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A Japanese Adventure…Part 2

Written by Lisa Spurgin, 7th May 2010

"...the Japanese point to their noses with their index finger."

Like many non-Brits the Japanese are amused by our concept of personal space. Yet they consider it confrontational to lock eyes with a stranger. Perhaps this is because of the expressiveness of the eye - of its potential to communicate deep feeling, because you couldn't accuse the Japanese of possessing a closed nature in the way we'd understand it. Overall the Japanese have proved to be disarmingly sweet-natured and gentle in their actions and emotions. The protagonist, Kenji, of In the Miso Soup considers the Japanese character to be an "insular" one. He also claims they are uninterested in 'gaijin' (foreigners). I've found them to be the opposite. The Japanese show their acknowledgement and respect by bowing. Although it is at first a little disorientating to find the 'smile-and-you'll-be-fine' rule doesn't apply in Japan (when an essential part of this succeeding is due to smiling with your eyes also), once I got the hang of bowing with an accompanying "Arigatou gozaimasu" ("Thank you very much"), it came to feel more respectful than catching someone's eye. I think this is because everybody - young, old, native, tourist - does it, so you feel part of a culture of easy politeness. I found myself musing about the two different body actions to indicate "I": how the Western gesture of pointing to your chest creates a slight barrier between you and another person by jutting out the elbow, whereas touching one's nose avoids this and encourages closer contact with the face. (An over-analysis if ever there was, but that's something I'm guilty of!) I hadn't realised how far I'd sunk into this expectation of geniality until I found myself on the other end of some unprovoked curt treatment from a shopkeeper in a book shop in Auckland airport. The change provoked disappointment and slight anger: proving how true it is that rudeness breeds rudeness, as friendliness engenders the like.

Slumbering commuters 'bow' as they sit on the Tokyo underground. No one who's travelled the London Underground will find it unusual to hear that we often found ourselves sat across from a whole line of people catching forty winks during rush hour, however the scene cuts a different picture in Japan. Japanese snoozers are copycats: all positioned with straight backs and chins tucked neatly into their chests, as if in silent unison not to disturb anyone else with an accidental loll onto a neighbour's shoulder. Our Australian friend Darren (Daz) captured this contrast perfectly one morning. We were catching the tube to Tsukuji fish market at 5am, after an all-nighter clubbing in nearby Roppongi (known for its nightlife), when he fell into a deep sleep. Unaware of his own head, he slept with it flung back and his lower jaw slackened, offering a perfect view of the roof of his mouth. This pose, which is familiar on public transport at home, looked incredibly out of place amongst the Japanese commuters.

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