Reflecting on Japan

Or, Politeness, Social Lubrication and Zen Peeing


Tokyo Tower as seen from the Mori Tower at Roppongi Hills. Larger version is here. Original pre-tilt shift image is here. Such was the power of the earthquake on March 11 that it bent the tip of the Tokyo Tower. The Tower has stood as a symbol of Japan’s postwar rebirth and regeneration. It was built in 1958.

I’ve been able to travel around and play in lots of different places. This is all due of course to my dear bride. In her job as the CEO of a national association, she travels quite a bit—it used to be as many as 125 days or so on a couple dozen trips per year—though it’s lessening now for a number of reasons. I know I’m lucky.

We’ve traveled a couple of times to Japan. Those trips have been highlights for me as I’ve long been in love with the Japanese aesthetic. The bride was to be the featured guest and speaker at a JBATS conference, the Japanese Baseball Athletic Trainers’ Society. We spent some time preparing for the trip, researching the protocols for giving and receiving business cards, learned some basic phrases and planned what we wanted to see together in the few spare moments she had free.

One of the nice perquisites she receives from traveling so much is access to the airline club. I feel a bit out of place, but it’s a comfortable place to sit before or between flights and she is able to get business stuff done and out of the way while waiting.

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They have gorgeous bathrooms. So while standing and taking care of business an elderly Japanese man shuffles in and stands next to me at the adjacent apparatus. His adult son accompanies him. The distinguished gentleman is small and, by means of unintentional peripheral vision, I sense he is impeccably attired—a dark suit and red tie and perhaps a plaid vest. The son appeared nervous but did not have to use the facilities.

It started as a small noise, almost imperceptible, but increasing in volume; a thrumming, humming sound. It was, in fact, humming. The elegant gentleman was creating a Zen zone of pleasant noise to help him get his business done. The son was almost hopping on one foot in embarrassment, trying to quietly shush his father.

It didn’t bother me in the least. Having just witnessed the week before a six year old in a similar situation stand three feet away from a urinal with a perfectly horizontal stream that any in my situation would envy, I understood what the elderly gentleman was trying to accomplish. But this may not mean much to those who don’t know about trying to pee through a prostate the size of a grapefruit.

I often hum to myself now to help things along.

The son who was nervous just wanted things to be being polite, I think. He didn’t know I didn’t care and was amused, but the Japanese are extraordinarily polite. I was to find it even more evident in Japan.

There exists there the phenomenon of cultural politeness. Some societies seem to value the lubrication needed for people to get along with one another.

While in Tokyo, I was amazed at what I presume is the evolution of a society that has to live within a fairly finite space and in ever burgeoning numbers. In subways, on trains, on the streets and in taxis the evidence of polite society was present everywhere.

When someone on a train receives a call on a cell phone, they move to the back or front of the car to be out of earshot of everyone else. This is an example of social empathy.

As I was walking in the Shinjuku district I saw many people wearing particle masks. You may think, as I did, that they are reacting to industrial pollution. But in fact the majority of people wearing masks in public places do so because they have colds and wish not to spread the germs.


In a city of some 12.3 million people it seems a little communal empathy, or thinking of the other person, represents a thread in the warp and woof of that polite society. It was a delight to be there, to experience something other than the typical red necked social intercourse found around here. It’s crowded in Tokyo—they have found ways to implement the required social lubrication to make it work as well as it does.




But in fact, politeness as a part of the fabric of culture can be overdone too. Traffic jams from downtown Tokyo to Narita airport are notorious. Our host had arranged to pick us up at the Westin Hotel to take us to the airport for our flight back home. We were in Tokyo for ten days and while we are good at traveling light, the trunks on Japanese cars are correspondingly small, so there were two cars to transport us caravan style.

We were predictably stuck; dead stop going nowhere before we were past the Shinjuku district. Our host said we would not be able to make our flight if we stayed on the freeway. A couple of turns on two wheels and a race down an alley with nano clearance on both sides brought us to a back entrance to one of the downtown train stations. Our host’s assistant hopped out of the second car and magically produced two first class train tickets to Narita.

Of course we were happy that we had a much better chance of making our flight, but in a symphony of pre-planned moves, we ended up where our host intended us to be, though he had previously said he would personally take us to the airport. Eve was the guest of honor, and protocol dictated personal service. As it ended, our host was the hero of the day and it appeared he had a strategic backup plan. My guess is that it was planned all along, but he felt it would be inappropriate to tell his guest of honor she was getting dropped off at the train station, thus providing service, saving face and displayed the epitome of polite behavior.

Domo arigato.





Sexy cap in Shibuya

Meiji torii

Torii gate at the Meiji Shrine

Meiji shrine saki

Saki barrels at Meiji Shrine

Meiji shrine grounds

Lanterns at Meiji Shirne

tea seller

Selling green tea at the Meiji Shrine

Meiji shrine roof lines

Meiji Shrine roof lines

Meiji shrine prayers

Meiji Shrine prayers

Meiji shrine wedding

Meiji Shrine wedding

Meiji shrine wedding

Meiji Shrine wedding

Harajuku hug

Me getting a free hug at Harajuku. He seems a bit disinterested and is maybe looking away in the hopes of finding a prettier client.

Harajuku girl

Harajuku girl—Harajuku is a favorite site for cosplay participants.

Harajuku girl

Harajuku girl

Harajuku girls

Harajuku girls

Roppongi doors

Roppongi doors—I thought this guy looked a bit like a decorated Tommy Lee Jones, but now I’m not so sure. He’s not quite wrinkley enough.

Roppongi Dali spider

Roppongi Dali-esque Spider. The piece which has copies in several cities around the world is by Louise Bourgeois and is titled “Mama.” Thanks to Alysa Salzberg for the reminder on the provenance.

Ryogoku Sumo Stadium

Ryogoku Sumo Stadium

Ryogoku Sumo Stadium

The address

I love the pose of the referee here

Ryogoku Sumo Stadium

Tsukiji Fish Market

Tsukiji Fish Market Auction—5:00 a.m.

Tsukiji Fish Market

Tsukiji Fish Market—$10,000 tuna. A recent single tuna sold for 9.63 million yen—that’s $118,603! They’re going to have to slice that sashimi awfully thin.

Tsukiji Fish Market

Samurai slicing

Tsukiji Fish Market

Demonstrating the quality of the tuna for the auction

Imperial district pigeon

Imperial district pigeon

Imperial district toddler

Imperial district toddler

Her Imperial Majesty the Empress Michiko of Japan

Her Imperial Majesty the Empress Michiko of Japan—waving at me.

Thanks for coming along with me. I intended this as a reflection on the beautiful things found in Japan. Because we were on business excursions when traveling to Japan, travel to the rural areas wasn’t practical. I did take some time out on one trip to take the Shinkansen (the bullet train) down to Kyoto to spend the day walking among the beautiful sacred shrines and temples. I didn’t take photos on that excursion, it felt more like a personal spiritual journey and wanted to concentrate without thinking about taking and using all the photo gear. It was well worth it.

A collection of my images from the Portland Japanese Garden set to music.

all images © 2007, 2008 barry b. doyle all rights reserved. 

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