(Am onsite in Tokyo for some time..Here are some reflections from the first few days of being here. Typing this down from my PVC pipe sized Apt)
Even if I was twice as good as Sherlock Holmes himself who figured out the "Mystery of the Dancing figures" in a jiffy ; it is going to take me at least a decade in deciphering these weird little wiggly figures which they call "Japanese". Ok, I’m talking about the language here and not the people. Everyone seems to confuse the two. Like a friend who was asked "Did you try to pick up any Japanese?" He answered, "No way, I'm happily married” And added indignantly " btw neither did I try to pick up any Indians here!"
Well, it’s not just the humans; even the machines talk only Japanese here. The washing machine, the Microwave, TV, DVD Player, the Vending Machine and the recorded voice in the telephone line. A couple of times I managed to horrify people on my lack of manners by slamming shut the elevator doors on their noses coz I pushed the shut button instead of open. The squiggly figures for "Open" and "Shut" looked similar anyway.
Good news is you can make some Japanese words by adding an "u/o" sound after a familiar Engish word. Hence spoon becomes spoonu, glass is garassu, passport becomes passporto, and Bangalore becomes Bengalooru... (ok, the last one is not a particularly good example for Japanese translation)
Unfazed, I'm building my Japanese vocabulary here though some words are outright weird. For eg: can you imagine a language where you call your mom “Haha”? Just remember any sentimental Hindi movie scene and replace "Maa" with "Haha" then you might see the problem! You’ll be clutching your tummy and laughing! And for Dad? Its Chichi !!(ouch! Reminds me of yellow pants, multicolored shirt and awful David Dhawan movies) But I was somehow comforted by the word for 100,000 - it is something like "Jomon (Jumen)" and it sounded familiar enough to my mallu ears ;-)
The ubiquitous Indian techie is now in every city in the world and Tokyo is no exception. In the floor where I work, the Indians actually outnumber the Japanese 4 to 1. Even in the Serviced Apt Bldg where I stay, half the occupants are Indian techies. In fact in office the more serious language problem I face here is with Kannada rather than Japanese. The vegetarians amongst us have one mantra taught by those who came before them. Any place where it involves food say “ Sakana nashi, niku nashi” (no fish, no meat) even if you are ordering ice cream!! At the office cafeteria, now I find it difficult to order anything with fish or meat coz they automatically assume that a person with an Indian face can’t have any Sakana however much he begs and pleads for it.
People here work long. And long is an understatement. Some of them return from work only the next day. They even have a term “Karoshi” to describe death due to overwork. (Thank God we don’t have such problems in Kerala as any remote chances of these are countered using a local custom called "Hartals". Dunno the Japanese equivalent of that anyway. nobody seems to know :-)) And maybe because they do not know when they return from office , all seem to carry toothbrushes wherever they go. To the extent that, at 10:30 pm at night in an upscale lounge pub I saw a guy brushing his teeth!
People are generally helpful if you ask them for directions and will try their best with the limited English. Also it is a safe country with an extremely low crime rate. You see technology in action anywhere. The Electronic gadget supermarkets at Akihabara have shelves and shelves of ingenious gadgets. A USB vacuum cleaner for your Laptop? They have it. And quality is taken for granted so much that, even if you are buying an expensive gadget –say a laptop or camera – all you have to do is point at it and they just pack it. I hear that they get so insulted if you actually insist on testing something before buying that they may commit harakiri.
And then there are the local customs. Long ago when I was a kid I had taken a resolution that I wont bow to anyone’s pressure and would stand up to the right thing. But here I had to discard that resolution because bowing itself is the right thing!! The normal custom of bowing involves the pectoral muscles, and can be considered exercise equivalent to one-ab-crunch at the gym. So if you meet about 20 people a day, you will be reasonably fit. The hands posture taken while bowing is sometimes rather similar to that a defender takes while a free kick is being taken, but your head position should be like Zidane about to butt Materazzi.
People are friendly here but you should not over-estimate it. Like the time we were in a train, and at a station an old couple got in and sat on the opposite seat….They smiled and bowed deep. Touched by their friendliness towards such a ragtag group of Indians, I bowed too! They bowed again and I bowed even deeper. After the third bow, my friend nudged me and pointed to the platform behind me. There was another old couple bowing deep too. Unfortunately, they were bowing to the couple in the train and I just had been in the way!
I have gone back to my resolution of not bowing to anyone.
Check out this sample of Japanese TV fare -( not what the kids watch) and you may appreciate the Saas Bahu Serials a bit more . If you are in office better keep the volume low ;-)
(await more stories from here..this was just the tip of the iceberg.
Check out my latest post on my Tokyo life here