Wednesday, July 16, 2008

The Softer Side

On Japan's softer side:
a little girl dressed for a summer festival

By now, you can well recite my pet peeves about living in Tokyo, especially the people who treat their dogs better than children and the crowds that assail no matter where you go. But one experience of a few days ago reminded me that there is a much softer side to this country. It is this side of Japan that I love so much. It is this softer side that has made possible our living here for nearly 30 years. We’ve not only survived, mind you, but we’ve really lived in Japan because of this element of its character.

We were en route to Kobe when we decided to take a break at a rest stop with a beautiful view of Mt. Fuji—if it’s not covered in clouds. It was, so we missed the mountain, but I’ll remember the stop anyway. As we approached the restrooms, I wondered at the caution sign and the significant pile of bird droppings between the entrances to the men and women’s sides. My initial reaction—why don’t they clean this up?—soon changed to one of appreciation as I heard the cute cheeping of baby birds and looked up. There, on top of a light fixture, a nest held a couple of babies calling to their mother to hurry up and bring dinner. (My translation, of course.) Then it dawned on me: some very kind-hearted janitor had elected not to clean away the nest and its precious cargo but to allow it to remain until the babies were hatched and out on their own. But to make sure that this didn’t cause any problems for passersby, he or she had conscientiously posted warnings and placed drop cloths appropriately. I smiled as I recognized this signature of a softer side of Japan that I don’t commend often enough.

I’d also been cushioned by that softer side the day before when I went to have the tires changed on our Toyota van in preparation for the seven-hour drive to Kobe. Bernie had loaded the other set of wheels and tires into the back of the vehicle that morning, but had forgotten to include the bag of nuts and bolts. When the mechanic came to the waiting room to tell me, the car was already hoisted into the air. It would take me an hour on foot to go and come again, but I felt awkward asking him to lower the van so that I could drive to retrieve the needed parts more quickly. “No problem,” he said, as if reading my thoughts. “I’ll have someone drive you to get them.” And he did. The softer side of Japan, evidenced when people go out of their way to be helpful, touched me again.

I notice it in other ways as well: when you’re given slippers to use in airport security, IF you have to remove your shoes, so your socks and feet won’t get dirty while you’re being inconvenienced; when the electrician comes to repair something and apologizes for troubling you, as if you didn’t call him to serve you in the first place; when an obento shop (Japanese fast food) gives you a ten yen coin to pay for calling them with your order; when a refrigerator shelf breaks and the shop cuts and sands a new piece of glass to replace it—all for free just because you’ve sometimes given them business over the years. “How unlike America,” I’ve thought innumerable times through the years.

It is this softer side of Japan that I experience day in and day out. It has taught me much about kindness and about making and taking time for the little things, for it is often those easy-to-overlook details which frequently determine the quality of life lived to the fullest—whether in Japan, the United States, or anywhere else in the world.