The way of the Japanese

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By 2017-09-10

By Sanuj Hathurusinghe /
Ceylon Today Features

The Japanese are well known for being a polite bunch. It is a positive stereotype the Japanese have and I had heard of it even before I went there.

I surely wasn't disappointed as it turned out to be, the Japanese really are polite in every way possible. At first, it was all fun to be surrounded by such polite people. It makes you act polite as well. On top of being polite, they are patient as well. No one rushes to get into a bus or a train no matter how busy they are. No one cuts in a line. Commuters who take the train line up one after the other on the platform and when the train comes, two lines are formed on either side of the door leaving space in the middle so that the passengers have space to get off the train. No one gets in until everyone is off the train.

Soon you get used to it and start following the flow, so to speak, and after some time, the constant politeness could grow to be somewhat of a nuisance as well. Salespersons in Japanese shops go out their way to be extra polite to customers. It is not as if they are trying to be more polite and customer friendlier than the shop next door but it is the way it is.

When I was new to the country, my vocabulary consisted mostly with basic conversational skills such as greetings, saying yes and no and asking common questions. Those days my plan for an ideal shopping experience was to get in, pick the necessities, pay and get out quickly. The perfect plan would be hampered at the counter. The cashier would first ask me if I have a point card. Then if it is some meal I'm buying, which almost always was the case, the cashier would ask whether I want either disposable chopsticks or plastic fork and spoon with it. He would also ask whether I want the food to be heated and when giving the balance again would ask whether I'd take the receipt. Back then I'd spend more time at the cash register answering all the questions than actually browsing.

Japanese being a characteristically polite bunch have a hard time saying 'no'. Not necessarily the word but when it comes to refusals, disagreements and expressing general negativity, they tend to beat around the bush a lot. Another Japanese would immediately catch the drift and would know what the other person is getting at but for me with my limited language skills, the struggle was real. When inquired about the availability of a certain product, a salesperson would go on and on about how they had it in their stocks until very recently and about a thousand other similar products where a simple 'no' would have sufficed. Down the line, I mastered the art of reading between the lines and managed to walk away politely but at the very beginning it came at a cost of many minutes of both mine and the salespersons' precious time.

In Japan, what you see is exactly what you get, well, at least in the super markets. You hardly ever see the Japanese rifling through stocked potatoes weighing and sizing up one after another in search of a better one. Most of the time they would just pick any vegetable randomly and walk away. No one would waste time browsing through greens, veggies and fruits not just because of their super busy schedules but mainly because the quality of the goods is of the highest. After some time spent in Japan your typical Sri Lankan mentality that inadvertently forces you to shake a coconut or break the edges of okras before buying fades away and eventually you'd get used to pick up whatever you need swiftly.

Not just for fresh goods but the quality remains more or less the same when it comes to the second hand market as well. Electronic devices, cameras and mobile phones often carry a high demand in used goods markets. Every item, especially in the online market, is branded according to the state they are in. 'S' is the highest ranking while the rest of the rankings descend from A to D. Anything ranked S is as good as new and the price too is significantly close to the original price despite being an used item. Anything up to C would be of high quality while D sometimes contains the odd bad apple of a product. I once bought a couple of used mobile phones ranked C and was pleasantly surprised to see them in better condition than my very own recently bought brand new phone.

Second hand household items including electronics are dirt cheap when compared to the original price. You can pick a fully automatic washing machine at a thrift shop or in a recycle shop as the Japanese call it for as cheap as 6,000 Yen. Furniture is even cheaper. A computer table or a chair wouldn't even cost you a thousand. Most of the time you'd end up having to pay a higher bill for delivery. My first and only apartment came with a refrigerator, a washing machine, a microwave and a vacuum cleaner as presents. The agent who showed me around called them 'presents' from the previous tenant. One of the reasons I went for that particular apartment was that the used electronics were in excellent condition and thus, potentially saving me the trouble of buying them on my own.

As it turned out, there was a reason for why the second hand household items were so cheap. You can buy them cheap but getting rid of them costs you a pretty penny. When moving out many would hand their stuff to a junior. When I was moving out I still had a lot of goods with me after giving so many away. It is not as if I can dump them by some road. So I called city council or the Ward Office as they call it and inquired about throwing my stuff away. They informed me that a special collector for larger throw-aways only comes once a month and I had to pay for every large item I wanted thown away. Ironically, the amount I was asked to pay to throw the washing machine out was multiple times higher than its second hand price.

If I wanted the collector to come on a different day, then I would have to pay his and his assistants' hourly wages and the gas money for the vehicle as well. Luckily I didn't buy any of the electronics and left all the hand-me-downs in the apartment for the next tenant to use.

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