Sometime, a couple of winters back, we went with Atsuko for a walk to Kita-Kamaura, the northern side of Kamakura and home to some of the most interesting temples (and some of the most expensive houses!) in the area. While walking towards Kamakura proper we stopped outside a restaurant to buy a bottle of tea from one of the omnipresent vending machines but for some reason the machine stuck and shortchanged us by 80 yen (about $0.85). I didn’t pay much notice since there’s almost nothing you can buy with 80 yen and the time had already passed but Atsuko, typically Japanese, went in the restaurant to complain to the owner. The lady told her that the machine is just parked there, that it is run by a company and not by her and that if she wanted something, she should use the telephone number posted on the machine.
Of course Atsuko called and even though it was a Sunday afternoon, someone answered, asked for the machine’s serial number, apologized and the whole thing ended there. Four days later, we received an envelope containing a letter apologizing for our inconvenience and 80 yen in coins; the stamp on the envelope, a special envelope issued by Japan Post to mail cash cost 510 yen, i.e. almost six times the amount returned. As for the letter’s language, it was the most formal version of Japanese; it is very hard to explain what this means since the way Indo-European languages are constructed doesn’t leave much room for what the Japanese call “respect language” or “keigo” (敬語).
I am frequently asked by the Japanese “what is it that impresses you most in Japan”; it is one of the most common icebreakers used with foreigners and it is considered harmless enough since they are certain that they will be able to capitalize on the foreigner’s reply and carry on about how beautiful their country is. Unfortunately, my replies invariably put them in an awkward position because I almost always recount stories such as the above: anyone with money can build a skyscraper, a colossal Buddha or an electronics industry. An attitude like the one this small story illustrates, though, can’t be bought –and neither can the attitude that makes the Japanese unable to understand why I find it impressive.
Grigoris A. Miliaresis is a journalist and translator. He has worked for many newspapers, magazines and publishing houses and specializes in the Internet, the martial arts and Japan where he has been living for the last few years.