26 June 2007

Tokyo: First Inpressions

There is a certain sense of order to Japan, particularly after traveling to other Northeast Asian nations. In China, despite the best efforts ahead of the Olympics, there is no such thing as a line. It is just first come first serve, and survival of the fittest when it comes to buying tickets, getting on the bus or subway, or boarding an airplane. In Japan, there is an overactive sense of order. Long, single file lines waiting for the bus to arrive, stretching neatly along the sidewalk. Polite lines waiting for shops to open. Three police assisting bus rider to form straight lines. The sense of service is also exaggerated. Deep waist bows from fast food and chain restaurant staff. People operating the self service ticket kiosks for you. Happy cheerful recorded voices on the subway and buses announcing the upcoming stops, pleasant music chiming through the station. The food, served in small, attractive portions, several tiny dishes all placed orderly on the wooden tray. Yet Tokyo is no less crowded than Beijing or Seoul, and much more so than a frontier town like Ulaan Baator. The Chinese excuse that, with so many people, lines mean you never get anything goes out the window in Japan. But one wonders if this is a real, deep seated element of the soul, or just a hard constraint of social norms. After all, why the police to help form lines? Are workers at chain restaurants and department stores really that grateful that you bothered to stop by and browse, or have a quick bite? I guess the question of those international anthropo-sociologists is: is the order put in place to contain some underlying chaos, or is there an underlying chaos due to the imposed order?

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