Helpful Hints for World Cup visitors

Opinions Tokyo Life - May 17th, 2002
Robert J. Collins

by Robert J. Collins

We all know this: Guide books, travel agents and front-desk personnel at all hotels are veritable wizards at laying out schedules and accommodations. First time in Japan? No problem. Want a map? Snap your fingers and you’ll be given handfuls. Armfuls. Suitcasesful. Even a lit­tle drawing of how to reach the toilet in your room. Which brings us to Helpful Hint#l.

Maps around here tend to ignore little niceties such as directional orientation. (You’d think, this being the Orient and all…) Maps don’t have north, south, east and west as reference points. (Actually, Japanese rec­ognize east and west because they believe their country runs that way—things are in either East Japan or West Japan—but to outsiders who see this country as being primarily north and south, it’s a losing battle.) Pre­pare to be facing south when being directed to someplace north.

On the subject of maps, they are not for you to read. No mat­ter how clinically detailed, or no matter how artistically mini­mized (two swooshes and a dot), maps around here contemplate basic familiarity with the territo­ry. (“Turn left past the store that used to sell rice.”)

Since you won’t be familiar with the territory, the map is for the poor soul you happen to catch for help once you’re “close.” All you do is keep your maps straight. You don’t want to travel all across Japan, then hand some guy the map to the toilet in your Tokyo hotel. (The poor soul might feel obliged to take you.)

Helpful Hint #2 Japan prides itself on having a popula­tion of 128 million. That makes this country appear crowded. In point of fact, the population of Japan is only 128 thousand! (Think of that: a mere 128,000 people rattling around in all this space.)

The thing is, folks here have mastered the art of digitally mas-tering and expanding crowd scenes for the blue-screen process of movies and television. It started in the early “Godzilla” films, and the technology has since run rampant. Massive amounts of people are now flashed as background for any and all events regarding the par­ticipation of “active Homo sapi­ens.”

The clever aspect is how the group of 128,000 positions itself. Oh, there’ll be some real humans in the apparent mass behind you, but basically most of the 128,000 will be ahead of you in line. You must deal with it. Because if you lose patience— take your clothes off and scream or some such thing—you’re going to be involved with that same group of 128,000 at break­fast the next day or on a bus. (And like birds in the sky, or fish in a stream, they have the ability to communicate with each other all at once.)

Helpful Hint #3 Japanese speak Japanese—all 128,000 of them. They may sit around their low tables late at night reciting Limericks or discussing homo-erotic themes in Shakespeare’s middle period, but outdoors the language of the day is Japanese.

Or is it? One thing a Japan­ese hates to lose is face. Because right or wrong, all Japanese have spent many hours wrestling with English. If a Japanese thinks you’re about to make an ass of him by what he senses is your attitude when asking for some­thing in English, he won’t say anything if your trousers are on fire. And that’s true if there’s someone else in his group who he knows speaks better English. He’ll lose face to that person.

The solution? Divide and conquer. Pick someone of the same age, etc., etc., and zero-in on him away from his group. And if that fails, assume the stiff-legged walk of a robot and gently walk into a tree or wall, bounce back and repeat the identical maneuver. Someone will eventu­ally come up and steer you right. Japanese have more experience dealing with robots than for­eigners.

Helpful Hint #4 To hooli­gan, or not to hooligan—that is the question. My fervent prayer is that there is no rough stuff. At all. That prayer is brought about by the fact that I have to live here. Many tens of thousands of foreigners have carved out acceptable lifestyles in this place. Although a riot at a soccer pitch somewhere probably won’t affect me directly (although it could, I guess at “my matches” in Yokohama), the ramifications for all foreigners living here can’t be good.

There’s another reason (who cares where I live?) I might advise against hooliganism. Japanese local and national police, plus the Self-Defense Force have been gearing up on the World Cup for two years. Whole divisions of riot control forces have been created and they have practiced their little blue uniforms ragged—new jumpsuits actually have to be issued before the matches.

There are many ways to see stars, but one way is not with a samurai wielding a riot stick up­side the head. It’s something to think about anyway.