As I rode home on my trusty bicycle this evening I was struck with a feeling that I have not felt for a long while. It was something that used to happen frequently to me when I was living in London, particularly in the 1st year there, while I was walking around doing nothing in particular at all. I might have been coming home from work, walking around town on the weekend or having a cappuccino outside a coffee shop and some non-event would spark a feeling of complete contentedness accompanied by three words, “I love London”. It’s this warm, satisfying feeling you get when everything about the place you live just feels right; you really do love it, both for its flaws and its soaring strengths. You laugh at the former and feel warmer because of the latter.
Thinking back on it, I’m not sure I had this feeling at all in my last year of living in London which is somewhat telling of the circumstances: I’d learnt everything I could from my job at the time, I was constantly on a budget with no pay rise in sight and all the lovely friends I was living with, 1-by-1, moved out of the house to live with girlfriends, buy houses, etc. Not to mention the house was absolutely freezing in winter. The insulation was so bad that we spent £500 on gas in one quarter in order to add 1 degree onto the thermometer, and in the summer we were constantly badgered by an irate banker who liked to intersperse singing happy songs about Jesus with spitting venom and C-bombs at us for talking in the back garden at 9pm.
Six months after moving to Japan, I’m riding my bicycle in the winter sun, wrapped in about 17 layers and on my way back from work. I pop into the foreign food store to pick up some nuts and oats (I’m on a bit of a mega health-drive at the moment) and then carry on my merry way while high school students cruise along the pavements nattering and giggling, and devil birds screech their hearts out. As I cycle along the road I come to some roadworks where a youngish guy is working. As I pass him, he stops, bows, beams me a massive smile and says “hello!” Five seconds later and there it is; “I love Japan”
The people of this country are what makes it so wonderful. There are so many things that annoy me here, and so many things that are painfully backward for a country that is supposed to have the 4th largest economy in the world (no central heating anywhere for instance), but its people are forever smiling, friendly and considerate. There is a feeling of togetherness and social responsibility here that we simply don’t have back home. Ashley went to Hong Kong and Thailand for Christmas and the other day she said to me that “Japan makes you more considerate”; the fact that everybody here cares if there is litter on the pavements means that you wouldn’t even dream of dropping the end of that chewing gum wrapper on the floor. This compared to say, Bangkok, Thailand where no-one cares about anyone else and there’s crap everywhere (literally in some cases). London’s just as bad; everyone’s out for themselves, grumpy and rude, and if someone is sick on the tube then most people will shuffle down the carriage and stare at the end of it as if the window to the next one had just become the most fascinating thing in the world. I have no doubt that the same scene in Japan would result in a flurry of neighbourliness and concern.
There are two different words for “sorry” in Japan; sumimasen and gomen, and you can extend the latter to “gomenasai” if you’re really sorry. Verbs change not only for the different tenses and negatives, but also according to the level of politeness you wish to use, of which there are three; casual, polite and humble/honorific. The verb “to go” for instance is “iku” in casual form and “ikimasu” in polite form. It’s “mairu” in humble form, but that’s only when they’re talking about their own actions. If someone in “humble mode” is talking about you going somewhere then it becomes “irasharu” or “oideninaru” in honorific form. All this craziness means that everyone is acutely aware of everyone else’s social standing, and if you walk into any shop or restaurant in Japan they will treat you with the utmost respect, beam smiles, address you like you’re some kind of feudal lord and thank you for your business before you skip merrily out of the door with your deep fried mashed potato.
I guess what I’m getting at is that, despite the bone-aching cold, the stone-age living, and those bloody birds, Japan is actually a jolly lovely place full of jolly lovely people. I will be sad to see the back of it when the time comes.