Wednesday, August 3, 2016

Notes from Japan 3: Language

It's hard to spend any time in Japan and not get involved, at least a little bit, with the language. Spoken Japanese is melodious and quite easy to recognise and pronounce. Possibly the first thing a visitor would notice is the abundance of "gozaimasu", a suffix which indicts respect for the person being addressed. The last "u" is virtually silent, so it sounds more like "gozaai-maaaas" with the last syllable always stretched out. You can say "ohayo gozaimasu" which it taken to mean "good morning", though more literally it means "it's morning", plus "respect". You can say "arigato gozaimasu" which implies thanks plus respect. There is a kind of past-tense version which is "gozaimashita", which indicates that you are being shown respect when your meeting is over. So if you are leaving a restaurant, or a bus, you can say "arigato gozaimashita". This is also stretched out and sounds like "gozaai-maash-taa".

It goes without saying that most things in Japan happen in Japanese, and English translations are available quite rarely. This is less surprising when one realises (and many English-speaking visitors fail to realise this) that tourists from China, South Korea, Taiwan and Hong Kong make up 70% of all tourists to Japan. Given that a typical Japanese restaurant is a small mom-and-pop affair with 10-15 seats, you can hardly expect them to have menus in 4-5 different languages. Of course in tourist areas, and in large restaurants, there is inevitably an English menu. Kyoto city buses have announcements in English, as do fast trains. Somewhat to my surprise, the foreigners' section at the Sakyo Municipal Ward where I went to register my Japanese residency, did not particularly know English, but that too is explained by the statistic I offered above.

As one might guess, the sheer helpfulness and courtesy of Japanese people by and large obviates any problem that a tourist might face. And if you are here long enough you start to absorb a lot of phrases. The ones I have committed to memory are those recited on buses. I'm not sure how it works elsewhere in Japan, but Kyoto buses are quite a production. The driver wears a collar microphone and talks to the passengers continuously while driving. Every time the bus is about to halt, at a bus stop or even a traffic signal, he will say "tomarimasu" (to indicate "I am stopping"). As I explained above, this is pronounced "tomari-maaaas" and the drivers seem to enjoy lengthening the last syllable. When it starts off again he says what sounds like "tokimasu" or "gokimasu" or possibly "ikimasu", I haven't been able to figure it out. I know that "ikimasu" means to go. And when a stop is anticipated, a woman's recorded voice will say "Tsugiwa [stop name]. Tomarimasu. Tobira-ga hiraka made, sono made omachi, kudasai". Which very literally means "Next [stop name]. Stopping. Door opening until, then until, wait please." The whole thing is very charming and just filled with courtesy and kindess.

In Japan you exit the bus from the front and pay (or show your pass) to the driver before exiting. Some drivers will thank every customer getting off. At Kyoto station the entire bus empties out very quickly, with most passengers having a pass that they just wave at the driver. Particularly the more elderly drivers, who adhere conscientiously to the Japanese code of politeness, get all worked up and shout "hai, arigato gozaimashita, arigato gozaimashita, arigato gozaimashita" at the rate of one per second for about forty repetitions. It's truly amazing because a single generic "thank you" will not do, each passenger has to be acknowledged individually.

One ritual that I like happens at the start of a meal, even in a university cafeteria. Everyone solemnly does a "namaste" to the food and says "itadakimasu" (let's eat) before starting. We Indians do this too, at least the more traditional ones. But I've never seen it in a cafeteria context.

Speaking Japanese is far far easier than reading it. Perhaps another blog post on the written language will be appropriate, at another time.

To conclude, there is the legend that Japanese people never say "no" and therefore, if you are confused about directions and ask someone "is that the direction in which I should go?", they will reply "yes, and then please turn around and go in the other direction".

Tuesday, August 2, 2016

Notes from Japan 2: Looking inwards

If India became seriously rich as a result of several decades' concentrated hard work, it would look like Japan in many ways. For example I live in a locality of Kyoto which is made up of tiny lanes with tiny houses crammed next to each other, which brings to mind (but only symbolically) the lanes and by-lanes of a Mumbai slum. It is more than likely that these neighbourhoods were very poor at one time. The rapid industrialisation of Japan, and consequent rising affluence, led to a decline in population growth and a gentrification of the poorer areas.

What is interesting is that this gentrification did not (at least in Kyoto) follow the path of building skyscrapers everywhere. Rather, the entire area east of the Kamo river - Higashiyama and Sakyo districts - is low-rise. The lanes are scrupulously tidy and each house has a microscopic front yard with a bonsai tree or some rocks, or tiny garden gnomes, or all of the above. In some cases there is just enough space to hold a kei car, while the most affluent houses that are lucky to be on wider lanes will display a Crown Athlete, a hybrid car the size of a small airplane. (My own lane is so narrow that a taxi cannot make it in.) The atmosphere in these areas is serene, excessively so. On the first 15 minutes of my 20-minute walk to work, I typically see one or two human beings, sometimes none.  After 7 PM there is essentially no chance of seeing anyone on the street.

The serenity is one evidence of a very important fact about Japanese culture - the emphasis on looking inward, focusing on one's own duties, keeping to oneself. To be sure, bustling Osaka and Tokyo (and even downtown Kyoto) are far from serene, but if you look carefully at the gigantic crowds you see that most people are quietly occupied with themselves. Alternatively, they are occupied with being a nuclear family: typically a young couple with one child, immersed in its own world though interacting with others from time to time. This is not intended as a negative judgement, simply a fact of Japanese life. Presumably it originates in the ancient Shinto religion and has been reinforced by Buddhism.

In contrast, in India the keyword is to busy oneself with everyone else's business. And actually, this too is not intended as a negative judgement. The warm mutual engagement of people in every locality in India is what makes it such a cheerful place. Neighbours exchange food, front doors are kept open, privacy is unknown. The result is an exuberant culture that provides a fascinating (and, for me, essential) change from the orderliness of Japan.

A dose of looking inwards would, however, be very beneficial if India is to prosper. I would love it if the "bastis" (shanty towns) of all our cities were transformed into neat little localities of the Kyoto type -- retaining the narrow winding lanes, but with proper hygiene, electricity and sanitation. It can be done, but requires both vision from above and self-discipline from within.

Monday, August 1, 2016

Notes from Japan 1: Food and drink.

This blog has been dormant for nearly six months. Now that I'm into the last week of a 3-month visit to Japan, I feel this is a good time to write down a series of notes. In these, I'll try to summarise various features of Japan that I found striking and that had an impact on me

One of the topics that always comes up in Japan is food, so let's start with that. No two things in the universe differ in conception as much as Japanese and Indian food. Some of the differences are self-evident: Indians use strong flavours and cook food for a long time, while Japanese use subtle flavours and cook food quickly and lightly, or not at all. When it comes to meat and fish (what we call "non-veg"), Indians have a very restricted palate. While 70% of Indians are "non-vegetarian", most of them eat eggs and chicken, a smaller number eat mutton while coastal Indians eat a limited variety of fish. Beef and pork are also eaten in India, but both are subject to taboos by different communities and in consequence they are banned in the cafeterias of government institutes (in practice, neither is served in virtually any cafeteria that caters to a diverse population). I should mention that in India, alcohol too is banned from the campuses of government institutes and also many private institutions.

Contrast this with Japan - there are three distinct types of eel eaten here: unagi, anago and hamo. Dozens of varieties of fish are sold in supermarkets, along with octopus, squid, shrimp and roe (fish eggs). Popular meats include pork, beef, chicken (but not lamb or goat, to my knowledge). Occasionally one also finds horse meat, or -- at the other end of the scale -- crickets and other insects. Japan has dedicated restaurants for offal (called horumon or sometimes "hormone") which, we are told, includes esophagus, heart, pulmonary artery, uterus, mammary, diaphragm, pancreas, intestine and rectum. The average Indian, even a hardened fan of "non-veg", is no doubt finding this hard to read! But it gets more intense. At a sushi restaurant in downtown Kyoto, a signature dish is a kind of fish that is kept swimming in a tank and taken out only after the order is placed. Its meat is sliced into sashimi and the skeleton, with head and tail intact, is mounted artistically on the same plate. Your host will then point out that the tail of this skeleton keeps gently waving -- a sign that the fish was alive until very recently. After you finish the sashimi you can ask for the skeleton to be deep-fried, it is then crunchy and absolutely delicious.

No doubt, one can spin the above into a tale of a cruel populace that lacks respect for living creatures. But I'm afraid Indians would have a hard time to convincingly do that. While they are alive, I suspect Japanese animals (of all shapes and sizes) are treated a lot better than their counterparts in India. Given that food here is lightly cooked and often raw, hygiene also has to be of the highest standard.Anyway I don't wish to attack or defend anyone's way of life. I just find it remarkable that there are very few taboo foods here.

Vegetables and fruits are, of course, a bit of a casualty in Japan. A single large eggplant or tomato can cost as much as a filet of salmon (say, 3 US dollars), while just yesterday I saw large peaches in Nishiki Market for the equivalent of 8 US dollars (over 500 Indian rupees) each. Personally, I'm looking forward to resuming my high-fruit-content diet as soon as I arrive in Pune next weekend!

One striking fact is that the north-east of India as well as all the "far east" countries including Japan, China, Korea and Southeast Asia seem to include a large variety of animals and seafood in their diet. They are also similar in another regard: unlike the middle-eastern and Indian cultures (and some Anglo-Saxon cultures too), alcohol is quite simply a normal thing. It can be served pretty much anywhere and on any occasion. Advertisements for restaurants often show a nuclear Japanese family sitting at a table with bottles of beer in front of the parents and ice-creams in front of the children. Alcohol can be consumed together by, say, faculty and students. At my farewell party in Kyoto, held in front of a seminar room, liquor strong enough to power a small airplane was shared by all amid growing noise and hilarity. A faculty member approvingly told me the students would continue drinking until all the liquor was finished, often till 2 or 3 AM. In restaurants where Japanese people go to drink, customers become noisier and more drunk as the evening wears on, but the "predictable" outcome does not happen. There is no molesting of other customers or aggressive behaviour to strangers.

Admittedly there is a slight change since 1990 when I first came to Japan: today it is not possible to dispense alcohol (or cigarettes) from a vending machine unless you swipe a card that proves you are an adult. So under-age drinking is certainly frowned upon. But for adults, the sky is the limit. By the way, I don't claim there is no alcoholism in Japan or that it isn't considered a problem. Just that there is absolutely no impediment to consume. In sharp contrast, very strong impediments have been placed in the way of smoking, another Japanese tradition. It is  now illegal to smoke on the street in Kyoto and this is quite strictly enforced. This is not because cigarettes are "taboo", but because of the very clear health implications.

From a conservative Indian point of view (not mine, of course) the high levels of meat and alcohol consumption should have caused Japan to turn into an immoral, reckless, debauched, violent society. And nothing can be farther from the truth - indeed everyone knows this is a civilised, hard-working nation where the creation of wealth co-exists with a love of intellectual pursuit, aesthetics and art. Japan boasts 22 Nobel laureates, not at all bad for a nation whose population is a little larger than that of Maharashtra. And India has a four times higher rate of gun-related deaths per capita than Japan. If you are looking for a country that has unrestrained vigilante lynch mobs, then only one out of India and Japan fits the bill and I'll leave the correct answer as an exercise.

So these are some observations for every Indian, left-wing or right-wing, liberal or conservative, to chew upon - or swig - as per their preference.