Years ago, at the training for an English teaching job, the company trainer taught me a lesson I still think about just about daily.
The trainer started us off with an icebreaker "quiz" that she assured us had no right or wrong answers, it was just to get us talking. It was your average list of questions for newcomers to Japan, about odd foods or customs. The only trouble was that neither myself nor the other girl training with me were newcomers to Japan. The other soon-to-be teacher had been in Japan, teaching with various other companies for over five years, and had put her undergrad degree in Japanese studies to good use, her language skills were quite good. The trainer (perhaps because company policy was to deny that any of the English teachers had any Japanese ability at all and to insist they all pretend this was the case)didn't seem to speak much Japanese, although she was Canadian of Japanese descent and made comments that suggested she felt her Japanese heritage gave her insight into the country.
But, annnnyways, the “quiz”… We marked down our true/false “answers” and then started discussing them. Despite the trainers assertion that there were no right or wrong answers I had read one of the questions and answered it, laughing to myself as I remembered a discussion I had had with a Japanese friend a few days beforehand.
“Japanese people always walk on the lefthand side. True or False”
I circled false and thought about the numerous times I’d had to do a quick two-step, a back and forth dance so as not to walk straight into somebody walking towards me. It wasn’t just that I came from a country that drove on the right side of the road and so was going opposite directions to everybody in this left-side driving country. The people I was facing had no default direction. It was like a game of rock-paper-scissors – they might go left, or right, or just stand and wait for me to make a move. And it seemed that whatever I chose my scissors got smashed by their rock, as I narrowly avoided my my nose smashing their forehead.
Worried I was a lumbering foreigner I asked one of my Japanese friends. She laughed. Apparently she experiences the same thing. Sure people in Tokyo stand on the left side of escalators and walk on the right, but go to Osaka and the sides are switched (freaks me out, every, single, time!) Sure there are arrows on the stairs and hallways of busy train stations to direct the hordes of commuters into something resembling order, but few people pay attention to them out side of peak commuting hours. My friend said she thought it had to do with the relative lack of wide sidewalks in Japanese cities and how most of the time you had to walk on the side of the road and there really wasn’t any room to pass at all. Or maybe how historically rank trumped all, with the lower classes of society having to leave the road and grovel in the dust if somebody important came along the road. Or maybe it was a faint glimmer of Japanese individualism refusing to be squashed completely. My friend laughed and shook her head, who knew?
Back in teacher training, we were comparing “answers.” I had chosen true for the statement “Japan is a safe country” while the other trainee had chosen false, citing the number of times she had been felt up on busy trains. The trainer made some comment about both being true, and how we should stay alert at all times and be aware of our safety. If we should ever need it, however, the company was there to help us!
The next question was the one about the sides of the road. The other trainee and I had both chosen false, and we were equally certain this was one question that did have a right answer. The trainer, however, corrected us. Yes, the question did have a correct answer. But we were mistaken. Japanese people DID always pass each other on the left side. The other trainee and I shook our heads and jumped into tales of sidewalk two-steps to prove our point. The trainer, however, a faint smile on her face, shook her head and launched into a tale about “the samurai” and how the would only pass to the right of somebody so they could pull their swords faster and cut their opponent down in an instant. Besides, passing to the left might cause sword to hit sword.
Why do I think about this incident every morning? Well the road between the station and the museum has unusually wide sidewalks with a row of raised yellow bumps (for visually impaired people) cutting it nearly in two. Most pedestrians walk to one side or the other and there are normally a fair number of people about both morning and evening. No matter which side of the yellow line I choose there will always be one or two people coming towards me walking on the same side, and then it is a game of chicken to see who moves over first. And every time I have to move to the right-hand side of the sidewalk, and somebody passes me on the left I always grumble and remember the trainer who insisted it wasn’t so.