When a person first arrives in Japan there are many things of course that seem strange and different. Aside from the language difference, I think the most striking difference is the attitude of workers. One of the most common expressions in Japan is Gambatte kudasai. It means, "Give it your best effort." It is said just about anytime you are about to start doing something. It is amazing but Japanese people really take it to heart. They do give it their best effort in a way that only nerds and teachers' pets would do in the U.S. where it is definitely not cool to act that way. But in Japan it is considered cool, and even the cool people, the hippies and the anti-establishment crowd give it their best effort.
Walk into any convenience store and you will be greeted with a, "Welcome to our store." If there are two people working, they will both greet you. If a third guy walks out of the back room as you walk towards the back of the store, he will greet you too. If someone has to go to the storeroom to get something, they will run. When you arrive, they will make every effort to serve you. That includes a big smile that I would reserve only for a long lost friend. The other day I went to work early, around 7:30, and I passed a construction site. They were, to my amazement, doing stretching exercises together. The foreman was leading them. They were shouting and stretching as if they were going to storm an enemy stronghold at any minute. This could be your last day on Earth, let's give it our best effort.
In my hometown there was this one old man who everyone thought was crazy because he just stood outside his house all day and waved to cars as they went by. I think most towns have a guy like this. They look like they are having a great time. They have found real peace. They are loony. Many people recognize the guy as they drive by and honk their horns because the guy is crazy and its fun to humor him. But the guy interprets it as a friendly sign and waves back pleased. In his mind he is doing his work. The problem with these guys isn't that they are deluded but that they were born in the wrong country. They could come to Japan and find work doing what they really like to do. Waving.
There is an army of people who do just that. You see them wherever there is a construction site and the sidewalk must be blocked. Usually there is one at either end. Even in the heat of summer they are in full uniform, complete with hats or helmets and plastic light-reflecting vests. They have nifty flashlights that have a kind of strobe flasher at one end. The most amazing thing again is that they give you the warmest most gracious escort. Is there any lower, less skilled job on earth than waving people around a blocked sidewalk? Yet these people are giving it 200%. What is going on in their minds that allows them to do this?
I once observed a railway ticket taker on the train. I watched him with amazement. As he stamped the people's tickets and collected their money, he looked as if he was having the time of his life. My Japanese friend told me what he was saying. "Hello sir. I really am sorry to have to wake you but its time to collect your ticket. I feel sure you will be able to fall asleep again after I've collected the money." And of course as he left the car he gave a big bow.
If you do ever come to Japan remember to be the very best tourist that you can possibly be. See all that you can. Eat every food. Drink every beverage. Go to every temple and see every festival. Remember, "Gambatte."
Published on 12/1/01