Back in Japan

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When I walk around the city I feel like all semblance of nature has been scrubbed away and replaced with a simulacra of reality.

Coming back to Tokyo after just six months away after seven years of living here is surreal. Instead of feeling “natsukashii”, recalling all the things I’ve forgotten, it feels weirdly over-familiar, as if I was here yesterday but just have no specific recent memories. Amsterdam and all that has elapsed since I left seems like a dream that occurred at a non-specific point in time. Tokyo, meanwhile, is exactly how I left it, as if just before I hit my head and fell into an amnesiac six-month sleep.

There are some things that I notice now that feel different, however. The fug of thick humidity and the way my body swells in it, making my rings fit again. The bright, bright, white lights and the way maps of restaurants and menus are backlit with a piercing, blinding illumination. Walking the city at 10pm but feeling wired because all the lights are on and my pineal gland is pinging like crazy, sending spurts of adrenaline and cortisol and whatever other hormones do not go the fuck to sleep at night.

And the gentle, mildly embarrassed, extremely humble service that feels robotic for some of the time, or to newbies, but has years of encultured politeness and respect for the customer built in.

With S I talk about how Japanese politeness seems like a gentle mist being sprayed on you, or a warm blanket of care. On the plane I notice a Dutch air hostess puts a customs form on a Japanese woman’s sleeping lap and I think how Japanese people would never be so invasive — they put it in the magazine pocket on the back of the seat in front. The Dutch pilot apologises for changing the plane model and therefore the seating arrangements but then laughs bluntly: “But if we hadn’t changed the plane we wouldn’t have a flight, so be grateful!”

The Japanese hostess who makes the announcement in Japanese is breathy and emotive, apologising deeply for the change and the delay and all the trouble it caused, and you can tell her head is bowed as she speaks. There is no insinuation that we should be grateful that there is a flight at all.

To S and I (he native, I a long-term resident) the politeness is inoffensive, gentle. It is occasionally overbearing, a little too sickly sweet, but it feels familiar and comforting. Sometimes the Dutch bluntness and lack of service — or rather, the way people working in the service industry are just their usual selves, with no trained glaze, to the point that you know they are having a bad day or are hungover and don’t want to be there and would prefer to gossip with their colleagues than face you when they’re serving you — feels a bit like being jolted out of this soporific wonderland that is Japanese service.

But I also talk to R and C about how the superlative nature of Japanese service becomes a myth as soon as you want to do something beyond the rule book. Cancel a contract, for example. What a former Indian Ambassador to Japan described as “In Japan, everything is possible, but nothing can be done; in India, nothing is possible, but everything can be done.” What I also notice — what I have always noticed — is how pressure and stress service workers are encumbered with. It’s a hunched-shoulder, high stress environment.


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