Monday, May 24, 2010

Surprises in Japan

I've been living in Japan for a little over a month now, working as an English teacher in the suburbs an hour across the bay from Tokyo. Recently, I had dinner with a Japanese family from my school and the dad asked me, "What surprises, Japanese... surprises?" Translation- what surprised you when you first came to Japan? I didn't have an answer for him because I hadn't really thought about it.
Japan is the most developed country I've been to besides the U.S., and generally when living in a new country, what surprises me is the lack of development, like open sewers in Ghana or a dead person on the sidewalk in Bangkok. The most surprising thing I found in Japan was how utterly unsurprised I was being in a foreign country. All I came up with in answer to the dad's question was something about the amazing toilets with their heated seats, "they have sooo many buttons," I said, and the fact that you could get beer and hot coffee from a vending machine. But there has to be more, I thought. What surprises me about this country?
Since being asked I've realized Japan has surprised me in a lot of ways, albeit more subtle a shock than when I found out quarter size moles were considered attractive on a man's face in Cambodia, the hairier the better, and the more the merrier. I was somewhat surprised to find that in Tokyo, you can sleep almost anywhere- draped across chairs in a club, at a coffee shop with your head resting alongside your coffee and muffin, in the street, in the park, on the train, in your own vomit, in your friend's vomit, at an internet cafe, on wet pavement, on dry pavement, on a rock, in a tree, anywhere you are able to sleep, you can, without being arrested or even frowned upon. Well, maybe a little frowned upon, but it's hard to tell. You at least won't get arrested, or kicked, which is surprising.
If you get lost, and ask a Japanese person for directions, instead of pointing you in either the right direction or the wrong direction, you will most likely be escorted to your destination, for free. You can drink anywhere- in the street, on the train, at the park, in dark alleys, well-lit alleys, anywhere. Five Michael Jackson songs in a row is not unheard of at a club, maybe not uncommon, in the very least it is a viable option.
My neighbors are silent. The trains are silent. Except once, when I was in a train car with a crazy old woman, about 3 feet tall, who was talking loudly to herself. Every head was turned toward her and shamelessly gaping at her. Two thirty-something men tattled on her to a train guard and the train was silent again. Sleep might be irrelevant. I was surprised the first time I left a club and was greeted by the sun, crows gawking at staggering club goers, a DJ standing outside waiting for his shift to start, 24 hour sushi bars packed full of people with tired danced legs and lingering inebriations, enjoying bright pink salmon shots of euphoria in the blue morning light, night and day meeting in secret and running together like two drips of paint.
But I didn't know how to tell this to the dad at the time so I did what I usually do when I can't answer a question, I asked about his experience. I asked what surprised him about the U.S. when he visited. His answer- the people were very nice and friendly, and people asked him for money. What a great answer. If asked again what surprises me about Japan I'll reply with this- "The open liquor container laws are so friendly and I saw a man asleep in his vomit and it's very quiet here, it's so quiet I can barely hear anything."