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Saturday, Nov. 28, 2009


Five is a beehive in this country

"Two's company, three's a crowd and four is a party."

Or so the saying goes:

But I wonder then . . . What's five? What's five when "three" and "four" have already lain claim to group identity?

Well, in people-packed Japan, I say, "Five is a beehive." For crowds in Japan do have that honeycomb flavor — and I don't mean they're sweet. Rather they invoke images of busy bees milling around in orderly chaos.

Learning to live among the bees is thus one of the challenges of any Western resident used to lower standards of public density. It's a lesson that we all come to master, whether we like it or not.

"To experience true crowds," an old friend once instructed, "You must go to Asia." He went on to say that the word "Asia" itself was derived from an ancient Sanskrit term, meaning: "Get off my foot."

And maybe he was right — in a fashion — for I have had my toes bruised here more than once. Not that I bear anyone any grudges. Between the mountains and the sea, there are lots and lots of Japanese feet and not so much land.

My worst crowd encounter? My wife and I received standing room only tickets for baseball legend Sadaharu Oh's final game, an autumn exhibition played in Kumamoto's Fujisakidai Stadium in 1980. The only accessible space lay behind the center field scoreboard — with no view of the field. Even there we didn't quite stand. Instead we were woven like a rope, and pressed and twisted into so many other fans that when I got home I swear I was wearing someone else's shirt.

At least I returned with my own wife, who — unlike me — had not had her feet crushed even once . . . Because she hadn't touched the ground. The surrounding squash of bodies had buoyed her along.

Of course, every day life is not that tight. I do not carry paint paddles to pry my way through throngs of pedestrians on the roads. Yet, I often follow the advice of an American coworker who played halfback in high school.

"Put your head down behind the person ahead of you and then follow them like you would a lead blocker. If you're lucky, they'll lead you straight from the station and right to the street."

And if you're unlucky, they might lead you straight to the wrong restroom.

The ever-present Japanese crowds make it virtually impossible for motion picture and television crews to film on location. That is, during reasonable hours. Producers get around the crowds by filming so early that even the morning birds appear unshaven and rumpled.

I find it a little uncomfortable to view familiar Tokyo sights with no people present, sort of like watching a close relative walk around nude. To me, such people-free scenes always rob films of credibility.

Crowd shock American-style, on the other hand, is often packaged as two little words — "Excuse me." Here's the scene:

I inch my shopping cart down an aisle at Wal-Mart, my eyes squinting with disdain at the shelves of shameless junk, while at the same time my heart is going cookoo for Cocoa Puffs. The shopping cart, which could double as a half-track, is already stacked with goodies, but I could still pack in a pallet of Cocoa Puffs if I wanted.

"Excuse me." The words flow from my right from a man pushing his own half-track. This in a shopping aisle wide enough for a whale migration.

It takes me a second to understand that — somehow — this gentlemen felt he and his cart were impeding my progress. His words are a polite apology. Perplexing because he would only be a bother if I swooned in a sugar high and fainted in his path.

Like this, I am often confused by the swift courtesy I meet in the Midwest. For I am not used to it anymore. When I smile in response, only half is in acknowledgment.

The other half is in disbelief. For in Japan I am either bumped, pushed, elbowed, leaned on, cut-off, diverted, slowed down, and forced to wait not only every day but — if traveling in rush hour — multiple times a day. Such is the essence of crowded life. And almost no one says, "Excuse me."

But I used to hear it here, years ago. I remember.

With the speaker being me. I can recall offering many a "Sumimasen" to pedestrians I felt I had blocked on the walkway or on the train. It felt it strange not to.

Until I learned one doesn't do that in the big city — maybe in any big city, anywhere. Now, with lessons learned, the opposite is strange.

So I guess I have become one with the bees. Not impolite, not cold. Just busy and too used to seeing people to really see them at all.

That's life in the beehive. And — perhaps — the only way it will work.

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