Monday, 09 May, 2005

First thoughts on Japan

Being illiterate is very frightening.  It's one thing to wander around in Mexico or on one of the Caribbean islands where the language is different but the writing system is similar to English.  I'm bright enough to puzzle out the meanings of many French or Spanish words because they resemble English words with which I'm familiar.  And I can pick up some conversation because words and inflections are similar, too.  My ability to communicate with the people in Mexico is limited, but I can make myself understood if I have to.

In Tokyo I'm illiterate.  I'm also unable to understand any of the spoken language or make myself understood if the person I'm trying to communicate with doesn't know English.  The place looks hauntingly familiar due to the abundance of American companies that have a presence (Starbucks Coffee, McDonald's, 7-11, Denny's, etc.), but most of the writing is indecipherable to me.  Place names very often are written in Romaji (the Japanese term for the Latin alphabet) as well as in Kanji, so at least I can give names to places, even if I don't pronounce them quite right.  But menus and descriptions aren't often written in English.  I have to rely on pictures in order to figure out what something is.  I can't imagine how frightening it would be if there were no familiar signs and no familiar-looking writing at all.

One of the things that will surprise you in Tokyo is how trusting people are.  The most evident for me was bicycles parked on the sidewalk, unlocked.  People dismount and park their bikes without locks, leaving them unattended for hours at a time.  Rarely is a bicycle stolen.  The first morning I was in Tokyo, I woke up and took my walk at 5:00 am.  Bicycles that had been left parked overnight were still there, unmolested.  The mountain bike with the flat tire shown on the left is a good example.  I can pretty much guarantee that a bicycle left overnight anywhere in downtown Austin would be gone long before 5:00 am.

Here's another example.  I took the picture on the right at 10:00 pm.  The display case is outside a shop on a side street just down from my hotel.  It's probably been there for years, unharmed.

This kind of thing is pervasive in the culture.  In the U.S., if you want to send a check or cash in the mail, you wrap it up in paper or make sure to send it in an opaque envelope.  You don't want anybody to know that there is cash in there.  In Japan, they have a special envelope that says, in effect, "Please Mr. Postman, be very careful with this letter because it contains something valuable."  That's difficult to imagine back home, huh?  I doubt the postman would take it, but you can bet there'd be people rifling through mailboxes on a regular basis.