Appreciation through absence

A short removal from Japan was all it took for me to truly appreciate it.

There comes a time no matter where you live or what you are doing that everything becomes normal, no longer extraordinary. I consider it a fortunate gift that I adapt easily and am not readily taken by culture shock or other unpleasant things stemming from change.

It did not take unreasonably long for me to become adjusted to life in Tokyo. Mostly keep your mouth shut and eyes open and you can slide into the never-ending flow of nameless faces that make up the Japanese workforce.

But this quick adaptation sometimes comes with apathy or underappreciation. It took five minutes on an international flight for me to realize how deep that underappreciation had taken root.

The people on my flight were awful. The worst, most unconscientious humans on this earth.

Or so I thought.

But really I had become so accustomed to living in the insulated sterility and safety that is Japan that I had forgotten what “normal” (i.e. non-Japanese) people are like.

For starters, they’re loud.

Because you don’t understand 95% of the words spoken around you, you begin to tune them out, relegating them to a soft white noise like an apathetic retail worker with Christmas songs by mid-December. But Japanese people also don’t speak as loudly or as openly. The quiet, reserved stereotype is true. Trains are nearly silent, even when they are packed to the point of tearing out the welded seams of some proud engineer’s work.

So being thrown onto a flight where people not only talked openly and freely in a language you understand, mouths uncovered mid-laugh, but talked in a volume usually only reserved for izakayas or karaoke, was a shock. I couldn’t believe how rude people were being. Couldn’t they be quiet? I shouldn’t be able to hear you from my seat. And your laughter! It was unrestrained and completely ignored the fact that I wanted to sleep on this late flight. Get it together people.

So loudness was an obvious indicator I was no longer in Japan. Personal space was another.

There is something fascinating about how the Japanese get around in such small spaces surrounded by such a large crowd of people. People rarely touch or bump into each other even though they are all crammed together so closely and tightly. Of course often that touching is unavoidable like on last trains, but even then you exchange the obligatory sumimasens and recognize the necessity of sharing that space.

Most people sit in their seats properly, not crossing their legs or touching their neighbors with their elbows or bags. They occupy their space and their space only. To enter someone else’s personal space is a rude intrusion.

You see this same attitude in the office. No one wants to bother anyone else. If someone needs something from you, they will always begin with, “sorry to bother you” or “excuse me, may I please ask you a question.” They are entering your space without an invitation so they proceed with polite caution.

But this plane in the sky was no longer in Japan. Personal space is a luxury I had forgotten about. It is not an assumed fact to be taken for granted. Japan pays for that luxury in exaggerated politeness and a near sixth sense ability of recognizing the walking patterns in crowds so large they are nearly impossible to count.

Unfortunately for my sadly softened resolve, my fellow passengers were not as willing to pay the same price for that luxury. People would lean over my seat while entering the row behind me, even grabbing the top of my seat above my head. Of course the man behind me kicked my seat on a regular basis. Families would treat the middle aisle as their own personal runway, exchanging food and conversation the entire flight.

These things don’t happen in Japan.

Japan is a place of calm order. Of old women walking corgis in sweaters while their grandchildren walk themselves home from school. A place where everything works and is obsessively organized. Where actions are conducted with an almost disgusting attention to detail and rules. A place where you feel safe and secure, albeit a little confused at times.

You may not know the language, but after getting over the first wave of settling in, Japan is easy. Is safe. Is boring in its expected perfection. Who knew you could get bored of things working properly?

It turns out you could. Or I did at least.

But my nine day trip to a nation best characterized by the sheer will of determination to succeed in an environment covered by the dust and squalor of corruption and poverty made me miss Japan. I enjoyed my trip and had a lovely time, but I was ready to come home. Home to Japan.

I was ready for things to work again. Ready for the ease of getting around and the plethora of conveniences Tokyo has to offer. For the vending machines that appear like weeds providing me with water and coffee for the low low price of a dollar.

Japan has made me soft and a transition to anywhere else is going to be difficult, but I am happy I’ve gotten this small insight into my weakened state before I move. Perhaps it won’t be a preview of what’s to come. And if anything else, this reverse culture shock or whatever it is has rekindled my interest in the country I flew halfway around the world to live and learn about.

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