Saturday, 3 September 2011

Tokyo - How the smallest things make the greatest difference

One cannot in fairness judge an entire society by first impressions. However, my first three days in Japan have presented me with the following:

-Customs officials at Narita Airport who did not harangue, demand and interrogate me, but dealt efficiently with my papers and politely welcomed me to Tokyo. I recall my arrivals of old at Heathrow, into immigration halls packed with anxious foreigners, confronted with onerous or intimidating features such as "Britian is tightening its borders" posters or other such menacing displays, designed to make it as uncomfortable an experience as possible even for British passport-holders, let alone the asylum seekers who duly get thrown out because of Britain's institutional prejudice towards outsiders.

-Extremely helpful and friendly civil officials at the Setagaya ward office, who despite the language barrier helped me through the Alien Registration procedure as though they felt every moment of their service to be a privilege.

-A gentle and aesthetic atmosphere in public settings: trains, shops and so on usually play relaxing and cheery music, have calming colour schemes, make announcements in pleasant tones of voice, and have "kawaii" pictures or diagrams on just about everything – even on formal documents and government information posters, which takes so much stress out of bureaucracy. Even my washing machine makes happy beepy noises.
(I sense those "kawaii" pictures or anime-faces have a great pragmatic function, in fact: by displaying people or creatures in emotional conditions appropriate to the theme – like the trembling and sweating fellow on the poster informing foreigners what to do if they overstay their visas – society displays empathy, connects to the people reading, which is far more effective at informing or persauding people than faceless stick figures, blunt commands with threats of fines, or you-are-a-microbe Legalese.)

-The aforementioned official posters, along with signs and warnings more generally, appear on average less didactic or threatening, and more encouraging or respectful. Even a simple "please" on the front of "give up this seat for someone who needs it" or "stand on the left" makes for a more comfortable civic environment – still more so when accompanied by those little cartoons of happy chibi-people hugging or the like.

-It's also intriguing that there are vending machines on practically every street corner – I saw it estimated that there is 1 per every 23 people in Japan – and all these machines are clean, functional, and offer a great variety of affordable drinks: water, tea or coffee, juice, and vitamin or energy beverages. Especially welcome considering it currently averages about thirty degrees Celsius here.

Again, it would be premature to reach comprehensive conclusions from these surface-level observations. A fairer conclusion however is that all these things make daily life a much nicer experience than in, say, London: and most importantly, these are not massive government policies or expensive investments, but small, simple acts of thoughtfulness or kindness, of empathy or consideration for the fact that other people are living creatures too; things any society could do in ways unique to their own cultures to improve the lives of everyone in them, at no ideological cost and negligible expense.

Tokyo is of course no less commercialized and urbanized than London. If nothing else, in so challenging an environment to what humans have been used to for millennia, every little glimmer of underlying humanity that reaches the surface makes an enormous difference.

1 comment:

  1. Welcome to the land of cuteness! Between the aftershocks and worrying about the future of mother earth, I hope you will have time to search for the vending machines that sell fresh bananas and fresh flowers. Very handy in case you woke up in the middle of the night and craved for the smell of fresh seasonal flowers. They are in Shibuya. Dede