Saturday, December 17, 2005

Stupid Foreigner, part 2: Get a job

This is the second piece I'm recycling/revising from my time in Japan. Hey, it's like Johnny Cash spending a little time in jail and then singing about it his entire life. I'll probably never stop talking about Japan, but just like Johnny, it doesn't mean that I want to go back. This one's from Sept. 7, 1998.

Ten years before I arrived in Japan, the economy was booming. People had so much money that they would stop foreigners in the street with wads of money just to have a conversation in English. They wanted to improve their language skills before buying up half of New York.

By the time I arrived, the yen was slumping badly and newspapers extensively covered the downfall of the currency and stock exchange, neglecting other, perhaps more important stories. Stories like the new Sony Handycam, which has a feature that allows it to see through clothing.

But, people seem to be working, despite the weak currency and struggling bank industry (whose new motto is "Please buy back all the worthless real estate we bought during the bubble economy"). Every day, everywhere I go on my 3-speed Japanese bicycle (that has mysteriously turned into a 2-speed Korean bicycle), I bump into people working. I literally bump into them because, in Japan, people never look where they're going. They come bursting out of a doorway at top speed and head across the sidewalk, into the street where their illegally parked car is waiting for them. Without ever looking up. I think their walking habits stem from the very real fear that, if they make eye contact, someone might actually say hello. There's nothing more embarrassing than having someone talk to you, especially if the stranger is a foreigner, who might say something as incomprehensible as "Excuse me, is there a McDonald's near here?" (The answer, incidentally, is "yes.") And they're probably embarrassed that they don't have wads of money to hand you anymore.

But maybe they're just in a great big hurry to get to work. Because, as I said, there doesn't seem to be a shortage of jobs in this country. People have jobs and they go out of their way to look busy. So, as I fight the wind and rain of Typhoon No. 4, umbrella in one hand and cell phone in the other, I ride as carefully as I can in case some busy-looking salaryman decides to cross my path.

Some jobs you see in Japan seem redundant and you ask yourself "do they really need that many workers?" For example, if you take an average bank -- slightly larger than a typical TCF at the Jewel -- there are at least fifty employees manning the cramped workspace, wearing neatly pressed, very conservative suits. I'm not sure why a bank that size needs that many workers. Maybe they're trying to sell New York property.

Other jobs are what might be termed essential. Like the men who walk around on dry winter nights, banging two sticks together as a warning against fire. It is true, if you think about it: fire can be your friend or your enemy.

Then there are the really strange jobs. Jobs that make you think that you must be in Japan. Jobs you'd never find in America. I've studied them carefully, as I've ridden past on my creaky bike, and am now ready to reveal some "People Who Would Be Unemployed in the USA."

There's a sushi shop by my house that has five parking spaces facing into the street. Five spots doesn't amount to much of a parking lot, but in Japan it's prime real estate. Driving is hard enough here because of all the pedestrians and cyclists that don't look where they're going, but parking seems to be a skill mastered by only a few. It's a little entertaining to watch drivers go backward and forward into a spot a few times before being satisfied with their car's resting place (which always extends into the next spot). It's like watching someone pulling into a parking space in Chicago, in the winter, in six inches of snow. But there's no snow where I live, ever. The people just drive that way. Anyway, to help people get in and out of their five parking spots, the sushi shop employs three baton wavers. Three! These guys run around cars, jump into the street to stop traffic, and scream at top volume, the whole time waving bright orange batons and looking very busy. All three work as some sort of synchronized team. But somehow all the cars end up parked crooked anyway. I'm not really sure why a sushi shop needs three people to help cars park in five spots, unless maybe the owners want to justify the high price of raw fish.

In Japan, the trains are always on time. If the schedule says your train leaves at 9:31, you better be there at 9:31, cause it ain't gonna wait. Not to worry if you're late, though, because the next train is at 9:37. If a train IS late for some reason -- because of a suicide or a typhoon for instance -- it's actually a newsworthy event. The newspapers will run a story the next day telling you exactly what happened and how many people were inconvenienced. (However, the story will appear on page 2, because page 1 is reserved for stories about the ailing economy.) Here's a true story: One time a conductor didn't get back on a train as it left the station, so he had to catch a taxi to the next stop. This caused a 14 minute delay, and 14,683 were late for work. My point is that it's rare for a Japanese train to be late. But that doesn't stop the rail company from hiring some guy to wear a snappy uniform and stand on the station platform, whose only job is to push a buzzer as the next train pulls into the station. It's a very loud, annoying buzzer that he pushes for at least 20 seconds, until the train comes to a complete stop. At the same time, the guy's saying something over a microphone, something that is completely drowned out by the noise. I think he's saying something like: "Ladies and gentlemen, presenting the 412th consecutive train that is on time today! Don't be late, and don't speak to any stupid foreigners! You know they expect wads of money from you!"

That's it for today. Join me next week as I examine other jobs, telling you about people who hand out packets of tissues on street corners, people who shout at you in supermarkets, and hostesses who get paid wads of money to sit next to men at bars and talk to them.


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