Japan, the new and the old

MANILA, Philippines–Last Sunday, I wrote about my visit to Tokyo to thank the Japanese government for the P300-million unconditional grant to help build the Philja Development Center in Tagaytay. Thereafter, my wife Leni and I joined a grand tour of Japan arranged by Globus, one of the largest tour operators in the world. Globus packages may be bought from any travel agency here.

High-tech Japan. To get a “feel” of both modern and traditional Japan, we stayed in mega cities like Tokyo, Osaka and Kyoto, as well as in small ones, like Takayama and Kanazawa. We motored through the Japanese alps, passed by quaint villages with thatched-roof houses, marveled at the Himeji Castle and the Katsura Imperial Villa, and were shocked at the atomic bomb devastation in Hiroshima. We rode the Shinkansen. At 280 kilometers per hour, the ride was amazingly quiet and smooth. At that speed, Baguio could be reached from Manila in an hour.

All the hotels we used (Hilton, Nikko and Ana) had high-tech toilets that featured heated seats, temperature-controlled electronic bidets and sprays, as well as hot air blowers to dry one’s bottom without toilet paper. Some had sophisticated gadgets like mini water massage hoses and devices that measure body fat ratios.

Three of the hotels provided “magnetic” pillows that truly induced me to sleep more soundly. But the Osaka Hilton outdid the others by offering a “Pillow Menu” from which guests may choose a: (1) sobagara, Japanese pillow made of buckwheat hull; (2) sobagara combined with down feathers; (3) non-allergy cotton; (4) hinoko, made of cypress chips; (5) white duck feathers; or (6) tempur, flexible polyurethane that conforms to the shape of the sleeper’s head.

Another technological wonder: the vehicles in the major cities have global positioning systems (GPS) with large monitors and voice guides. Thus, no driver would ever get lost in the confusing concrete mazes of Japan. Generally, the Japanese do not give names to their streets or numbers to their houses. Instead, they use a unique “chome” system that is too complicated for my understanding.

Being fond of Japanese cuisine, I savored the best wagyu (Japanese beefsteak) dinner at the Okura hotel, which was hosted by Carlos “Pop” Mañalac, our son-in-law’s brother. As the managing director of Lehman Brothers in Asia (based in Tokyo), he is probably one of the highest paid expats in Japan. On the other hand, our Globus guide treated us in Hiroshima to the okonomiyaki, a reasonably-priced (about P300) delicacy I relished. I now hope that an entrepreneur would introduce it in Makati.

Traditional Japan. Despite being the second largest economy in the world, Japan still retains many vestiges of its past. Perhaps the most important Japanese value is wa which, roughly translated, means “harmony.” Historically bound in tight-knit communities, the Japanese highly prize group cohesion, teamwork and consensus. They have no exact equivalent of the English word “no,” because an extreme negative is anathema to consensus. Neither is there an identical word to “yes.” Hai does not necessarily mean “I agree.” Most of the time, it merely signifies, “I understand.”

Because the Japanese hate to displease, there is almost always a gap between “what is said” and “what is the truth.” In a society where harmony is paramount, people tend to hide their true feelings, lest they offend others or damage the group’s solidarity. It is up to the hearer to understand the real situation and to act accordingly. For example, we came late (a no-no in Japan) for a show. Instead of saying “no” to our request for admission, the hostess told us that the weather was unpredictable and that the next day would probably bring in the sunshine. That was her indirect way of advising us to come back the following day.

Calling cards are extremely important, not so much to identify but to show the rank and career status of the giver. It is only in this manner that new acquaintances are able to converse properly. There is a distinct way of speaking with an inferior, as there is with a superior and with an equal.

Tipping is not common in Japan. In fact, waiters and bellhops are sometimes offended when tipped. Bowing is customary and is sometimes more important than words. It can mean anything from “hello” to “goodbye” to “thank you.” Extremely courteous, natives go out of their way to help fumbling strangers.

Democratic Japan. Steadfastly parliamentary, the Japanese government is headed by a prime minister. Lawmaking is vested in a two-house Diet while judicial power is exercised by an independent Supreme Court. Though group-oriented, the people are nonetheless entrepreneurial and committed to free trade.

The main religions are Shinto, an indigenous faith with naturalist origins, and Buddhism. About 2 percent of the population is Christian. True to their “consensusness,” many Japanese are said to “be born Shinto, marry Christian and die Buddhist.”

When I was still practising law and dabbling in business, I used to frequent Japan. Now, after my retirement, I am pleased to have come back, and note that, despite the lapse of 25 years, it is still a country of contrasts and contradictions; an oasis of oriental charm and Western innovations; a cradle of Eastern religions and an exemplar of liberal democracy; a promoter of human rights and an adherent of free trade. It pioneers e-age technologies but retains its traditional values, thereby exhibiting a distinct Japanese lifestyle.

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