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Sunday, July 29, 2007

COUNTERPOINT

Erring voyager roots for Japanese courtesy that can't be beat


Special to The Japan Times

Has anything like this ever happened to you?

You arrive at a main train station in a foreign country. You have a bad cold and a high fever. You proceed to lose your wallet containing all your ID cards and money. Desperate, you rush to the information counter and explain your plight to the person there. I forgot to say that it is late at night and the name of your youth hostel, which you do not remember, is written on a piece of paper in your wallet.

This is what happened to my wife, before we were married, when she arrived in Tokyo by herself many years ago.

The young woman at the information counter led her all the way through Tokyo Station, from the Yaesu entrance to the Marunouchi side, where the Lost and Found office was located. As great good fortune would have it, my wife's wallet was there.

"Please count the money and check the cards to see that everything is there," said the young woman, who was a public servant working for the then-national railways.

"Yes, everything's here," said my wife, "all the money and everything."

Perhaps something like this has happened to you, minus, however, the happy ending. When I was pickpocketed on Red Square in Moscow in 1970, I went immediately to the police station to make a report. The officer in charge stared at me sneeringly and said, "How do I know if you had a wallet in the first place?"

Japan's culture of courtesy and service is, without doubt, one of the national treasures of this country. The difference between the service culture here, and that elsewhere, was again brought home to me earlier this month, when I made a trip to Sydney and back.

Liquids, gels and aerosols

Most readers will be familiar with the new regulations regarding liquids, gels and aerosols in carry-on luggage at airports. I was familiar with them, too, but mistakenly assumed that they didn't apply to liquor. I had bought two 750 ml bottles of the old familiar juice in the city, and put them in my carry-on bag.

Well, as you can guess, after my bag went through the X-ray machine, the customs officials, two young women, asked me to open it.

"What are these bottles?" one asked.

"Oh, this is just liquor."

"I'm sorry," they said, "these cannot be taken on board the plane."

"Oh dear, I'm sorry," I said. "I didn't know."

Then one of the young women smiled.

"Look, you still have time. Why don't you take these bottles out of security and check them. Then it will be fine."

I was traveling without checked luggage and didn't want to be held up on arrival in Sydney.

"That's very kind of you," I said. "But I'll leave them here."

The other young woman looked at me sympathetically.

"Oh, it's a real shame! I'm sorry," she said.

All in all, it was I who was at fault, and I actually went on to passport control with a good feeling about this, if you will, sobering experience.

Now for the nightmarish round-trip ending to this story.

On my way back, I naturally went through the security check at Sydney airport. I thought I was well within the regulations this time, albeit with two little jars of food in my carry-on bag, but neither of them liquid. (One contained dried tomatoes; the other, shredded pickled beetroot.) I was taking these to Tokyo to use in a dinner party I was planning to throw for friends.

As Tokyo airport, I was again asked to open my bag. This time a young woman and young man did the checking. The woman held up the jars and, with a look of disdain, said, "You can't take these on the plane!"

"Oh my god," I said, "I'm really sorry. I thought it was OK, because they were . . .

"Well, they're not OK," she said, plonking the jars on the counter.

The young man picked up the jar of pickled beetroot, shook his head and threw me an exceedingly unpleasant and condescending glance. I blushed, perhaps not beet red, and bowed my head — a habit I have got into after nearly 40 years of Japanese life.

Then the young woman shocked me.

"Eat it."

"Pardon?"

"You can eat it here if you want to."

The two of them exchanged glances, smirking.

"No, that's OK. I'm sorry but I'd rather not."

I again bowed, zipped up my bag, and made my way, in a bit of a daze, between brightly lit duty-free displays.

Bad taste in the mouth

Now, I am the first to admit that I was in the wrong and that I have no recourse but to stew in my own beetroot juice over my transgressions. I believe firmly in the wisdom of these regulations and do not think the officials in either Tokyo or Sydney were acting incorrectly — though I do fail to see how shredded pickled beetroot classifies as a liquid, gel or aerosol.

But the way in which I was treated in Sydney left a very bad taste in my mouth. Were I a non-Australian, I might just decide that it wasn't worth going back to that country.

Another contrast in manners which I see often at airports occurs at passport control. I have never once been spoken to rudely at a Japanese airport, but have been gruffly ordered about ("Stand behind that line!") at airports elsewhere. I have also seen many incidents of extremely rude behavior, bordering on racism, at airports in Australia, the United States and Europe.

I believe the culture of courtesy and service in Japan is the best in the world, and this has been attested to me over the years by many non-Japanese from countries I have never been to. The world has adopted and assimilated many aspects of Japanese culture, in areas such as art, design and architecture; cuisine; animated film; and various facets of pop culture, such as karaoke.

Wouldn't it be wonderful if trained Japanese people could be sent to the airports, train stations and department stores of the world to give the officials and employees there some sensitivity training.

Whether you are a tourist who has lost your wallet, or a seasoned traveler who has shredded your beetroot, you deserve a helping hand and a sympathetic smile.

Culture is more than cartoons and karaoke. It is about how we act when we are in an official position to humiliate and antagonize, or help and encourage, each other. If the rest of the world were like Japan, common courtesy would be much more common than it is.



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