I’m sitting in my hotel room on the 30th floor of the Ritz-Carlton in Osaka at 5:35 AM, Sunday morning, reflecting on my Japan experience so far.
First impressions are only first, and I have 5 days in Tokyo to add to them, but they tend to last. My first impression is that Japan is by far the most foreign place I have ever visited – foreign in the sense of profoundly different, unknown, out of my experience, and even potentially unknowable.
I’m no Marco Polo, but I’ve been to Romania, many countries in Western Europe, Northern Africa (Egypt), mainland China, Taiwan, and all over the US and Canada. So I’m not unfamiliar with being in places where few if any speak my native language. And it’s not unusual for me to be an ethnic minority when I travel. But there’s something about the incredibly different language, the different characters/letters, and the different social customs that just make Japan qualitatively different.
More than that, there’s something about the monoculture of Japan – those are the words of a native Japanese from a talk at the ACE 2009 conference yesterday – that make Japan the most foreign place I have traveled. I’m used to being the only white guy in a room or a train station. But it’s outside of my experience to hardly see a black person, an Indian, or even different Asian ethnicities.
For example, I walked into a shop a couple of days ago, my first day in Osaka, and I could not determine what the store sold. Imagine that – being in a store and not being able to understand what was actually for sale! There were obviously products available for purchase, with price tags, and product information, and people paying, and a cashier – all the familiar archetypes of “store” from my Western, Canadian experience. But the products appeared to be small pieces of paper, or cards – about business card sized. They weren’t phone cards, weren’t sports trading cards … and I could not determine what precisely, they might be. Nor could I and the salesperson communicate.
The experience – just one of many similar – stretches your brain’s expectation engine and challenges your ability to understand, predict, and therefore feel a (false) sense of control that tends to put you at ease. So in Japan I am always wandering and wondering: what is this? is it what it seems? is that person speaking heatedly to another angry, or just speaking normally for Japanese? what is this building for? is “arigato” (Harry without the H, French for cake – gateau – with a long O at the end) OK for thanks, or is it too familiar?
Being a complete naif and newbie in Japan means that I can somewhat safely wander around like a medieval village idiot: investigating the obvious, pursuing the mundane, and capturing a gestalt of “japan-ness,” or, to be more honest, “my Japan,” the Japan that I hazily grasp.
The beautiful and glorious thing about travel like this, of course, is the ability to step out of MY mundane, and MY obvious, and pass through the wormhole to an alien culture and learn and re-learn the world anew. Here I am alien – even gaijin – and therefore I have the freedom of the outsider to observe and see, and the curse of the outsider to always be on the fringe. It is strange and exhilarating and enjoyable and challenging. And it’s also exhausting.
But I wouldn’t miss it for the world.