Paradoxically, it appears to me that all modern airports look alike. So much so that if one does not pay too much attention to the advertising or the names of cafes and restaurants, it is possible to contemplate that one is in some neutral zone; a holding place. Certainly that is how I felt when I arrived in Hiroshima Airport, although I do have to state that I was impressed with the speed of the arrival of our suitcases and the general absence of loud noises around us. Moving outside the terminal, it was comforting to note that cars drove on the “right side of the road” and that the general appearance of both traffic and roads aptly portrayed a modern, developed country.
All very comforting and especially important as one’s body is reeling from the effects of flying across many time zones. Yet, not all is as it seems. As one begins to move around and interact with the people in the city, it soon becomes apparent that appearances can be deceiving. In truth, Japanese culture is so alien to us. What is worse is that it is precariously easy for us to give offense without the slightest knowledge of having done so. Indeed, there is a veritable “mine field” of possible ways to cause offense, starting with wanting to use the toilet and not changing into the toilet slippers that are placed there for our use! Or sniffing (actually there ought to be a more descriptive word for this process) in public rather than blowing one’s nose! Or getting on a bus or tram at the front when the correct way is to enter via the middle door!
There is a phrase that is introduced to newly arrived people in Japan, which they are invited to learn. That phrase is yoroshiku onegaishmasu, and these two words alone tend to epitomize the complexities of the new culture that we find ourselves in. Yoroshiku onegaishmasu is a magic phrase that softens future requests, expresses gratitude and makes everybody feel good. Obviously, there is no literal English translation, and it has a multitude of possible uses, but it could serve to state the following: “Hello, I am your new neighbor. Thank you for looking after me, and I apologize if my music is too loud or I cause offense.”
It may well seem an unlikely prospect, but it actually works. It works because Japan is such an ordered society wherein people have to learn to live successfully, and harmoniously, in such close proximity to others. Space is a premium in Japan, which is so densely populated, and thus living accommodations are tiny in comparison to standards in the West. It stands to reason, therefore, that strong social agreements, etiquette, are so necessary if the society is going to thrive. Learning those agreements is the biggest challenge to a newly arrived Gaijin (outside person or foreigner). Yet fortunately the Japanese people are so warm and receptive to Gaijin and especially those who are making an effort to “fit in.”
So although it may not be all that it first appears, Japan is a wonderful opportunity and an amazing learning experience. Every day provides opportunities to become more integrated and to understand more clearly what underpins the way that the Japanese act and think.
Now for the language………