As a solo traveller, particularly a female solo traveller, I have found it necessary to perfect my 'don't cross me' face. I reserve it mainly for public transport to discourage creepy men from saddling up next to me or excessively keen locals from bothering me. I guess it makes me look a little unfriendly and standoffish, which is ironic, since when you're alone and thousands of miles from home, you really rely on the kindness of strangers.
Kindness is woven into every strand of the Japanese cultural DNA. It's not a virtue that is preached but lost in the routine and petty frustration of day-to-day activities. You feel it when the overworked 7-Eleven clerk bows as she hands you your receipt and wishes you a good day. You see it in the faces of passers-by hidden by surgical masks which are not, as I'd always presumed, to protect them from germs but rather to avoid infecting others. You hear it in the language of new acquaintances. Where we might say, 'nice to meet you', the Japanese say 'yoroshiku onegaishimasu', which literally means 'please be kind to me'.
After a couple of days in Japan, I began to realise that my well-rehearsed withering stare was wildly out of place. No creepy men approached me; no suspicious locals asked where I was staying. No one whistled or stared at me as I walked down the street or pointed out the fact I was foreign. No one bothered me unless I expressly asked them to because respect for others is the backbone of Japanese society. It's an essential ingredient of 'wa', a concept that loosely translates to 'harmony'; a kind of social contract that holds members of a community to a series of high standards and expectations.
It's why you see businessmen hop off trains during rush hour to take a call on the station platform rather than disturb the other passengers. It's why even the busiest urban spaces are virtually spotless even though public bins are few and far between. It's why you see Japanese sports fans stay behind after events to help clean up regardless of whether or not they won. It's why people tend not to draw attention to themselves and, in turn, those around them. Prioritising the collective 'we' over the personal interests of 'I' is vital in maintaining 'wa' and avoiding a culture of conflict and tension.
Travelling alone gives you a lot of time to reflect - and by reflect I obviously mean people watch. As I observed people go about their everyday business, I was amazed at how the Japanese principle of 'wa' is, in many ways, the total antithesis of Western values. It prioritises conformity over individualism, interdependence over independence, unity over self-interest. In Japan, respect is something that is given, not necessarily always earned, and while I've grown up believing the inverse, seeing it played out in front of me like this was undeniably attractive.
Let me digress briefly to describe an incident that took place at a Scottish subway station a few weeks ago that contravened 'wa' on almost every level. Depending on my shift schedule, I either take the first subway service in the morning or the last one at night. If I park my car inside the station multi-storey, as opposed to the outdoor car park adjacent to the station office, then there's a chance that its staff might have to wait for me to get off the last train before they can lock up. It's not a huge inconvenience for me so when I'm working the late shift, I park in the outdoor car park so that the staff can potentially leave early.
On this particular morning though, when I arrived at the counter to purchase my ticket, the amiable gentleman behind the glass panel informed me that there was an issue.
'It's naw runnin'.'
'Oh right, eh, do you have an idea of when it'll be running again?'
'Right, erm, do you know if it's a service failure or is it something more sinister?'
'That's naw really any of your business, is it? It's naw runnin'. That's all you need to know.'
'Well, actually, if it's a service failure, then there's a chance it might get fixed within the next half hour. If the train's, I don't know, on fire or something, then maybe I need to rethink how I'm getting to work.'
'Ah've told ye it's naw runnin. It doesnae matter why. That's all. You're welcome. Goodbye.'
A person with more moral fibre might have dropped it at this point. As it turns out, I am not a person with more moral fibre.
'Actually, as I've explained, it matters to me. But thanks for your input.'
This exchange continued for a couple of more rounds before he cried out, 'Jesus, are you always like this in the morning?' and I gracefully shrieked back, 'I don't know, ARE YOU?'
There's a whole host of reasons why this scenario just wouldn't have played out in Japan. For one, trains are very rarely delayed. If a service is five minutes late or more, its passengers are issued with a certificate that they can show to their employer as an excuse for their tardiness. Secondly, public confrontation is so actively avoided in order to preserve 'wa' that the station worker and I would have naturally made a more conscious effort to not talk to the other like a complete idiot. Some might critique the Japanese as impersonal and argue that this culture is symptomatic of oppressive conformity, but it serves to protect a social harmony that helps people move on with their day as peacefully and efficiently as possible.
In the weeks following this exchange I admit that my inner Petty LaBelle may have taken the wheel and started parking my car in the multi-storey all the time. Whenever I interacted with the same station worker, I always wore my 'don't cross me' face. In my defence, he was incredibly rude, but if I'm honest with myself, I know I can do better. Actually, having seen how the Japanese rise above their personal feelings in the name of social harmony, I know
I can do a lot better. I imagine our little tiff might have ended differently if either of us had thought to be as kind as we were curt.
It's funny; I was sitting on the subway the other night and found the same muted and somewhat hostile expression looking back at me. Dozens of people tired from a hard day at life silently saying 'don't cross me', and yet all probably thinking 'please be kind to me'.