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Saturday, March 12, 2005

JAPAN LITE

Respect carries a high price tag in Asia


I often meet people who are taking off a few months to travel through Asia. These people spend months traveling through China, Thailand, Singapore, Malaysia, etc., but they invariably skip Japan.

"Why not Japan?" I ask them. Most people say it's because it is too expensive. Japan is expensive to fly into, expensive to get around in, and who recognizes the food anyway? Every year, thousands and thousands of travelers skip this amazing country of samurai castles, ancient Buddhist temples and unique arts. But Japan is even more than that.

Travelers who do visit Japan come back with not only fantastic stories of what they saw, but equally fantastic stories of how kind and polite the people are. It's true that Japanese people go out of their way to take care of foreigners. But not just foreigners. The daily respect shown among themselves is admirable. What makes Japan is the people. And there are no people quite like the Japanese.

When I got off the airplane at Kansai International Airport in Osaka the other day, I took a place in the queue in front of the Haruka Express. The train doors were closed and everyone was waiting patiently. The train had just come from Osaka Station, but we could not board until the train had been cleaned. And cleaned.

First, I watched as someone walked up and down through every car, picking up trash the passengers had left. One sweep, quick and efficient -- finished! But not yet.

Next, a different employee passed a silent vacuum cleaner between the rows and seats. This took some time, but the person was very thorough. Finished? Certainly not.

Another person walked down the aisle with a dust cloth and wiped down every armrest.

Now, finally, we could get on the train. But wait! There was one last thing to do. Of course, how could I forget? The last thing to do was for someone to walk down the aisle and change the direction of all the seats so they would face forward for us. With the cleaning finished, certainly now we could board the train. Um, no.

One more person did one last thing: an inspection! All seats and floors were scrutinized. The inspection must have been perfect, because an impeccably uniformed cleaning lady with a pink apron soon appeared at the doors and invited people onto the train. Whew! But of course, this service should be expected. After all, we're passengers.

Once on the train, it soon filled with the sounds of employees doing their jobs: the nasal "droning" of the ice cream lady pushing her cart and singing out, "Aisu kuriimu de gozaimasu!" and the train conductor's "click-click" as he punched tickets with white-gloved hands. The passengers said, "Sumimasen," excusing themselves as they settled into seats next to strangers. On the hourlong ride to Osaka, only a few people chose to recline their seats. The rest wouldn't want to inconvenience the person sitting behind them. These are the subtle reminders that you're in Japan.

This level of respect for other people and their feelings is something I have found nowhere else. Japanese people are not just polite to each other, but respectful. Politeness is a mannerism, but respect is a virtue. These admirable traits of the Japanese that should be emulated by other cultures, are not. Instead, they are skipped on a trip through Asia, never to be known.

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