A stranger in a stranger land: Before Tokyo 2020

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Photo: Yoneko Shiraishi

Tokyo, the Edo city, where the samurai exercised power during the age of the country’s confinement, known as sakoku (closed country) Tokyo will be a forever an enigma to its visitors. Tokyo, where the new and old co-exist harmoniously. Or so it seems.

Among all the Tokyo districts, Roppongi, undoubtedly, most resembles the other big capital cities of the world. People with different cultural backgrounds walk on the streets, at cafes and restaurants, people speaking strange languages are having high-spirited conversations while waiting for their orders. The city vibrates, and we vibrate with it. Roppongi with its neon lights, crowded and noisy streets promise to make of Tokyo the “gaijin (foreigner) capital of Japan.”

As the night falls on Tokyo, a handful of foreign consultants make their way in Roppongi, what’s to fear? After all, Roppongi is so international and diverse. Roppongi is where foreigners are allowed without restrictions, where foreigners can taste a more international Japan, Roppongi is gaijinland. We’ve made it ours. And even though, everything seems alright, I fear for my colleagues, who, although, admire the beauty of Japanese culture, are unaware of the difficulties they may find in town.

But, I know these challenges, I face them every day, I have them for breakfast, lunch and dinner. As I was concerned about them, instead of going back home, I joined the party to make their experience of Roppongi a little bit better and take home the best possible memories of my adopted hometown. My fears come true when we arrived at the restaurant, and we give our first request to the waiter: Sitting eight people all together. The waiters’ eyes sparked with subtle fury, and although they remain an enigma, for the inexperienced visitor, I know what he is thinking. He is thinking: no way, Jose. Rules are rules, and we can’t change them. He wants to shout: There are no tables for eight people so we cannot accommodate you. Instead, he fights the urge to kick us out. Good for him, we can only fight so many gaijin at the same time. I felt for him, I truly did.

The conversation went something like this:

Friend 1: Could you please give us a table for eight people?

Waiter: We don’t have tables for eight people, only six people. We could accommodate six in one table and two in another table

My colleagues remained silent while frowning, without realizing it, not being able to understand the waiter’s dilemma. Pretty much because there were plenty of empty tables at the back part of the restaurant. But the waiter insisted there was no way that he could accommodate us.

Instead of offering one of the tables in the spacious empty space at the back, he offered us a corner close to the entrance, one of my colleagues tried to make him see his “mistake.” But I knew better than argue. So, we took the corner and enjoyed the night with laughs, pizza, wine and funny anecdotes.

Many can argue with me, saying that in Japan, people are always kind and eager to help, and I agree with all of you, I surely do. After all, I have been living here for ten years. But one thing that’s missing in Japan is flexibility. And that involves every single aspect of life and business in Japan.

Not so long ago, omotenashi (Japanese hospitality) made headlines all over the world because it won Japan the Olympic bid. But now that we have the opportunity to make the world know the wonders of omotenashi I wonder if we are ready to take the world into this beautiful island without going crazy. Keeping in mind that the people we will welcome won’t be as understanding as my colleagues, when denied a table to enjoy a meal with family and friends, because, simply, they exceed the number of customers per table, set by the restaurant. Foreigners should know better. Why do you need to go around in big- and even worse- uneven numbers? That’s not Japanese at all.

In other words, Japanese hospitality on its own, won’t help us receive tourists and give a nice and, yet, efficient service. But fair is fair. And omotenashi did help us win the bid, but as the say goes: what got you here won’t get you there. We can’t rely on it totally because we need to understand and foreseen the eventualities of receiving people from all over the world while being the center of attention for such an important event.

And as I am following the preparations for Tokyo 2020, I can’t help feeling anything but concern. We are not preparing the population and businesses, as we should. And if we don’t take the matter into hands, right now, we will fail to let people know the beauty of Japanese culture. And it won’t be because Japanese culture is so unique that only Japanese people can understand it. It will be because we, those who live in Japan, are not able to share it.

And I don’t think I’m exaggerating, because the current government rather than encouraging openness in business, as a preparation for the Olympics, are tightening the paperwork required to do the simplest things in town, such as send money abroad, which believe me, it has become a little nightmare of bureaucracy.

A couple of weeks ago, my husband, an English tea drinker, made his way to town to send money to his family back in England. He is a lovely man, but the unnecessary and time-wasting process he faced exhausted him. After being asked to fill forms for more than 10 minutes, he was told he couldn’t send any money because he was missing one ID. Since the new “my number” card came into place foreigners, have to present the alien registration card and the new “my number” card. So, there I went with my Japanese passport and plenty of ID cards to help the poor man. I succeeded but, it cost me lots of energy and patience, as I said the paperwork to do the simplest things have become something similar to a punishment.

Japan is a lovely country with rich culture, history, cuisine and above all amazing people. But all that will be overlooked, if we don’t start preparing our service industry and citizens for Tokyo 2020. But truth to be told, I see Tokyo 2020 more than just a merely business opportunity. Yes, business, money and success are important, but even more important is to enhance our ability to work as a country. Hand to hand, shoulder-to-shoulder, Japanese and non-Japanese people living in Japan working all together as a country. If we start preparing now, I am sure we could accomplish not only Tokyo 2020 but also many other challenges that might come along the way. The question is then when and how do we start.

Photo: Yoneko Shiraishi

Yoneko Shiraishi is a writer, who loves sharing posts about life, and love. She also works as a consultant www.consult-culture.com/blog

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