70 days in Japan. 25 days cycling across it and 45 days working in Tokyo were more than enough, perhaps too much. Unlike that wonderful feeling of wanting to come back over and over again that countries like Mongolia or Indonesia left in me during this last year, the more time I spent in Japan the more I felt the need to leave. This by no means mean having had a bad time but mostly not having been able to achieve a deep connection with the country and its culture.
Based on the time spent here, which wasn't a lot but neither was little, the feeling I am left with is that of an extremely rigid and strict society. A rigidity that can be sensed in the air, that can be seen in all forms of social interaction, from the formal to the casual. In relations with people in general one can perceive like an obligation to be permanently correct and do and/or say what it is supposed to be said in a certain situation, instead of possibly react like how they truly feel inside. There seems to be little or no room at all for emotional reactions. Several situations that happened on a daily basis that reflected this, particularly drew my attention. The saying thanks one is a good example. Being grateful is, needless to say, something very valuable, but saying 10 times 'thank you' for something, like a broken record, is as unnecessary as not saying it altogether. As a result of this, there are many times in which one feels that this "gratefulness" doesn't really come out of genuine internal gratitude but rather from a socially approved reflex to a determined situation. On the other hand, anger, raising the voice, yelling, overreacting are almost nonexistent reactions, but I find it extremely hard to believe that they don't feel any of these inside, otherwise they wouldn't be humans. Even so, it is possible to perceive people "swallowing" their internal feelings for the sake of a socially correct response. Also, as it happens in many east Asian countries, the fear to "lose face" , has a huge influence in Japanese society. Face to face confrontation about a problem is preferably avoided. Leaving a written note establishing an existing problem is much more common than expecting a person to come forward and say it up front. Apologizing, like it happens when expressing gratitude, it also feels like a reflex reaction. Japanese people say "sorry" even for things that you don't have to be necessarily sorry about, and they don't say it once but 5-6-7...10 times in a row to express they lament something. However, the feeling I am left with is the same. Is this person genuinely sorry about something or is he/she just repeating it just because he/she is socially programmed to say sorry for this or that particular situation?
The weight of social look is even felt as a foreigner. As a westerner (and perhaps as a third-world one) it was sometimes unbearable having to stand at a crossroads waiting for the traffic light to change to be able to cross, when there weren't any vehicles coming in any direction for at least the immediate two blocks around me. Even so, Japanese people stand and wait and if one decides to go for the transgression and cross just because pure logic says so, the silent look of the people around one was as heavy as that of a sentence. This constant situation of feeling continually observed in silence with looks that approve or disapprove turned into a burden to me and it started to become truly unbearable. And it is the silence that makes it so much worse!. Sometimes it is much better to have an open discussion or even an argument over something and clarify everything quickly without leaving any doubts. It is also very common to see people avoiding eye-contact. Many say it's just people being shy and that might be part of the truth, but I suspect there is much more to it than simple shyness. The truth is that most people avoid direct eye contact and many times a kind smile, a warm greeting from us would be turned down with dry apathy turning their faces away.
Independently of these very particular aspects, others must be mentioned as well. The honesty of the Japanese is nothing short of admirable and I take my hat off for this. The respect they have for everything, including laws, even if sometimes is excessive as I mentioned before, makes everything work properly and in a mostly predictable way. It makes a city like Tokyo, with its 35 million people including its metropolitan area, a pretty quiet city, exquisitely orderly and clean. Crime in Japan is almost nonexistent. During our 45 days stay in Tokyo our bicycles were parked outside our hostel, right on the street not having any lock or security device and that's where they stayed until the very last day we were in town. It is simply beautiful to live without fears, without suspicion that somebody will be out there to hurt us or rob us. The Japanese seem to be more clear than anybody else about not taking what it doesn't belong to them and if they take something it is surely to report it and give it back to the original owner. People report everything that is found. For example, you can lose a key and somebody picks it up and take it to the closest koban (small police station). The person who lost the thing can report that in any other part of town and in no time have access to it. In this century, these things seem like pure fantasy but in Japan they are real, they do happen. Finally, while selling photos on the streets, we have discovered one very positive characteristic of the Japanese: generosity. The Japanese have a lot of money and they aren't stingy with it. Over and over again people came over to support our journey, giving us money just after reading what we were doing on a cardboard piece written in funky letters, and we were simply speechless at people's trust and generosity.
Altogether, the only thing that I will truly miss about Japan is the memorable time, almost mystical, of going to the toilet. For the rest, I can't find real reasons for which I would like to come back or even miss this sterile country. From a technological point of view, it has been certainly mind-blowing and fascinating, it has left us speechless. However, no amount of high-end technology on one side and no amount of pure respect and honesty on the other can fulfill the heart. During our stay in Tokyo I have reviewed one by one all of the videos I shot during one year on the road and in all of the countries I can see the people, those people who have given us hospitality, who have protected us, who have filled us with affection and have made of those countries something unforgettable to us. In Japan, my videos and photos are empty of people. I look at the videos of Indonesia and the Philippines and I can see kids on the streets and in school running around like crazy, playing till exhaustion, having themselves a ball as though the world might end tomorrow, laughing their asses off, simply enjoying being kids, no more no less. We even got to a point of asking ourselves when the hell do they actually study. In Japan, however, we met the most frighteningly serious kids I have ever seen before, we couldn't help but wondering if they knew what it's like to be mischievous, to play pranks or simply to laugh their assess off for no reason. Ultimately, we wonder if they know what life is like without studying or having to fulfill certain academic goals. This was one of the saddest images I saw. Honesty and respect are very positive values but they aren't enough for me to fall in love with a country. I prefer less technological development and perhaps even a little less honesty in exchange of feeling more affection, more human warmth, like the one we felt in countries that might be light years poorer technologically and economically, where people don't have trains that travel at 500 km/h nor they brush their dog's teeth, but they have a heart so big that embraces you from the very first step you take into their homeland.
There are exceptions
To finish this, I would like to mention that there are exceptions, like everywhere else in the world, very happy exceptions. We have been blessed to meet a handful of truly extraordinary Japanese people, Shingo, Kazu, Hayato, Kenichi. The kind of Japanese that have opted for a different way of living, different from what their extremely strict society dictates them. People who combine that inexorable honesty with the love and affection that they have learned while traveling the world. My very last example is that of my great friend Daisuke Nakanishi. Back in 1998 with 28 years old, Daisuke had a dream that had nothing to do with what Japanese society was expecting from him. He decided to quit the social structure of the country, jump on a bicycle and set off to discover the world with the simplest of the goals: to make friends around the world and celebrate friendship. 11 years later, more than 150.000 km on two wheels, some 130 countries and uncountable friends in every corner of the planet, Daisuke arrived at my home in Chengdu, where I welcomed him with open arms.
Both Daisuke and the others I mentioned are clear examples of people who refuse to surrender to such a rigid system that appears to try to suppress the most basic human emotions. Most importantly, they show that a different life is indeed possible. I celebrate my friendship with them and I think it was them who made my long stay in Japan a truly worthy experience. We travel and we believe that a different life IS POSSIBLE, in Japan and everywhere else, you just have to want it and don't be intimidated by the established forces that want to scare you out of the thought of it.