See this enigmatic cutie? Fans of Japanese anime will recognize him as Totoro, the star of the 1988 film, “My Neighbor Totoro.” In the film, Totoro and friends speak in grunts and mumbles. On a recent trip to Tokyo, I’m afraid my family’s communication style must have sounded similar.
I quickly realized a few things upon our arrival in Tokyo. First: despite my husband’s and my far flung travels around the globe, we have traveled mainly to places where one of us speaks a bit of the local language, and/or have Romanized script that we could decipher and write out when lost. Second: it is not possible to learn Japanese in two days, even with the best language learning systems out there. So, pardon the tired allusion, we spent our first day or so feeling completely lost in translation.
It wasn’t simply language that presented a barrier, but adjusting to How Things Are Done in Japan. One example was our attempt to purchase tickets for the Ghibli Museum, a mecca for fans of Hayao Miyazaki’s anime films, of which “My Neighbor Totoro,” “Ponyo,” and “Spirited Away” are just a few popular examples. My kids are rabid fans (despite being simultaneously somewhat frightened by the omnipresence of spirits in these films), so when I learned about the museum a few months before our trip, I placed reserving tickets on my mental to do list. Unfortunately, I underestimated the difficulty of getting tickets. I did look at the museum’s website a week before our departure (around the same time I thought it might do us good to learn some Japanese), and learned that it was not a simple web transaction to purchase tickets. We were lucky enough to live in one of the few American cities where there was an official vendor (JTB in San Francisco), but in my rush to prepare for our trip I didn’t have time for that. My back up plan was to buy from one of the many Lawson convenience stores when we got to Tokyo.
So how did our attempt to purchase Ghibli tickets illustrate some aspects of Japanese culture? One is its well known orderliness. Japan functions like a well-oiled machine (except when it doesn’t) . This efficiency is accomplished through algorithms, rules, and procedures. This way of doing things may be the polar opposite of my husband’s Caribbean culture, where “rolling with it” pretty much sums it up. So it was perhaps an overestimation of my husband’s skills to ask him to purchase tickets from JTB. He delayed until the last minute, which was not unexpected, but was himself surprised and a bit frustrated from the outcome. The way he tells the story, he lined up for a while to approach the window at JTB. At that point, he was asked, “Have you filled out the forms?” He said he hadn’t, but since he had already waited in line, could the kind clerk please check and see if tickets were available on the dates we wished to visit? “No,” he was told with a smile and a bow, “please fill out the forms first.” So he went back and filled out a great deal of demographic information and the dates we were available, and lined up once again. Once he reached the counter the second time, the agent quickly scanned the forms and told, “Sorry, there are no tickets available on those dates,” smiled and bowed.
Being optimists, we thought we would attempt again in Tokyo, or perhaps our hotel concierge would be able to buy some locally available tickets. It was the first question we asked after we checked into our hotel. The dapperly dressed and friendly but not particularly helpful Australian concierge laughed and asked, “How’s your Japanese?” Undeterred and perhaps spurred on by his doubt, we stopped into the first Lawson’s we saw and optimistically looked for the machine that dispensed Ghibli tickets. Was it that one? No, that was the ATM. Could it be the machine that said “Loppi” on it? Hard to say—aside from the word “Loppi,” it was all in Japanese. My husband said, “Ask the cashier.” Did he really think I had learned Japanese in two days? I scanned my notebook for the vocabulary. I could see, “Long time no see” and “table for four,” but was utterly unable to cobble together even a ugly sounding phrase to communicate what we needed.
What happened after that illustrates another facet of Japanese culture—politeness and the desire to help, even when it might be impossible. The cashier, the lone worker in the store, was undaunted by her lack of English and our lack of Japanese. I grasped at straws. “Totoro” I grunted. “Jee-blee,” I mispronounced. I quickly scanned around the store and saw a magazine with a picture of Totoro. “Oh, Ghee-ba-lee!” she said in delight and relief. So she quickly left her station at the cash register to assist at the multipurpose Loppi machine, nervously returning to the register when other customers came in for simpler transactions. My husband, looking more confident, pointed at calendar dates on his iPhone and gesticulated wildly at the four of us to indicate, in his own version of sign language, the number of tickets we needed. The cashier punched a series of buttons in Japanese. At the end, she just shook her head and pointed wordlessly at the still indecipherable screen. It seemed there would be no Ghibli museum this time. She quickly ran back to the cash register after thanking us,“arigato gozaimasu!” smiling and bowing.
The smiling and bowing took a lot of getting used to (in department stores, you cannot step more than a few feet without several employees bowing and cheerily greeting you, “Sumimasen!”), but it was one of things my husband loved most about Japan. Even our airport limousine (bus) was bowed to by two employees in unison as it pulled away from the curb. “It’s automatic,” I told him, “they’re not actually that excited to see us.” “I know,” he acknowledged, “but it feels good.”
Here’s a happy P.S. We did come upon a surprise Miyazaki treat while we were in Tokyo. See my post on AFAR on the NI-TELE Really BIG Clock.
Thanks for reading! If you enjoyed this post, please share with your friends. I’ll be back with more travel tales from my trip this summer to Tokyo and Taiwan. There’s a lot of food involved.