist obliged yet, when I returned red-faced having entered another guest's room, she was profusely sorry. I had been badly let down.

This rejection of annoyance and negative vibes works like mind over matter. "I'm not going to look accusingly at that clumsy blonde gaijin cyclist, and somehow now the tension's diffused and forgotten." (Well, just the once, it didn't happen.) In Japan, how to react is an art - one which I'm far from having perfected - and feelings follow suit.

Does this mean that the Japanese are a polite people? Not necessarily. A people who go out of their way to help others? Again, no. This isn't Syria. A couple of months ago, I watched a blind man negotiate with some difficulty his way along station platforms and up escalators, without a single passenger offering assistance. At Okazaki station one Saturday evening, I also witnessed a quietly inebriated man pass out when stepping out from a train and crash head first on to the hard platform. (Japanese drunkards, inevitably male, can rarely be accused of outwardly anti-social behaviour though.) Noone rushed to help him up; people skirted around him, as he lay there after a shockingly violent fall. Another passenger heading up on the escalator was even recording it on his mobile phone. When finally helped up by two young Japanese, he had an appalling facial cut which would have called for medical attention, yet - regaining consciousness -what did he say? "gomennasai". ("Pardon me.")

What the Japanese do is give you space. No hassle, no hard sell, nothing in-your-face. (Unless its a hard pavement.) But once they've given you that space, they're going to think twice before re-entering it.

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