Wednesday, 18 June 2014

Japanese traffic

Previous experiences with Japan had girded me against nearly all the vagaries of culture shock, but there was one part of the country that just didn't wash: The driving was just plain messed up. I haven't had the pleasure yet, but I've gleaned a fair amount just by observing my surroundings, such as the razor-thin alleys and switchbacks that pass for residential streets in the country. Reed Richards would be hard-pressed to squeeze through the average Japanese neighbourhood. Roads near my university were so poorly maintained that cars rolled up and down like a ship on stormy seas, creating the impression that everyone was constantly flashing their lights at you, a prospect that seems not entirely unrealistic to a foreigner in Japan.

Vehicles are not allowed to turn left on a red in Japan, which to me seemed totally bizarre until I realised the reason for it. Fact is, stop lines are generally set back several hundred kilometres from their associated intersection, requiring all Japanese motorists to carry a telescope in the glove compartment in order to discern when the light changes. This would make any attempts to creep up to and slip around the corner potentially disastrous. The eccentric positioning of these stop lines is, in turn, a necessity borne out of the narrow streets, as any lateral traffic that turns towards you needs to be able to swing into your lane without punching you in the face, otherwise buses, fire engines, and monster trucks would find most every route impassable.

But that's just the conditions; the real issue is the participants. Driving in Japan is less a means of transportation and more a contest to see who can break the largest number of traffic laws at a time. When I first arrived and began observing the traffic, the entire ecosystem seemed chaotic and dangerous. Japanese drivers constantly made risky manoeuvres that would have caused Canadian passengers to scream in fear and anger. They pulled out to block an entire lane so that they could turn in. If somebody ahead of them was waiting to make a right turn, they freely swerved around them, continuing on like it was no thing.

While often in Canada the centre line may as well be a physically impassable barrier, here it does little more than demarcate the midpoint between either side of the road. You park wherever you can, be it in a marked parking space, a random nook or cranny, the middle of a busy thoroughfare, a stranger's living room, on roofs, in alleys, every way but upside down, really. People whip around at a startling pace, dodging grannies and inconveniently placed hydro poles, giving the reflexes and brake-pads of every other driver a good solid workout, and it's all just considered normal.

Pedestrians aren't much better, possessing a relationship with self-preservation that is antagonist at best. They are fond of wandering around on the road when there's a perfectly good sidewalk across the street, swaying back and forth, stumbling around blind corners, and generally presenting as large a profile as possible when ambulating in groups, for the benefit of any casual human-hunters should they happen to make a go of it on their way to the store. I ended up becoming eminently comfortable with cars hurtling past my body at breakneck speeds, casually forgiving scandalous incursions into my personal space bubble that would earn them a stream of expletives and public humiliation in Canada.

At about the seven-month mark, however, it finally dawned on me that while the Japanese style was certainly much less cautious, it wasn't necessarily worse. I never actually encountered an accident, after all, despite weekly witnessing situations that in Canada would have caused ruination or, at best, an interminable delay as the confused drivers tried to work out how to extricate their vehicles from the tangle they'd tied. Japanese drivers, meanwhile, balletically weave between each other at high speed, never in doubt, never in danger. It was frankly beautiful to see in action. It was as if tight Japanese traffic conditions had forced the drivers to hone a better sense of timing and spatial understanding, a deeper intuition regarding the intentions of the vehicles around them, or, if not that, then at least they as Japanese drivers had a better sense than I had of how another Japanese driver was liable to react at any given moment.

In other words, all these differences that had initially seemed incredible turned out to have their own logic, which became perfectly clear once I'd discovered it – much like many things I came to grips with in Japan. It was an interesting revelation. Culture really is pervasive. When we imagine foreign countries, we think of the food, the music, the language, but the driving culture doesn't generally occur to us until we're forced to confront it. And, as in all those other cases, unfamiliar doesn't automatically mean worse.

Tuesday, 3 June 2014


Now to provide a little context for my last post. Every spring, a university from Toukyou sends a cadre of Psychology students to my Canadian university. The students commune with Canadian Psychology majors, receive an intensive English course, and explore the world outside Japan. (Sometimes we also get groups of future CAs coming to practise English for their internationally oriented jobs, but this seems to be more sporadic, although, as you might imagine, also more fun.) Back when President and I were the Japanese Club leaders, we also tried to show them our hospitality, holding parties for them, sharing meals with them, and, as if I even have to say it, taking them out drinking.

And that's awesome. Unfortunately, that's also what got me into trouble a couple of years ago. I ended up getting way too drunk at an informal function at the campus pub, and, I am told, mouthed off a lot. I say “I am told” because I actually recall very little of what transpired. I do remember falling asleep in the bathroom and being set upright once more by a concerned citizen, then leaving suddenly for no apparent reason, to President's consternation. She ended up tracing the route back to my apartment, but missed me, because I'd stopped off at another bathroom and fallen asleep there too. After a while I woke up on my own and made my way to the next building in my path, where I fell asleep in a third bathroom. Luckily I did eventually make it all the way home, where I finally fell asleep for the my own bathroom.

So I got an amusing anecdote out of it, but unfortunately, before all that happened I ended up getting in a scrap. For all the reasons I explained in that last post I feel I had call to get my hackles up, at least in regards to the one asshole who was provoking me. Unfortunately, that one asshole was their teacher, who comes every year. I'd obviously offended him at least as much as he'd offended me, hence the escalation of the confrontation. And since we never actually resolved our dispute, my anger never really dissipated, even when they'd all gone back to Japan. You can see how diplomatic relations might become strained.

Obviously, I completely mishandled the situation. Setting aside the fact that I should never, ever have gotten that drunk to begin with, I shouldn't have risen to him, either. What the hell did I think I was going to accomplish? Nothing I could say would have persuaded him to my point of view, because he had his mind made up and just wanted to unload at me. And when it's somebody of authority such as a teacher, even if you win, you lose. Especially if you win, you might argue. No, I should have just kept my head down, bitten back every response, and quietly accepted his completely unwarranted criticism of my entire lifestyle.

Instead, I put a palpable strain on the rest of that group's trip, and holy hell do I regret that. That experience specifically is why I never drink “on the job” anymore. So I absolutely take responsibility for that mistake (God knows I've pissed enough people off while drunk), and for some time feared that I'd caused irreparable damage to what had been a very profitable partnership between the other university and our Club. By putting my own aggravation ahead of the interests of the Japanese students, I'd betrayed the very people I was supposed to be serving.

Of course, I wasn't around last year, and since I'm no longer officially affiliated with Japanese Club I was able to put a little cognitive distance between me and my own past transgressions. So when a group came this year, I considered avoiding the whole thing, but ultimately decided, fuck it, if there's a problem, I'll just stare it down. When I arrived at the campus pub, it was already roaring with a crowd of J-students and a complement of white people. Gently squashing the realisation that I was blowing off class to go hang out at a bar, I quickly found President, pulled up a chair, and – within minutes – was offered the teacher's hand.

Not in marriage, mind you. I mean he reached around the guy beside him – I mean like tried to lean past him, not give him a reacharound – and he wanted to shake my hand, that's the point I'm making. No, it's actually not, of course it isn't. The point I'm making is that he greeted me with a goddamn smile. “It's good to see you,” he said, and he seemed to actually mean it. Well, fuck me. That's just great. Here I've been holding a quiet grudge against this guy for two goddamn years and he hasn't thought twice about me. Of course he hasn't. People think about you way less often than you think about them thinking about you. So I felt awfully silly.

Tell you what, though. President and I had a great time at that thing. Somehow the two current executives, neither of whom actually speak Japanese, had gotten all caught up in a group with the aforementioned teacher and one of the Psychology dudes from our university, so we broke for the far end of the table to chat up some of the other students. President just led us straight into the crowd and we sat down with some people and suddenly, socializing. It was just like the old days: President intrepidly charging into battle, me at her side as loyal lieutenant, in this case providing translation and social lubrication. Not that she needed much of either; she manages quite admirably to communicate with a mixture of English and Japanese, and she's one of the most social damn people I know (as am I, which is one of the reasons we get on so well).

Right after, we had to practise for our performance at the international culture festival the following week. I'm using the Royal We here because I was not, myself, performing, rather I offered feedback as a group of about ten practised in a dance studio at student residence. I'm pretty damn brutal about it, but it's all out of love. As a huge fan of rhythm games, I can tell instantly when any individual member is off time. Not that it's very hard when half of them are following different beats and others, none at all. But that's just a matter of practise. Anyway, this is part of the story because some of the J-Psychology Majors came to watch for a little while. When they'd seen a couple of runthroughs they retired to the penthouse, where their teacher was holding an afterparty, which he does every year, and which does not in any way scream of harassment lawsuits.

President had managed to get us invited to lunch two days hence. As always, we seemed to have hitched ourselves to, or been hitched with, a small group of students, in this case five of them. I don't know why it so often seems to work out this way; I guess just because the people most motivated to make friends tend to find each other, and because it takes time and energy to get to know someone and you really can't do that with 20+ people in just two weeks. Of course, they've left now, and we'll never see them again. Every once in a while, though, we'll pop up on each other's Facebook feeds, until the day we all die. More to the point, we made their visit as much fun as we could. I hope that, this time, they walked away with a favourable impression of Canadians, and that maybe that's something they'll take with them.