`Pardon My Rudeness'

For our correspondent, Japan is a constant exercise in finding one's place. TRAVEL: JAPAN

`PARDON my rudeness,'' said the Japanese official, in the middle of my first interview in Tokyo, ``but how old are you?'' ``Why does it matter?'' I responded, curious. The conversation could not go on until he knew my age.

``Because if you are older than me,'' he said, ``then I must call you `Mr. Jones.'''

Everyone in Japan, he told me, must clearly have a proper place, like rocks in a Zen garden, and one must know who is of higher or lower social status. Foreigners included.

One's notch in the hierarchy is fixed by age, schooling, job, marriage partner, and even whether one owns a Louis Vuitton bag or, nowadays, a Van Gogh.

Fortunately for my interview, we were not of the same age. Otherwise, we would be of equal social rank, and thus possibly become friends. And friends, as every Japanese knows, need not talk with each other always, subsisting instead on long, intuitive silences like two Buddhas sitting back to back. The afternoon TV soaps, for instance, often show Japanese lovers just staring into space.

Beyond its exotic sights and world-class shopping, Japan can be stimulating for foreigners just for the exercise of learning how to relate to the Japanese, who extol themselves as unique among humanity.

They certainly treat foreigners uniquely: We resident aliens are fingerprinted. While gaijin (outside people) are given much leeway in Japan, they also face pressures to conform. Life in Tokyo is a lot like walking down a primrose path, but with an electric fence on either side. Take, for example, riding in a taxi:

The taxi door opens automatically with a lever mechanism controlled by the driver. How nice and convenient, you say. One never has to touch the door. And the driver wears white gloves, too. But then, once inside, only the driver can open the door, until you pay up.

Other first lessons in such comfy conformity are the proper way to present a business card (with as much ceremony as placing a ring on a bride's finger). And, if you are so inclined, you can learn the correct angles for bowing (i.e., higher status people receive lower bows).

A big hurdle is mastering a language that is loaded down with three alphabets and varies according to whether the listener is of higher or lower status. Content plays second fiddle to form.

Good relationships are more than just important, they are the core of being Japanese, probably due to a lack of many universal principles other than social harmony. Why else would a country where there is no tipping also have the world's best service in hotels, restaurants, shops?

On the street, the Japanese wear blank faces, like a nation of zombies. But they're not really that cold. Rather, because they are such an emotional people, to look seriously into a stranger's eyes would require making a close bond. Better to keep a stony fa,cade.

Pillows chirp like frogs

Getting on with the Japanese is not so easy for American trade negotiators, who have learned the hard way that ``yes'' often means ``no,'' and that the Japanese win arguments simply by changing the argument - for the sake of harmony, of course.

But for the rest of us, Japan is a big, old-fashioned village of courteous people, covered over with a modern veneer of Italian business suits, bullet trains, Toshiba laptops, McDonald's restaurants, and Western democracy. My favorite new invention is a bed pillow with built-in speakers: To help you go to sleep, you can play either the chirp of frogs or the sound of a moving train.

For 120 years, Japan has rushed to appear civilized by adopting much from the West, without really absorbing it. European cars, for instance, are now quite popular, especially BMWs. But what really matters is that owning one helps boost prestige. Status is having a tan only on your left arm. Then everyone knows you drive a foreign car, which has a steering wheel on the left, unlike Japanese cars.

Tokyo itself is really just a collection of microchip neighborhoods, with little order to help you find an address. Homes are packed as tight as pieces of sushi in a take-out box. When I once got lost in a small neighborhood, six people - including a man getting a haircut - rushed out to help me.

The city's bewildering maze of small streets, I suspect, was a major incentive for Japanese companies to perfect the fax machine. Now Tokyoites can quickly send someone a map of how to find their house or office.

Living in such close quarters, one gets along by going along. Human ties are as regimented, synchronized, and precise as the traditional tea ceremony or modern train travel in Japan. I can set my watch to the on-time arrival of a train, just as I set my social status by revealing my age. And I have also learned, from a stern matron who keeps guard on my street, exactly how to set out my garbage in line with everyone else's.

The test of fitting in

Our tiny alley, in an area of the city known as Shinjuku, is lined with bonsai trees. The small pots are perched atop the walls between each home, and are carefully controlled to stunt their growth and maximize their beauty. They also help make the houses look bigger than they really are.

When our next-door neighbor tore down his house to build a new one, he apologized for the noise and dust by simply presenting my wife and I with a gourmet meal of fish. When an office near mine was ripped out with jackhammers, I was presented with flowers.

Our neighborhood, as everywhere in Japan, is filled with small shops, many selling the same goods. We have two toy stores, two tofu makers, two rice sellers, two butchers.... No one dares allow raw competition to disrupt this quaint feeling of a village. Every night the old man who sells hot sweet potatoes passes by, pulling his cart, singing out for customers. He looks the other way when he passes the Seven Eleven convenience store.

To fit in, we have paid the obligatory visits to the local Buddhist temple and Shinto shrine, rung the bells and clapped our hands to the gods. This time of year, we join the throngs of party-goers and kimono-clad women who sit under the blooming cherry trees to watch pink petals drift away.

The ultimate test of fitting in comes at ``crush hour.''

Shoving one's way on to the last square foot of space in an overcrowded subway train full of commuters takes grace and pressure. Japanese businessmen go at it like they do for market share.

I've studied the technique of Tokyo's dainty ``office ladies.'' The trick is to walk backward through the door into the crowd. That way, you can't see the faces of those you must squash.

But then, as the door slams shut near your nose and everyone settles into his tiny place, you just say:

``Pardon my rudeness.''

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