Attention to duty

Pushing away from the gate at Narita Airport blends routine and ritual.

It had been a day of tedious trudging to bus stops and train stations through miserable Tokyo weather: temperatures in the low 40s, icy rain, and a gusty wind that penetrated even the multiple layers of clothing I wore. The nasty conditions only intensified as evening descended, but by then I was at last warm and dry inside Narita Airport and making my way to the gate to board the plane that would take me home.

I seldom have an opportunity to look out of an airplane window because when traveling by air I always choose an aisle seat (long legs). This time, however, the remainder of my row was unoccupied, so once the cabin door was shut I slid over to the porthole to see what I had been missing.

Scurrying here and there on the concrete apron of the gate were the members of our ground crew – all of them men, and all of them wearing neatly appointed uniforms and the plastic hard hats that are standard issue in Japan for just about everyone engaged in any sort of manual labor. (I have even seen them on restaurant cooks.)

Within a few moments, one crew member who had apparently finished his assigned task walked to an area just to the right of the plane's fuselage where painted lines on the ground indicated a spot out of harm's way. I expected him to make a beeline for shelter indoors, but instead he turned to face the plane and then adopted a posture that the military calls "parade rest" – legs straight, feet about shoulder-width apart, arms crossed behind the back.

He was joined shortly by another crew member, who I assumed would begin the sort of conversation that is customary among workers the world over – good-natured grousing about this and that. To my surprise, however, the second man assumed the same parade-rest stance next to his colleague, and both stood unmoving and in complete silence.

One by one the rest of the ground crew eventually strode into view, each of them taking up positions in line with their fellow workers. And there they stood, minute after minute, without rain gear or even coats to keep them warm, silent and unflinching as the wind-driven downpour pelted them without mercy.

At last the plane's engines roared to life and we began our push back from the gate. And at that moment, the ground crew performed what was clearly an oft-repeated ritual.

First, they snapped to attention.

Then, in perfect unison, they bowed.

This was a formal bow – arms at their sides, torsos bent forward at a 30-degree angle, the position held for a good three seconds. It was not, in other words, an afterthought. Rather, it was a meaningful gesture directed toward the passengers on the plane ("Thank you for visiting Japan"), toward the plane's flight crew ("We respect your expertise and dedication"), and, ultimately, as recognition of their own commitment to service ("We have fulfilled our duties to the best of our abilities").

At least one passenger on the plane was stunned by what he saw. But the show at the gate apron was not yet over. Because when the ground crew straightened up after its bow, the men performed one more ceremonial act.

They waved.

Despite the wind, the rain, and the cold, all of the men smiled broadly and waved goodbye, like friendly uncles bidding farewell to a planeload of nieces and nephews. That they did not know the passengers and likely never would did not matter. We had been guests in their homeland, and they wanted us to know that we had been welcome.

You could read a shelf full of books about Japan and still not be granted so transparent a window onto the soul of that astonishing country. There on the airport apron I had seen firsthand the character of the Japanese, as played out by a half-dozen hardworking fellows for whom responsibility, respect, loyalty, self-discipline, honor, tradition, and a degree of stoicism to rival that of the Spartans were all normal components of daily life.

It was a moment so revelatory and so touching that even a seasoned, cynical old traveler could find himself doing something that he typically would not do.

I waved back.

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