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In Japan


(note: the events depicted in this post took place on May 18th 2009)

A few days ago, talking about Hong Kong International Airport I said that all international airports look alike. Well, not exactly.

Kansai International Airport (KIX) in Osaka Bay – and I assume the other airports of Japan too – are just different. Sure you’ll find things written in English here and there, but not a whole lot. While bilingualism (and sometimes more) is usually the norm in international airports, it was not in Kansai International Airport. Also, in an international airport, you usually find people from all over the world, right? That goes with the term “international” and all. Well, that day, except for a few Chinese people (most of them coming out of the same plane that I took), I had the feeling to be one of the only foreigners in the airport, and definitely the only Westerner.


Kansai International Airport
(source: wikimedia)


I instantly fell out of place. Culture shock was slowly creeping in and it was not going to go anywhere until the moment I landed in Paris.

Now is the time to post a disclaimer. From now on, I’m going to talk a lot about the feelings that I had all along this first trip; and usually, when Westerners talk about their first impressions of Japan, they have a hard time not to fall into one of those two categories. Either they’re going to say that Japan is an amazing country, so wonderful, refined, with such a rich culture. Japanese people are so refined too and respectful of things. They are the ones who really understand the meaning of life and so on. Alternatively, they’ll tell you how messed up the country is with a rigid and oppressing culture. They’ll tell you how Japanese people are crazy, how they are weirdoes, barbaric too at times. They’ll think that the Japanese are barely human. Robots? Ants? Possibly. Normal human beings? Definitely not.
During this first trip, I must admit that I had this tendency to go from one of those extremes to the other, several times. While trying to refrain myself to go too far in any of those two directions, I can’t promise I won’t go there at times.

(Note in the form of a reminder: the previous lines were originally written two years ago. My opinions about several things in Japan have changed now that I know the culture and the country a little (barely) better, but I’ll try to leave those original impressions unchanged in the following posts, or if they have changed too much, I’ll write an addendum just like this one).

So, I was in Japan!

The first thing that struck me was… the fact that surgical masks were everywhere. I thought there was a lot in Hong Kong, actually, it was nothing compared to Kansai International Airport.
I guess that now is the right moment to tell you a little more about screening for the H1N1 virus in the airport. We had to go through one in Hong Kong too. They asked us various questions, mostly related to whether we had any of the symptoms.
Entering Japan, we had to answer a few questions too, not many, three, maybe four. If we answered yes to one of the questions, we were sent somewhere else, I was not sure where (some sort of quarantine) and I didn’t really want to know. Those questions were the only screening we had. Quite paradoxical when a few days later I saw the paranoia that had taken over the country concerning the Mexican pig’s flu or whatever it was called back then.
Among those questions, the main one was simple, clear and with no ambiguity whatsoever: “Were you in contact with any American, Canadian, or Mexican person within the past ten days?” (the flu was still somewhat localized in North America, it became a worldwide phenomenon while we were in Japan actually). I was quite surprised by the straightforwardness. Can you imagine such a question in France or in the US? It would be a huge scandal, there would be many outcries, some people would get sued for racism and whatnot. Well, not in Japan. After all, in Japan, foreigners are suspicious anyway; so a little more or a little less, what difference does it make?
How was I going to answer that question? Of course I had been in contact with people from North America! Back then, I used to work with Americans, on an American campus in Paris. The May study abroad program just had ended, which means that I had just spent two weeks with 80 Americans that came straight out of the US. Any of them could have been infected. Just by living in Paris, it was simply impossible to not be near North Americans at this time of the year, the city is full of tourists coming from there.

However, there was no way I wanted to spend my first time in Japan in quarantine or taking some medical tests or whatever. I was not infected and I knew it, could they just leave me alone?
So, the very first thing I did on Japanese territory was to lie to the authorities:

Were you in contact with any American, Canadian, or Mexican person within the past ten days?

Me? No.

I’m not proud of it, I hope that no Japanese official ever reads those lines and that I won’t get into trouble next time I go to Japan (to my defense this is the only illegal thing I’ve ever done in Japan).

After the screening, I still had to go through immigration. At first, the whole experience looked a lot like going through immigration in the US. With one major difference! I must have been lucky during my time in the US, as most immigration officers I had to deal with were relatively nice, some even spoke French and were happy to be able to use their French at work with me.

Not in Kansai International Airport. We all know that Japanese people are usually very polite. However, apparently, a little known aspect of Japanese culture is that when a Japanese is extremely mean and impolite, way too mean and impolite to be able to function properly in society, that person is being sent to work at the immigration office at Kansai International Airport.

The man barely spoke English (not learning English is always a good move when your job is to speak to foreigners from all over the world all day long, if you’re asking me) and the few words he deigned addressing to me were along the lines of unintelligible mumbling. Except for one moment, when he wanted to get my fingerprints, then I vaguely understood a word: “Finger!” He was not asking, rather ordering. There, I faced a problem. See, I have 10 of those and I must admit that I found his command to be somewhat vague. Maybe he didn’t know that foreigners tend to have several fingers. So, I dared to ask him “which one.” I also produced my ten fingers in front of him, not totally sure whether he would understand such a complex expression as “which one.”
His answer was some more mumbling and finally a “Index!” full of hate and contempt came out of his mouth when I had to ask him a second time because I’m not fluent in mumbling.

A few second later, he wanted to take a picture of me. There was just a tiny problem, I was too tall for the camera that was set up next to him (during that trip and the subsequent ones, there are many anecdotes starting with “I was too tall for…”). Do you think he told me what to do? Of course not. Was I supposed to just bend a little? Or was I supposed to change the direction of the camera myself? I had no idea, and I’m sure that at this point he was just waiting for me to mess up some unknown rule in order to reject my request to enter the Japanese territory.
After three failed attempts, I finally figured it out. The camera could be oriented. He was not amused.


Welcome to Japan!

We then roughly spend an hour in Kansai International Airport. An hour that was for me a whirlpool of various feelings and perceptions that I had a hard time analyzing (I’m sure that anybody that has ever been to Japan remembers that first hour and knows what I mean).
Stores were full of things that I couldn’t neither recognize, nor name, even less understand. Those things were side by side products that I would qualify as “so very typically Japanese” such as merchandising from Manga and Anime characters, chopsticks, and such. Both together were sending signs to my brain “you’re not in the real world right now, double check if you’re not dreaming, hallucinating or something.”

And of course, in Japan, there are Japanese people.

Japanese people are strange.

Yes, I’m fully aware that this previous sentence is a gross generalization. Yet, most of the times, during that first trip there were no other adjective I could find to describe many people and situations.
In KIX, for instance, I could mention the ubiquitous surgical masks or three teenage girls with hair and clothes seeming to come straight out of a cartoon (or was it a circus?).


Well, actually, those three girls were the only ones I met who were dressed weirdly. Who would have thought? Not all teenage girls in Japan dress terribly.


To add more confusion to the whole situation, neither 康代 nor I were really prepared to have our roles switched. Now, she was the one in her native country and I was the foreigner. Except that, big difference, contrarily to her when we’re in France, I didn’t speak the language and didn’t understand a single thing around me. Obviously she instantly felt at home and as everything became obvious again to her, at times, she had the tendency to forget that nothing was obvious to me.
For example, we went to buy some snacks and drinks and she simply asked me what I wanted and waited for my answer. She just forgot for a few seconds that I didn’t have the slightest idea of what my options were or anything else for that matter. Add to that the fact that she had never been in the position of being my translator and interpreter, and you can imagine the situation.

The second unknown person I interacted with on Japanese soil was the bus driver who was going to drive us from KIX to Takamatsu. In the schedule that we had in our possession, the next bus was going to be about an hour later. We decided to go buy our tickets early to double check the times, just in case. According to 康代, it was not uncommon that the schedule slightly changes occasionally and her time table was almost a year old. It was possible that the bus leaves a few minutes earlier or later than what was written on our piece of paper.

We got lucky. The bus didn’t leave a few minutes earlier than expected, instead, it was ready to leave. If I remember correctly, it was the last one that day.
She ran to the ticket booth, I ran to the bus to tell them to wait for us. Some guy grabbed our bags and put them in the trunk. I stood in front of the driver who asked me something. I don’t know how I guess correctly that it was more or less “Where do you get off?” Maybe he vaguely spoke English but it didn’t register in my brain. The only thing I could think at that moment was “Oh my God, 康代 left me alone to tell the driver to not leave without us and now our baggage is in the vehicle, what is going to happen is she doesn’t come back on time and the bus leaves without us?”

Yes, it’s true, even the simplest situations become huge endeavor at times when traveling to a country for the first time.

A few seconds later, my mouth finally opened. I simply answered Kagawa (康代 uses both Kagawa and Takamatsu pretty much interchangeably when talking about where she is from and at the time, I didn’t fully understand the difference), totally unaware that every single stop the bus was going to make was in Kagawa Prefecture. He looked at me with a polite smile, but I understood that this was not the right answer.

This time, there was no way I could fix the situation. It was time for the bus to leave, it was going to leave with or without us, but with our baggage. The driver said something. I was sure it was more or less: “I need to go now, if you don’t have your tickets and a destination in two seconds I’m leaving without you.” Suddenly, 康代 appeared out of nowhere, tickets in her hand, literally pushing me on the bus and telling the driver the name of our stop (it was Takamatsu Station, duh…).

And just like that, we left the airport and I was on that bus, getting my very first glimpses of Japan, on our way to Takamatsu.

to be continued…

(yes, this entry, and the next one, don’t have many pictures, I was so confused and then tired that I forgot to take any.)

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