expo 2005 photo essays
- weekly report from the World Exposition in Aichi, Japan

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Week eight (May 15, 2005)

Working at the Expo as a foreigner

So the 50th day of the Expo has passed and we are nearing the completion of the first two months of our stay here. Work is becoming routine, however, there are some special factors to be considered when working in Japan. I will touch on two of those today: one is the so-called "May sickness", the other is the way some Japanese regard foreigners.

· The May sickness

There is an expression in Japanese called "May sickness" or rather "May depression" (gogatsubyô). This encompasses a diverse set of symptoms, caused by entering the month of May. If you wonder what the month of May has to do with it, you need to consider that the beginning of April marks the start of the school year, the university semester, and the fiscal year in Japan. Also, at that time most graduates enter the companies and start working. That is one of the reasons why there is such a big hype about the cherry blossoming season in early April in Japan: it symbolizes the "new beginning of life" after the long season of winter. So a major part of the younger population enters new surroundings at that time, be it in school, university, or working place.

However, come May, after one month many people still haven't become accustomed to their new environment and start longing for the time before. They haven't become friends with the new fellow students or co-workers and miss their old acquaintances. This feeling of being lost and of loneliness combined with the hot and rainy weather makes for a proper depression, which in Japan is called the May sickness.

The May sickness has also taken over here. Compared to one month before, there generally is a big difference in enthusiasm among the staff. There are various reasons for that: since the end of April, the opening times of the Expo are one hour longer, which means that the working times of the pavilion guides are also 30 minutes longer than before. That doesn't sound like a big difference, but the early shift now starts at 8:30 - that's pretty tough if you have a traveling time of 2 hours to the Expo site. Seemingly some people now need to get up at 5:30 to get here on time.

The working times of the restaurant staff haven't changed, however, they were long enough in the first place. The cooks and kitchen staff usually work 15 hours (7am to 10pm) with hardly a day off. The waiting staff works around ten to twelve hours, being in action constantly since the restaurant now is full most of the time. Since the new opening times were introduced, my working time now varies between eight to twelve hours.

· How to become an invisible man

OK, now for something different. Achieving invisibility has been mankind's dream for a long time. If you like science-fiction literature, then you are probably familiar with a few interesting concepts of invisibility devices.

H. G. Wells "The Invisible Man"

A classic, written around the turn of the century. The main character, a scientist, creates a serum to render himself invisible. The book describes his descent into madness as he starts abusing his new powers to his own advantage.

William Gibson "Neuromancer"

In this book, an assassin group called the Panther Moderns uses mimetic polycarbon suits which allow them to blend in with background like a chameleon. The camouflage suits that are used by the agents in the anime "Ghost in the Shell" and by the alien in "Predator" are very similar to this concept.

Philip K. Dick "A Scanner Darkly"

Undercover police agents use camouflage suits that display random features of people on a thin membrane worn over the skin in rapid succession. This way, they are perceived as nothing more than a blur and therefore they defy any personal description, allowing them to conceal their own identity when meeting with other officers.

Douglas Adams "Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy"

In this novel, objects are made invisible by creating a "somebody else's problem field" around it. This is much cheaper than a regular invisibility field because of the natural tendency of humans to perceive things as somebody else's problem. Upon observing an object surrounded by such a field, the unconcious mind denies responsiblity for its existence and therefore doesn't perceive it at all.

Why bring in these sci-fi books? Because being in Japan as a foreigner sometimes feels like a combination of the above states of "invisibility". At times, you feel like you are being regarded as, well, not quite "somebody else's problem", but rather as "person that does not concern me, because s/he is a foreigner, doesn't know anything about Japan and can't speak Japanese". Which in the end has the same effect. No matter where you look at, it happens quite often that some Japanese visitors completely ignore the foreign staff and head straight towards the Japanese staff - if there is no Japanese around, they just go searching somewhere else.

The German pavilion staff can tell quite a few stories about their experience that their explaining to the Japanese visitors sometimes seems completely futile. For example, the guides are walking along the queue and explain about the process of entering the German pavilion. People don't seem to listen to them, since when a Japanese staff member comes along, people start complaining that "nobody tells us anything, there are no Japanese-speaking (=Japanese) around". It's the same with my job: For example, I just explain to a couple that they please look into the camera when I take the picture, and then the husband goes to his wife like "So where are we supposed to look at?"

Other folks don't even say a word, they just gesture in crude sign language. Even though you can't perceive this behavior as malice, it's just that this kind of close-mindedness of some people is quite extreme and very annoying. At times, I start talking very slow and articulate child's Japanese because I just can't seem to get my point across. And sometimes, I feel like a fool and start thinking that it's not worth the effort to talk in Japanese at all. I am actually thinking about having a "German Week" some time and only talk to customers in German during that time. I'd like to see if that has any impact on my work, or if it changes anything at all about the interaction with the customers.

· Service job in Japan vs. Germany

Well, I know that there are unfriendly customers everywhere in the world, and in general, the above all being said, people here are much easier to handle than in Germany. That is because people's behaviour in the public in Japan is much more streamlined. The society has quite strict rules regarding how to behave properly towards other people, which accounts for the much-hailed Japanese politeness and (also) rule-obsession.

Japan has a population of nearly 130 million people, however, due to the large amount of mountainous areas, population density generally is very high. This is not a recent development, but has been this way for many centuries. After all, Edo (now Tokyo) was the first city in the world to reach a population of one million in the 18th century. So in order to avoid people beating each other's heads in society had to develop certain mechanisms to allow people to co-exist. This led to the strict reglementation of interpersonal behavior through education. And that is also one reason why today there are so many rules and guidances in Japan, be it about how to properly bow towards a superior, separate the waste or use the stairs.

If I did the same job in Germany as I do here at the Expo, I would certainly have much more problems with the customers. You would certainly have a much larger bandwidth of aberrant, snarky or downright rude behavior on part of the customer in Germany (and maybe any other Western country) than in Japan. What I know from my country is that German people can be quite impatient and impolite towards service personnel. There are also some people who get fun out of being rude towards any kind of staff, because, them being dependant on the customer, they are sort of defenseless. However, I hardly ever had anyone treat me like that here in Japan. One of the groups most prone to pick on staff is groups of teenagers, but here in Japan - even though they can be rather noisy - they usually are very friendly and well-behaved. Most of the customers are like this, too. I had people apologizing because they are paying with a large or a crumpled bill or because they are standing in your line of sight, even.

I never encountered this kind of malice against me here in Japan. Disclaimer: This stems from my personal experience being a white person in Japan. From what I gather black or Asian people are treated differently (worse). I have heard of a disparaging saying that the Japanese are like a banana: yellow outside and white inside. The meaning is that even though the outside (skin) is yellow like the other Asian peoples, the Japanese are as racist towards them as the white Westerners. I don't necessarily agree with this, since I met racist people no matter where, but maybe there's a hint of truth in it?

· Next week: Web sites about the Expo