Wednesday, June 18, 2014
Saturday, March 08, 2014
Wednesday, March 05, 2014
Moshi Moshi Japan
An account of life in Japan as a Gaijin Gakusei (roughly translated as a foreign student)
As the Northwest Airline 747-400 touched the runway at Narita, one could not help looking out to the surrounding rice paddies thinking about the Japanese farmer who held out his farm right at the end of the runway for 30 long years protesting against the Japanese government’s decision to build the Airport. But then, I was coming to no less a place than Japan- I was warned to expect to be on MARS. A Japanese soldier had been discovered in the dense tropical jungles of one of the isolated Philippines’ Islands some years ago and his story was still fresh in the media. He had been in hiding for 29 years with no idea about the war ending and a Japanese military official had to be brought in to make him surrender. I had come to expect some rather amusing idiosyncrasies during my time at Japan.
To tell you the truth I wasn’t disappointed for one moment. Just as we were entering the Airport premises there was a large canvas cheerfully greeting the arriving tourists with a boldly typed “Welcome To Japan” but just as a precaution that that message may be taken too literally, there was also another message in parenthesis just below, that said almost as an afterthought “…But please follow the rules…”. It was to become far clearer to me later on in life that that message, in many ways defined Japan. It hasn’t really closed itself to the world, but nor had it completely embraced it. Indeed every foreigner that ever visited Japan has a Japan story to tell.
There were many amusements for the new arrivals- Not the least of them was the ubiquitous vending machines, selling almost about everything- from piping hot English Tea in bright blue colored cans to, my personal favorite- A choice of shirt and tie combination that I saw in the business district of Ginza. There were the gloved & tuxedoed Taxi drivers driving shiny black Mercedes that made me feel like I was headed to attend the Oscars. The rest of world drove Toyotas as taxis so this appeared somewhat an anomaly. There were the numerous advertisements everywhere for English Teachers but only “Caucasians need apply”. There was the Pachinko and there were the Karaoke bars, Japanese stuff that had by now found its way to many places in the world but nothing like seeing them in their original place- a visit to one with my classmates was particularly memorable- those of them who hesitated to speak even one full sentence of English in the classroom were suddenly transformed into living versions of Beetles singing their songs in flawless English and flair. Elvis made its appearance too, complete with wigs with long sideburns that one could hire from the bar to complete the experience. And the women- they drank like fish & held on to their Sake.
As a poor starving student, too lazy to cook, I sought refuge in a near-by Mcdonald’s store complete with tiny steps drawn on the floor that led to the counter to ensure that the queue wasn’t just there, it was also a straight one. Only to find that the ‘Happy meal and Cha’ that I had ordered wasn’t making me happy at all as it threatened to break my budget for a full week. Then just by sheer chance & curiosity, I stepped into a Kai-ten (mini conveyor belt) Sushi parlour to the loud chants of Irasshaimase! And I was a convert right away. Not only was it far cheaper & healthier, I would have missed such an integral part of being in Japan.
For the record, I was in Japan to study at the Keio Business School at their Hiyoshi campus that fell mid-way between downtown Tokyo and the suburban train line to Yokohama. There wasn’t any lack of learning in the class either- we had scores of visits- each week- Most were outstanding- We went to see Nissan’s completed automated car plant in Yokohama- with large robotic arms doing most of the welding work (this is also where Carlos Ghosn, the French chief who is widely credited for turning around Nissan was to later make his mark). The plant had an integrated port to ship the cars just as they were completed so here was an example of Just in time manufacturing principle that Japanese first came up with. It was hard not be impressed with the very stylish & very suave office of Dentsu Advertising at Ginza. Infact, it may have been too stylish for me- it took me quite a while to figure out how the faucet at the sink worked. Designer stuff was everywhere. Yet, it was not all style- ample substance came out in their presentations about some of the campaigns they ran which must have impressed me, for I preserved them. Then, there were the guest lecturers from Coca-Cola and Ajinomoto (In India, it is sometimes used as generic name for Sodium bicarbonate that is probably a carry on from the pre-war times, but today it is a large Japanese drinks company). Coke explained how it introduced the Vending machine innovation in the Japanese market, because it could find no distributors ready to take up a Gaijin’s product and how, in Japan, it surprisingly sold more coffee than Coke. I had just read Peter Robinson’s very popular ‘Snapshots from Hell- Making of an MBA student’, so all of this was mildly amusing. Ajinomoto, not far behind, even made us come up with a new drink idea for them. I promptly came up with ginger-infused tea.
But through all this, what emerged was a larger picture of the Japanese consumer that though sometimes touched on the absurd, was deeply insightful. The rounder melon was far more expensive than the not so round one. Packaging for most products cost far more than the product itself. Most products were overdone with packaging. The marketing professor wasn’t coy about telling us that most Japanese women wore bras a cup size lower because that’s how men preferred them. For me, there were also the visits to the ANA offices at Haneda Airport. Again it is somewhat ironical that ANA, that has done so well lately, was in the throes of a restructuring in 1999 selling off most of its hotel assets. JAL was the Numero Uno carrier at the time. Things are exactly the opposite today. Skymark, the first Japanese LCC promoted by the discount travel agency H.I.S had just arrived with a Microsoft logo painted at the bottom of the aircraft that was quite a trend. And then there was the legendry Shinkansen. I couldn’t have asked for more by way of an education.
Evenings were time to be by oneself, because I couldn’t have afforded the expensive nightlife of Ginza- the choice was to sit in the Campus library or watch some TV in the confines of my room (Japanese of course). As Stanley Bing, the columnist at Fortune Magazine says, there was non-stop sports action on Japanese TV. People shown fishing. And apparently it was a popular program. Many an evening’s were spent watching Schwarzenegger’s films dubbed in Japanese. Some that had English sub-titles almost made me weep with joy. There was also Muthu complete with English sub-titles, the Rajnikant movie that for some very strange reasons was so liked in Japan that it broke all records. Then one day quite by chance, I saw something that has held me curious ever since. Amongst the various Japanese traditional celebrations, there is one, that is a like a little game played on the beach- it is part of a harvest festival I am told. Scores of young Japanese lads would get together and tie a white clothed tail to a player. Then they would light it up. The player’s task was to run as fast as he could to the beach to douse the fire on the tail. And this went on with everyone taking turns. If you are an Indian and if you were to see this on TV, what is the first thing that will come to your mind? Could it be that the legend of Ramayana somehow reached the shores of Japan & got incorporated in the local folklore? There is also the Kabuki- while it is a well-established Japanese Dance form, looking at it with my eyes it looked strikingly similar to Kerala’s Kathakali down to the movement of eyes and the costumes.
There was so much more that came my way just from the sights and sounds- At Hakone, a resort town roughly an hour’s drive away from Tokyo, I was to experience staying at a Ryokan, a traditional Japanese Inn & took a dip in Japan’s famed natural Onsens (Hot spring baths). One dip & a look at the beautiful cherry blossoms outside, and believe me, I was threatening to attempt a Haiku (Short Poems using imagery) using my classmates as audience. Then, at Kamakura’s Great Buddha temple, amidst thousands of messages written by devotees in katakana dedicated to this 13th century Bronze statue monument, I spotted one that was a touching tribute from a Japanese student written to his guru. I could read it because it was written in clean, legible Devanagari Hindi script. It was hard not to be spellbound.
There was ample opportunity to keep going back to Japan for work, as the student life came to an end but it could never be the same. What you can see & experience as a student in Japan, you can never otherwise. There is far too much convention for anyone to let down their guard and be misunderstood. Japan has changed in the intervening years since 1999 I am told. But I do hope that many of its peculiarities remain just the way I experienced them. Japan would be much the poorer, if it were to lose its love for the queer, for what is different. Because it is such a delight to experience, such an anti-dote to the conformity that the Japanese society is otherwise known for.
Wednesday, February 26, 2014
This set me thinking about the uniquely Indian botanical symbols and what could be more uniquely Indian than the Pīpal tree and it’s uniquely shaped conical leaf. Infact, it is so deeply rooted in Indian religion and so steeped in mythology that its binomial name is Ficus Religiosa or the ‘sacred Fig’.
There were atleast 2 other great reasons why it appealed to me: