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Welcome to TokyoFreePress Saturday, March 25 2017 @ 12:50 AM JST

Too close for comfort

Left: Talking escalator at a JR station
Right: Talking teller machines at a UFJ branch

The other day I discussed with a couple of my few Japanese friends, over a small dinner and sake, these nuisances we have to deal with everyday. After the heated argument that lasted almost four hours, I realized all anew that even these exceptionally intelligent persons think I was just exaggerating the downside of the Japanese way of life. They even insisted these incessant and pervasive oddities sometimes make our everyday life more convenient and comfortable than a life without them.

Although I failed to convince them, I still believe wherever there are signs that a sociopolitical system is rotten to the marrow, as is undeniably the case with our nation, the underlying culture cannot be sound, "unique" or not.

There are some examples below:

At the train station

It's not that all escalators at Japanese train stations talk. But if you are a foreign visitor thinking about using the public transportation system, you've got to be prepared to encounter an escalator or two that keep talking to you in amicable female voices. For instance if you get off the train at Sakuragi-cho station to visit the historic sites scattered around the port city of Yokohama, you hear one of the Japan's most talkative escalators keep talking to you. Actually they tirelessly go on chirping from 4:30 a.m. through well after midnight.

The taped voices of Japanese-speaking and English-speaking ladies are alternately giving you the following instructions over and over:
1) Be sure you always hold on to the handrail as a precaution.
2) You should stay between the yellow lines because otherwise, your toes may get stuck [underneath something].
3) You should refrain from climbing up or down the escalator using your own feet because in doing so you may harm yourself or others.
4) The escalator can come to an emergency halt at any moment when "she" senses something wrong. So take utmost precaution until you get off "her".
5) Also hold on tight to your personal belongings because otherwise they might fall off your hand.
6) Especially keep a watchful eye on your kids.

My friends maintained that the Japan Railways is doing the right thing presumably because they are concerned about a possible rate hike at the next renewal of their liability insurance policy.

At the Automatic Teller Machine

As you approach the savvy machine, "she" recognizes you and starts off an amicable conversation:

ATM: "Welcome to the UFJ teller machine."
You: "My pleasure."
ATM: "Insert your card into me."
You: "Gotcha."
ATM: "Touch the relevant button to proceed with the type of transaction you have in mind."
You: "Gotcha."
ATM: "Give me your 4-digit PIN. Be sure you key in the code very accurately and slowly."
You: "Gotcha."
ATM: "Now I'm belching out your card and a slip as a proof of this transaction. Please be sure you don't leave anything behind."
You: "Now I've picked them all up. Where's my cash?"
ATM: "Here you are. Be sure you've collected the right amount you wanted to withdraw from me."
You: "Sure, I did."
ATM: "Thank you very much."
You: "You're welcome. Actually it's not a big deal. I just wanted to withdraw some money from my own bank account."
ATM: "I hope you'll come back to me soon."
You: "Will do."

For your information: If you are quick enough in going through these steps, she skips some of these lines.

On the phone

At the hotel, you call up your Japanese friend, Junichiro.

You: "Junichiro?"
Junichiro: "Uh-huh."
You: "Guess ..."
Junichiro: "Uh-huh."
You: "... who's calling."
Junichiro: "Uh-huh."
You: "It's me -- Alex."
Junichiro: "Uh-huh. ... Yeah! ... Really? ... Uh-huh."
You: "I just wanted to let you ..."
Junichiro: "Uh-huh."
You: "... know I arrived ..."
Junichiro: "Uh-huh."
You: "... in Narita late last ..."
Junichiro: "Uh-huh."
You: "... night."
Junichiro: "I was really ..."
You: "...."
Junichiro: "...surprised to know...."
You: "...."
Junichiro: "Do you hear me?"
You: "Sure, I do."
Junichiro: "... you came here ..."
You: "...."
Junichiro: "Hear me?"
You: "Sure, I do. I'm just ..."
Junichiro: "Uh-huh."
You: "... half-asleep because..."
Junichiro: "Uh-huh."
You: "... of the jetlag."

This way you learn your Japanese friend starts feeling very uneasy every time your silence lasts more than three seconds.


I was coming to this part of my 100th blog piece -- "laundry forecast" -- when I read Amy Chavez' weekly column, "Japan Lite", in the Oct. 29 issue of the Japan Times. Amy is a prominent humorist living in Japan for almost two decades now. She's American but has assimilated very well into this culture, much more than I am. On the surface she is just funny. And yet she seems to have difficulty, at times, adapting to this culture, judging from this statement of hers: "Sometimes, the only way to survive a foreign culture is through humor."

Since she just went ahead of me, I thought I might as well just quote some of her paragraphs below here:

"It's the change of seasons in Japan and the favorite time of year for TV weather forecasters as they make comments and give advice to their viewers. 'It is normal for people to feel hot during the daytime but cold at night,' observes one weather forecaster. 'Tomorrow people should carry a foldup umbrella,' advises another. 'People should carry a jacket tomorrow.' Gee, thanks."

Another paragraph goes like this: "The Laundry Forecast. Yep, you get advice about hanging out your laundry in accordance with the weather. And the Laundry Forecast comes with animated icons: T-shirts on the clothesline, socks dancing in the breeze. They seem to believe that telling you when to hang out your socks will make their TV station more competitive."

Every TV station here is running a variety show exactly at the same time of the day and exactly in the same format, i.e., covering a wide variety of topics ranging from serious news to entertainment and sports, to weather, to today's horoscope. And each one of these shows is cast by almost a dozen too familiar TV personalities (at a time) including makeshift political commentators, entertainment reporters, weather forecasters, and a half dozen cuties whose role is just buzzing and frolicking around in the overcrowded studio no matter whether the ongoing topic is the postal privatization bills or the recent revelation of an extramarital affair an actress is having. When it's time for the weather forecast, normally two to three of them (at a time) come to the fore. When one of them is presenting the forecast, including the laundry stuff, the other one or two, peppers the main forecaster with preplanted questions about when to hang out socks, whether to carry a jacket when getting to work, etc., while at the same time keep nodding assuringly to one another, saying, "Oh, is that so?", "Really?", "That's too bad," and so on.

Regular concerts given by garbage trucks

The garbage truck comes along to collect your garbage every second morning. You can count on these junkmen to pick up your raw garbage very punctually. The problem is, they feel obliged to spread an awful noise pollution all over your neighborhood in exchange for the stinky stuff they are collecting. The number played by the garbage truck varies by municipality. But most typically, you listen to "Comin' thro' the rye" played at full blast, three-times a week. They play the same, old Scottish tune over and over, with unimportant announcements by the city hall in between, such as, "Don't remit money to a person who identifies himself just as 'me' simply because he asked you to."

I don't know who started this absurdity, and when -- except that some 3, 4 decades ago we were already a captive audience of one and the same cheerful tune composed by Jonny Heykens throughout the nation. But I do know how they came up with the idea of staging the early-morning concerts in the streets. Just like everyone else, the guy who initiated this must have thought this would be the most effective signal to stimulate us to put out the garbage on time. For an unknown reason, people here have long been preoccupied with the idea that creating a set of fixed associations for all to share (e.g., one between Heykens and garbage) is practically the only workable way to get things going in an orderly fashion in this community inhabited by dim-witted and incompetent people. Perhaps they are just applying the Pavlov's theory to themselves.

Real implications of the wet-nursing

In short you can never expect these people, and machines, to let you alone at any moment or any place in your daily life. If you are going to have to visit this country for the first time, for an inevitable reason, I assure you that these incessant and ubiquitous episodes of wet-nursing will drive you crazy, at least at the beginning. But over time you will get used to, or become immunized against, the disturbing behavioral patterns of the Japanese.

In the interim, however, you will learn that the only effective way to cope with the mass-stupidity is, as many foreign visitors and residents do, to make believe it's just a unique expression of niceness and hospitality most Japanese harbor toward foreigners, unless you think about buying yourself a pair of earplugs, that is. That way foreigners can even feel flattered, if they don't really like to see their Japanese hosts overdoing it, because in fact we are the world's most caring, polite, sensitive, apologetic, and thankful species, for some historical reason.

On the other hand, the problem we locals have with these ridiculous practices is by far more serious. It's no laughing matter. For us Japanese these annoyances cannot be mistaken for these commendable attributes my fellow countrymen are said to be endowed with. Among locals, the real implication of these disturbances is that we are all considered toddlers regardless of our biological age, as General Douglas MacArthur observed some sixty years ago.

In fact this is more than just a matter of implication or assumption. Actually we are trapped in a vicious circle as people, on the one hand, crucially lack in self-reliance and on the other, tend to babysit each other in this "close-knit" society. I don't think I'm exaggerating the situation if I say this nation has no future unless it can emancipate its people from the spell of the pathological problem they have been suffering en masse in the last four centuries.

Frank Sinatra might sing:

Be soft, be sweet, but be discreet
Don't go off your feet, she's so close for comfort
Too close, too close for comfort, please, not again
Too close, too close to know just when to say when.

Postscript: Prominent columnist Amy Chavez has cited this piece in a November 2 entry in her blog, The Daily Moooo!, which I appreciate very much. ·

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