once upon a time in tokyo

Given my fascination with garbage, toilets, traffic and courtesy, it’s not surprising that even after 8 years, those are the things I remember my visit to Japan by.

You won’t see many garbage bins on the streets of Japan. Because you are meant to take care of your own garbage, and take it home, and recycle it responsibly. Tourist spots particularly are kept free of garbage bins, so that people don’t burden the place with tons and tons of waste. At a ceremonial tea ceremony, our guide said that it would be impolite to leave our used tissues behind, for the host to dispose of, and we were asked to put them discreetly into our own pockets.

In Tokyo, the local buses showed the same disregard for pedestrians as our very own BEST buses. But inside the bus, two older women wanted to give us their seats, because we were their country’s guests. It’s only after Asako, one of the organizers of the Yamagata Documentary Film Festival insisted that we were fine standing, that they settled back into their seats. They took advantage of Asako’s English to ask us some basic questions, where we were from, did we like it in Japan, were we having a good time.

In Tokyo, we were living in a hotel marginally better than a capsule hotel. A mattress, a small TV, hooks on the wall for clothes, but everything was scrupulously clean. Each floor had common toilets, again very clean, and everything provided for, bathroom slippers, bath robes, soaps, shampoos, washing detergents, sanitary napkins, a washing machine. Even at the festival theaters in Yamagata, the toilets were stocked with all the supplies. The toilets at Tokyo station stank a little, but that is to be expected with a daily traffic of around 490000 people. But even so they were cleaner than the toilets at most malls here.

During the festival screenings, people automatically took seats from the centre outwards, making sure that when others arrived later, they could take the outer seats with minimum inconvenience to themselves or others.

An Iranian interpreter who has lived in Japan for several years, said that it’s a formal culture. She said she’s never entered the houses of her neighbors. All conversations take place at the door, or the entrance area. But she admitted that it could be because the houses are very small.

However she said, the Japanese love giving gifts. And they love celebrating nature. The Japanese will take off on full moon picnics, or looking at the cherry blossom picnics.

Asako, was abashed by my unabashed admiration of Japanese culture. She argued that the rigid sense of courtesy and duty also led to depression and the highest rate of suicides in the world. She also thought that younger people were rebelling against the values of courtesy and duty imposed on them by tradition.

But I was not convinced. On my way out to Tokyo, waiting for my flight at the Mumbai airport, I was sitting across two Japanese teenage girls. They had punk hairstyles, several body piercings, loud make-up,Β  stereotypes of teenage rebellion. In my usual nosy-parker way, I watched them chattering to each other in a language I could not eavesdrop on.

Then, they scattered a packet of jelly beans on the airport floor. Without missing a beat of their conversation, they wereΒ  on the floor, picking up each and every jelly bean that had rolled out. They collected the sweets and dumped them into a garbage bin, while they continued talking merrily, tossing their pink and purple heads.

I’m not so sure whether Indian teenagers would have done the same.

A 17 year old niece who’s lived in Canada for the last 8 years, came back after 6 years recently. She told her mother, “Looking at the way people drive here, I think no one cares for anyone else.”

Her mother said, “And I don’t think they care much for themselves either.”


  1. I was crossing the road yesterday evening with a friend. From force of habit (crossing roads with the kid), I held his hand. When we were crossing back, before I realized what he was upto, he held both my shoulders and pushed me through the traffic, saying, lets do an experiment. Surprisingly, the vehicles stopped in their tracks, and we made it, without a scratch. I was furious, but he was laughing.
    Is this an Indian thing, to play with life as a hobby?

    • Grasshopper, I hate it when people do that. As it is, crossing the road is a nightmare for me, at the best of times. Yes, I do think we value life too little.

  2. Wow.. Japan rocks, and so does your account of the visit. I think courtesy doesn’t depend on age, and it is not fashionable to be rude. I may fall in the older generation now, but I don’t remember being rude say 10 yrs back, when I was a teen. And wouldn’t pardon it in my child either. Age is a very poor excuse for lack of common civil sense.

    • Violet, I do think that courtesy needs to be taught since childhood. There’s no reason why the young or the old should be rude. I did like Japan, I was there for 10 days, and came back with good memories. I know other people who weren’t so pleased with their visits there. But that’s true for any place in the world, isn’t it?

  3. I just read an amazing book by Lynne Truss, called
    Talk to the Hand
    The Utter Bloody Rudeness of Everyday Life
    (or Six Good reasons to Stay Home and Bolt the Door).
    It’s certainly tempting to do just that!

    I can, however, be quite nasty to tele-marketeers, especially if they call at siesta time.

    • Dipali, Must get hold of the book.

      Yes, I can be rude to tele-marketeers too, especially in the afternoons. But since a lot of kids I know are now working at BPOs, it’s made me more sympathetic. I keep thinking, it’s some young kid, probably a first job, and do hang up, but try not to be too harsh.

      • I generally deal with tele-marketers not rudely (at least I like to think that) but firmly: “I’m really sorry, but I’m not interested,” or something along those lines. And wherever it’s a brand/service that I know I’m likely to never use, I request them to take me off their list. Doesn’t always work, but still.

        • Dustedoff, Trying to get your name off any list seems to be impossible, these days. The DND feature offered by mobile phones hardly ever works, either.

  4. Nice write-up, Batul. I had a similar experience on my first visit to Toronto almost ten years ago. It was spring and still bitterly cold (for me). I was walking outside Eaton Centre and an old homeless man was sitting outside on the pavement. A young teenager, complete with punked hairstyle and piercings, walked by me, went into the Burger King next door, bought a hot meal for the man and handed it to him before walking on to wherever he was going. Appearances can be deceiving and I sometimes wonder if we give the kids too little credit, especially for living in a culture that constantly requires them to negotiate between two or more conflicting sets of values.

  5. If a stranger had kept the lift waiting for me in Bombay, I certainly would’ve noticed! In the 6 years I lived there, I can’t recall a single such occurrence – though I have heard that courtesy did/does exist in the city. (To be honest, I was equally thoughtless!) On the other hand, Japanese courtesy sounds rather rigidly formal. It would be a nice experience, but I would be terrified of committing a faux pas!

  6. Bollyviewer,πŸ™‚ I’m sure that courtesy does and does not exist in every city. But as Indians we are moving faster and faster towards uncivil behaviour, noise pollution, disregard of traffic rules, garbage piles, all of it indicate a lack of basic concern for other people. I am sure Japanese culture is too formal, but I guess we can try to find a balance between that rigidity and our utter chaos!

  7. Wow.
    I want to go visit Japan a little more now!πŸ˜€
    I was completely oblivious to the fact that people existed who were so courteous and who would these days, really go through the trouble of asking foreigners how their visit was and how they like it here?That’s something so fresh and something I’ve never heard about ever here.It feels like no one really has the time to look around and lend a helping hand to someone,acknowledge a hand reaching out to help them which makes me think about why I really even bothered trying to be nice or to be kind and help someone who in the end puts their nose up in their air and walks away like the female who seemed to be in a hurry did today when I moved away from the auto because she started screaming at the auto driver about how he can stop for a guy when a female is standing there waiting for a rickshaw.
    Incredulous behaviour like this makes me wonder why I even bother?
    Maybe it’s the teenage rebellious nature that makes me think that but that’s what this post got me thinking about.
    Sorry about the long reply but it just happened today and I had to get it off my mind.
    I love your posts and hope you keep writing.

  8. Lost Kid, Yes, you should go to Japan. Above everything else, it’s also a beautiful country.πŸ™‚ As for rude people, well, I guess, there are all kinds that make the world.

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