The discipline and dignity with which the Japanese operate the smallest activities is one of the foremost aspects of culture that I have noticed so far. The bakery employee took a couple extra seconds to wrap the pastry I had ordered, neatly placed it within rice paper, then folded it–as if she were doing origami– and finally taped the bag shut, handing it to me with a smile. I was running late and had forgotten to eat breakfast. The train was scheduled in a couple minutes, but I couldn’t bring myself to feel irritated with the amount of time she was taking to give me what I purchased. Through grit teeth, I admired it. I admired the dogged perfection. For a moment I thought, “In the U.S. they would just throw it in the bag with a completely insipid expression and then hand it to me.”
I ended up making my train, which came exactly on time. The dichotomy of rigidity and refinement– in train timings, in trash collection, in queuing up, even in walking, is astonishing. It’s a polarizing concept though, as some people consider Japanese culture to toe the line between order and oppression. However, I view it as an easier way to live life. I enjoy having rules. I enjoy how quiet trains are. There are little rebellions however, revealed in unconventional fashion sense and the gaggles of drunk salary-men showing rare displays of affection. They are meaningful and cause me to feel a sort of childlike glee, as if I were viewing flashes of someone’s true face between the constantly switching masks of public behavior.
The next thing I appreciate in Japan is the mood created by seemingly mundane occurrences. I have seen strikingly pastoral scenes playing out in the middle of a metropolis. One stuck out to me in particular– a girl in a long, flowing pale pink skirt sitting sideways on the back of a bicycle eating an ice cream. Pedaling away in front seat was a boy, hair neatly gelled, wearing a crested blazer, a crisp white button down and black slacks. They looked almost anachronistic– the scene belonged on an embroidered pillow or a storybook. A typical schoolgirl and schoolboy love story is ubiquitous in almost every culture, but seeing them uniformed like that, riding across town in the evening sunlight, filled me with a real sense of place, a nostalgic longing for someone else’s life. I saw other distinct groups of people, salarymen at midnight and their elusive moments of animation, their arms slung across each others shoulders. They sung along to a song in chipped, crooning voices. All this was very quaint, but I realized that this was everyday life for the people of Japan. That what I found so atmospheric was mundane to them. It’s easy to idealize the life of locals, but as a foreigner I had to have a conversation to pull myself down to earth.
The people that I was witnessing all around me were not zoo animals. These vignettes of other people’s lives that swirl around me, eventually they too will be colored by the commonplace, the invariable accumulation of familiarity, of daily dust, of the revelation that our positions on the globe are multi colored pinpoints on the same map.