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Going to Tokyo for the first time, one of the first things that is remarkable is the experience of entering a store-any store more likely than not one of the many convenience stores, which are, conveniently enough everywhere. I stepped into a 7 eleven this afternoon and snapped a brief video below.
In comparison to many stores in Tokyo and throughout Japan, this is a very mild version of the usual greeting “Irasshaimase” that is cried out by store clerks Meaning “welcome to our store.”
In a more intimate setting as the sole customer entering a store, one might initially feel the urge to respond, however no response is actually expected; a brief introduction to the complex systems of introductions and greetings in Japan.
Knowing when to respond, when to bow can be overwhelming- I find myself leaving Tokyo bowing at confused cab drivers in NYC- remarkable how quickly we can adapt and take on new cultural customs.
Public greetings which are often cried out in a chorus in stores, restaurants and any public space, are part of a larger phenomenon in Japan of saying things in unison. Before a meal, after a meal for example any group of people will almost also say “Ittedakimasu” or “Gochisosamadeshita” in unison.
This goes far beyond “bon appetite” which we might chose to say to a friend while enjoying a meal together. In Japan it is said automatically as a group together-a kind of communal appreciating for the food which is being provided.
Beyond the initial greetings and bowing which are of course so unusual as a newcomer, I cannot write about Japan without mentioning the attitude towards work or ‘shokunin’ meaning literally ‘artisan’ or ‘craftsman’. This term however speaks more to the deep sense of commitment and pride I have observed here in even the most basic, menial form of labor. It is again tied to the sense of group or community. ‘Ottsukarasamadesue’ is what is said again together in a chorus after having finished work-or any kind of effort done together.
The NYTimes featured an article recently about this unique sense of work ethic. Journalist John Lancaster writes about this aspect of Japanese culture in relation to the financial market and the Japanese economy:
“That’s a thing you notice in Japan, the deep personal investment people make in their work. The word shokunin, which has no direct translation, sums it up: It means something like “master or mastery of one’s profession, and it captures the way Japanese workers spend every day trying to be better at what they do."
In my own experience it is both inspiring and simultaneously frustrating this deep sense of commitment to work and to the greater community. Having grown up in the West, my own orientation is to the individual. In Japan however where even in speech the pronoun is often omitted removing the focus from the subject to the action itself, the individual is secondary. I may never ever fully embrace this attitude (I am far too selfish and opportunistic),however for a brief moment, experiencing this attitude can be genuinely transformational; a brief glimpse into a unique and fundamentally different way of thinking.
How far can we stretch our own perception of the world in absorbing a language and culture so different from our own?
Does travel actually expand the mind or is it simply a form of cultural escapism-a distraction from our own, often difficult realty?