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

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Week eleven (June 5, 2005)

Kindergarten Japan

Another over-the-top and over-simplified headline! Let's take this slow: when you come to Japan one of the first things you notice how safe and orderly everything is. You usually don't have to worry about getting robbed, being late because of a delayed train, being offended by drunk rowdies or teased by groups of youths. In some respects that is very agreeable, so for example you don't need to worry about your valuables or about getting frequently ripped of like in other Asian countries. However, many foreigners coming to Japan start missing the "spice" of life in the West where "unexpected things" happen. Japan sometimes just seems so harmless that it starts getting boring, and life in Japan (for the most part) is so safe and protected that the insufficient ability of many Japanese to deal with unexpected situations doesn't surprise much.

Foreigners living in Japan often complain that the whole society for them seems to be set up like a kindergarten. This becomes evident in places where large groups of people gather: there, you can always find huge numbers of security staff to guide people, often shouting instructions to keep order. Most areas of the Expo and also the train stations of the Linimo are no exception to this. You have signs and people advising you about the proper behaviour at every corner.

Watch for snakes (source)

Very detailed admonishment (source)

You often hear people lamenting that "The Japanese are all like sheep", "Here walk the lemmings", "They have no freedom of speech" and so on. While it is true that the Japanese are generally more group-orientated than people in the West are, that doesn't mean that people are "dumb", "naive" or "immature", as some of them are sometimes perceived them from the outside. Japanese people are no less individualistic, egoistic and stubborn than any other folks on Earth. The thing is just that public transactions and communications in Japan are highly formalized to avoid trouble between people.

It seems that a Japanese's field of vision is somewhat smaller than of someone from the West. Since the country is so densely populated and population pressure is so heavy, it seems like people are used to fade out everything out of their "area of responsibility": say, on the train, people seem to be totally absorbed into themselves, most of them have their eyes closed or do something with their mobile phone - anything to avoid noticing what is going around them and to avoid eye contact with other people. So it appears that for a Japanese person, the "area of responsibility" in public includes only themselves.

It does happen in Japan that people are so absorbed into themselves that when, for example, something unexpected happens, they stop in their tracks like a rabbit in the headlights: they don't move, they don't look neither right nor left, they just become immobile. That is their reaction to an unprecedented situation - stop moving, ignore it, maybe it will go away.

· The crucial role of "service" in Japan

After a while living in Japan you realize that people are used how to be told where to go and what to do and how to do it, so normally you don't have to figure things out yourself. That goes for most aspects of public life, like buying a train ticket, entering a restaurant or visiting a public office. There are numerous examples for this. In the train, the next station is announced three times and very clearly that you cannot miss it. All escalators constantly remind you of the necessity to "take care of your step and take hold of the belt". At the roads, there are security people with megaphones shouting at the passing cars that the parking lot is over there, that the traffic from here on is very heavy, and so on.

Most public places (train stations, city offices, department stores) have much more staff than seem necessary. These are needed in order to avoid that customers feel "lost" or "left alone". If you as a customer need something, you can usually be sure that at once at least two staff people start looking into your needs frantically.

Foreign (in our case German) enterprises here at the Expo sometimes have a hard time understanding this extreme reverence of the customer and the resulting customers' high expectations. That's because in contrast to Japan, where the customer is Number One, king and god in one person, a German business regards its customers less affectionate. There is more of tendency of thinking along the lines "Well if you don't like our business, go somewhere else." In some shops or restaurants in Germany you get the feeling that you're actually receiving an honor finally being served, and not that you as a customer are granting them an honor (as it should be perceived; you're paying, after all). In Japan, this is quite unthinkable. Usually, any inconvenience for the customer is avoided at all costs and people are used to that staff goes to great lenghts to take care of them.

That's also the reason why there is always a big uproar when there is trouble with the jet coaster in the German pavilion. The situation of having waited two hours in the queue and then being sent away like, "Sorry, we had a breakdown, please come again another day" itself is unthinkable in the first place. I'm not saying that back home people would be any less pissed off about that, it's just that some Japanese people get extremely aggressive and abusive towards the staff. It seems that they are confronted with a situation that is so far out of their area of thinking that they "snap" and totally forget themselves.

The German pavilion's popularity has kind of suffered from the numerous breakdowns during the last week. That might also have to do with the four fatalities of last week's accident. No that's just kidding, but we did have an accident with a wheelchair at the exit of the ride and then a major breakdown due to a small fracture in some kind of hydraulic cylinder which put the pavilion out of service for nearly two full days. The replacement part was already on standby in Germany to be brought here by an emergency flight, but first it was attempted to have the part custom-made here in Japan.

The problem was just that the pavilion is built by the metric system, whereas Japanese companies use the American "inch" - it's just a small difference between the units of inch and German "Zoll" but a crucial one. This problem so reminded me of the scene in Terry Gilliam's "Brazil" where the Central Services technicans drop a circular piece of flooring right through the hole that it was supposed to fill and then announce: "Bloody typical, they've gone back to metric without telling us." That much for "globalization". Well, at the end they managed to fit in some custom-made part and have the jet coaster up and running at the evening of the second day, which led to incredibly long cues on the next day when the word spread - and consequently had the German pavilion management put up an announcement of "six hours waiting time".

· How staff is treated in Japan

My previous Japan experience was mainly influenced by my student life, i. e. I had plenty of free time and only responsibility to hold for myself. My experience in Japan and with Japanese now stems from me having entered a working position and having contact with Japanese in a customer vs. service provider relationship, so my own image of Japan has changed quite a bit.

We are used to the notion that staff somehow has to receive some privileges for their work, such as faster and cheaper access to trains or pavilions. Imagine at an airport the pilots and flight staff passing through security and past the gate through priority access before anyone else and you know what I mean. This is not the case in the "service society" of Japan. Usually staff is the first to come and the last to go, and they do not get any privileges or other exceptions for their status - on the contrary. As I reported before, it took nearly three weeks to set up a shuttle bus for staff and another three to have a procedure to get one-month discount train tickets for the subway and the Linimo. I guess that's still light-speed velocity by Japanese standards, and it wouldn't have happened without pressure and complaints from the pavilions. The evening shuttle buses, which were provided for the staff during the Golden Week, have also not been reinstituted, even though it's not like there wouldn't be no demand for them: at the weekends, you can forget about using the Linimo in between 8 and 11 pm because it's so crowded that you need to line up for more than 30 minutes.

Another example of this is the custom of letting the staff of other pavilions into your own pavilion without queuing - a thing that is self-understood for us; you are sitting in the same boat, after all. But here, in Japan, there actually is an official Expo regulation by the Expo association forbidding this custom since that would "cause inconvenience for the visitors". Of course, in between the countries' pavilions, this rule is roundly ignored by tacit agreement and the guides will normally grant you easy access when you wave your Expo pass, but not so with the Japanese pavilions.

On the contrary, if you think you are as clever as to get to the Expo site early and enter with your accredition pass before opening time to beat the crowds, you're in for a nice surprise: if they realize that you work at the Expo they will instantly send you away with some nice words such as "the [your country] pavilion is over there". To get in, you actually need to hide your pass and mix in with some Japanese visitors to pretend that you are a regular tourist. No matter how you look at it it's a big inconvenience and also quite a sad thing that most of us foreign staff probably never will get the chance to visit some of the very popular pavilions because of this strange and uptight policy.

The whole Expo infrastructure is used solely for its intended purpose; using, say, the huge open-air plasma screen for showing movies for the staff after work (as they did at Expo 2000) never came to anybody's mind. There is no disco or bar or other night setups for Expo staff except for what is organized and provided by foreign staff itself. Since we have to work regularly as well you can imagine that the enthusiasm to set something up during your free time isn't that huge and that therefore activities are few and far in between. Also, there are no night buses going to and from the Expo site, so you always need to keep the time of the last Linimo in the back of your mind.

The way the Expo is set up, it is intended as "all work and no play". This becomes clearer every day if you judge the activities of the Expo association. I have more on that next week when I will write about what you can do at night in Japan.

· Next week: Night activities