By lex, Wed – October 13, 2004
One of the really neat things about the Navy is the chance it offers to live in different cultures. Not just as a visitor, but over a period of months and years. Someone wise once said that you really can’t understand your own country unless you’ve lived somewhere else – and that you can’t understand yourself unless you’ve lived two somewhere else’s.
Or words to that effect.
We spent two years and a bit in Japan.
When you first arrive in Japan, you are required to take an Intercultural Relations Course (ICR) within 90 days of your arrival, so long as the operational tempo permits. When I got there the carrier was at sea, but coming home within the month – just a short enough period that it wasn’t worth joining them, but long enough to knock out the ICR course.
ICR was taught by a very tall, stunningly beautiful Japanese woman named Etsuko. Having gone to college in the US, she spoke American English well enough to pass as a native at first blush. Etsuko had two weeks to teach us what she could about a culture that had existed in a mature form since before the birth of Christ. She did the best she could. We learned how to eat with chopsticks (if we didn’t already know) and learned that you never leave them standing in a bowl of rice (it’s a symbol of death in the family). We learned that it was appropriate to give gifts to your neighbors when you moved in. That it was appropriate to drive on the left hand side of the road. That it was appropriate to apologize when you had your inevitable automobile accident. That Japanese people had a rather different sense of “personal space” than did their Western counterparts.
There was a lot of stuff Etsuko never taught us however, whether because there simply wasn’t enough time, or because as a native Japanese, it didn’t occur to her.
After a week of ICR, we were flung out into the wide world, immersion training (“fly, little turtle – oh!”) by taking a subway trip to Tokyo from Atsugi base. I made the tactical error of making my trip during the middle of rush hour.
Now, it may surprise either of my readers to hear that Neptunus Lex is something of a claustrophobe. You’d be forgiven for presuming that being sewn up inside a fighter cockpit might not be just the thing for one who treasures his personal space.
Well. That’s where you’d be wrong, constant reader! Because in a single seat fighter, all that space inside the cockpit is mine! All mine! And the world outside tends towards the infinite. Even in a small cockpit, the sense is one of wearing the aircraft around your shoulders, rather than sitting in it. So there’s never that feeling of being surrounded, of being hemmed in on all sides, of being unable to breathe, of suffocating, of feeling an insane shriek burbling there somewhere in the back of your throat while your fight or flee instinct is humming at the finest pitch, of… well, you get the picture.
The same, it can now be admitted, will not be true aboard a Japanese subway train, at rush hour.
So there I am, on the subway platform, waiting for my train into the metropolitan center of Nippon. There is a throng waiting with me, but I am fairly comfortable. Although there are exceptions, certainly among the younger folks, the Japanese, by and large, tend to be somewhat shorter than the average American. I’m only 5′ 11″, and yet I found myself looking over a sea of black-haired heads – my horizons stretched out in every direction! All was well.
Our train arrived, exactly on time. Somehow I was not surprised at this. I boarded with a bustle of others – no room in the main car, where the seats were. I’d just remain here by the doors. Should be leaving any moment now.
What’s the delay, I wondered? Oh – More folks pushing in. It was starting to get crowded, in my little piece of heaven. Ah, well – I’d heard the rumors. Tokyo rush hour, you know. Very common to have a crowd. No reason to be disturbed.
Eh – three more folks push in – the doors still haven’t closed. Now it’s tight. A grim faced lady pushes past my right side, jostling me. I raise my right arm, carrying my backpack, back over my head, to give her a little more room – just the space of an arm – to go by.
And then, as though they’ve been waiting for just this moment, an attack! Five more people shove in, back ends first, pushing, grinding, shoving. Sardines ain’t in it. Can’t compete. My backpack and arm are now trapped above my head. No more room to get it back down. I am in full body contact on every side. A woman I do not know is in front of me, back to my face. She is aligning herself carefully to fit parts of herself into the gaps left by parts of myself. If we were married, it could not feel more intimate.
But here’s the thing: We are not married.
And what I’d chiefly like to do this at this moment is let the whistling scream that’s building in the back of my mind free, to go berserk and free my vorpel sword from my back pack and go frabjous all over the jabberwock, calloo, callay. Oh yes precious, and snicker-snack, and with their heads go galumphing back. But no.
I can’t. I can’t because Etsuko has told us that doing so is considered very bad form, very impolite.
And politeness is a treasured virtue in Japan, where personal space has always been at a premium. And after all, we were guests here.
The next hour or so is a brown and arid haze of dread bordering on panic. I took breaths, while trying not to release them, out of fear that someone would fill the space left by my retreating alveoli. I stared at the ceiling and counted to a thousand, and counted back down again. I tried not to feel the strangers pushing in, pushing past. I tried, unsuccessfully, to have an out of body experience.
Turns out you can’t just summon one of those up, and still make your stop.
Oh. Got there eventually. Can’t remember anything about that trip though, after getting off the train. All a blur. I counted myself lucky that I wasn’t picked up by the local carabinieri for hiding in a corner, shivering and incontinent. And how do you like Japan so far?
So yes, I learned a bit about my home, living somewhere else. Don’t even talk to me about rush hour, over here.
And as for the Japanese? At least they can point with comparative pride to Bangkok – now that’s traffic.