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Sunday, Jan. 14, 2001

JAPAN LITE

Danger! Americans may smother you in kindness


I always get a kick out my students when they come back from the United States and exclaim, "Wow! Americans are so friendly!" Of course, what they really mean is, "Wow! No one even tried to kill us!"

These students usually go to America on a school trip, which is preceded by information sessions in which students assemble, pay money and are issued informational pamphlets and bulletproof vests. Short of group suicide, their trip is bound to be a success.

One student asked me before her trip, "If America is so dangerous, why don't Americans just move to another country?"

Now, I'm not trying to say that America is even close to being as safe as Japan. You can tell how safe Japan is by the fact that everyone walks around looking down. If you've ever watched Japanese people on their way to work, they come out of the train station, look down at the sidewalk, pick a line, and follow it till they get to their work place. If you ask me, that's a lot of people in La-la Land.

Not Americans. We are always aware of who is walking in front and in back of us, and who is approaching from the side. We call it "awareness," and it is important to survival in our country.

But even so, Japanese students come back surprised how safe America is. They are impressed that people opened doors for them, and always said "Excuse me." No one ever imagined such civilities would exist in America. After all, Japan is the country known for being polite.

Then perhaps these students went to the bank and were amazed that they didn't have to fill out any forms, bring their "inkan," show ID, or go to several different windows just to change yen into dollars. The bank teller didn't call her manager or count the money in front of a colleague. They didn't make people take a number. No one in the entire bank even had a stocking over their head.

Then they went to use the public transportation and were stunned to see that there was an established queue system for getting on and off.

This is unlike Japan where they're still on the funnel system. When I take the public bus in Japan to the university where I teach, I wait at the bus stop with all the students. When the bus arrives, there is a surge toward the door and as many as five people attempt to get through the door at the same time. There will be the left foot of one girl, plus the right platform shoe of the girl behind, plus an arm of a person sneaking in on the right side plus the Louis Vuitton bag attached to the hand of a person who suddenly appeared on the left, plus the head of the person in front whose whole body has made it on to the bus except for his head. Then there is me, the esteemed "sensei," now crawling on the pavement trying to get inside by catching a ride on someone's heel.

And did you know that Japanese people are known for being polite?

Students were astounded to see the queue system in place almost everywhere in America. In restaurants or shops that had a counter, the clerk kept people in line through mere eye contact. Then, if two queues should converge into one, the lines tended to automatically alternate, one person from each line giving the go-ahead to the other, a system I call "alternating dozo." To just slide into line without acknowledging the other person would be rude.

The danger of the queue is, if you should have to wait a very long time, you're likely to end up knowing more about the guy standing behind you than you care to. He'll tell you all about his 10 grandchildren, his latest gall bladder infection and, "How about them Steelers?" Now that guy will kill you -- with kindness.

Visit the Japan Lite home page at www.amychavez.com or e-mail comments to: amychavez@mailexcite.com


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