I’m in Seoul Korea, doing talks and promotion for Oxford University Press. Next weekend, I’ll be at the Japanese Association of Language Teachers (JALT) conference in Tokyo.
I flew into Tokyo from London on Thursday and then on to Seoul. In the first 24 hours of this visit to Asia, I was reminded of the things I really like about being in this part of the world, things which in some cases are almost the exact opposite of how thing are where I live.
1 Japanese customs and immigration people
OK, maybe I was lucky.
After landing at Tokyo Narita Airport, I had to pick up my luggage and transfer to another terminal to catch my flight to Seoul. On the British Airways plane, they had said transit passengers didn’t need to fill in immigration or customs forms, but I knew I had to go through both before I could catch the other plane, so I did. I was a little bit anxious about getting through the system, as I can only speak a few words of Japanese. I didn’t think it would be much use saying ‘Hello, can I have a beer?’ to anyone I might have to talk to.
I showed my passport, immigration form and travel itinerary to the immigration man and his face lit up. He was really pleased to be able to practise his English. He explained in very good English what I had to do.
I then picked up my luggage and went through the Customs area. When I showed my travel itinerary to the customs man, he shouted a loud ‘Oh!’ and ran into an office.
I was half dreading that when he came back, he would say something like “Mister Wilson, will you do us the honour of allowing us to give you a full body search?” but no, he came back with a map of the airport, and showed me clearly where I had to go to catch the transit bus.
My introduction of Asia couldn’t have run more smoothly.
2 Fast trains
Regular readers of this blog will know that I’m nuts about trains and the Japanese were the first people to research and produce really fast trains – the Shinkansen, bullet train. I remember the first time I travelled on one in 1979 – what a brilliant experience. And the service is so elegant – at first, I wasn’t sure about ticket inspectors and trolley people bowing when they left the carriage, but now I love it.
Korea, like many other countries in the region, also has excellent fast train services. The service is good and the trains are spotless.
3 Public cleanliness
I know there are other things that I should get more steamed up about – child poverty, greedy bankers, global warming – but the one thing that is guaranteed to get me really angry is the sight of someone dropping litter.
You simply don’t see people doing that in Japan and Korea. The 2002 soccer World Cup was staged in both these countries, and the local interest was massive – there was no way that all the people who wanted tickets were going to see some of the games live.
So television screens were set up in public places. It’s estimated that TWO MILLION people watched the game between South Korea and Spain in a big central square in Seoul. When the crowd dispersed, there wasn’t so much as a paper carton left in the square.
Why can’t everyone behave like that?
4 Japanese soccer hairstyles
The 2002 World Cup was also the time when the Japanese team decided to go hair crazy. Japanese people have … er … black hair, right? But during one game, every single one of the starting eleven had dyed their hair a different colour. It was a bit of a let-down in fact when a substitute came on and had regular black hair.
In the wider teenage community, hairstyles seem to matter a lot – maybe someone who lives or has lived in Japan could add a note about why they think this is the case.
5 The way young people dress
The way Tokyo young people, particularly girls, dress reminds me a bit of London. Absolutely anything is possible, people wear the most outrageous clashing colours. Somehow they seem to carry it off.
6 Tokyo by night
I only know certain areas of Tokyo, like Shinjuku. If you remember the scene in Lost In Translation where Bill Murray arrives in the city, you’ll know that the place is full of dazzlingly bright lights. But it also seems a very safe place to wander around, and there is always something amazing to see.
I’m sure Seoul is the same, but somehow I’ve never had the chance to wander round the night-life area of the city.
Maybe this time!
7 The attitude to work
When I checked in my luggage at the Asiana Airlines counter at Narita Airport, the woman check-in clerk printed out the tag for my suitcase. At that point, a mature gentleman stepped forward, took the tag from the woman and attached it to my case. He then bowed and stepped back. When I passed him, he smiled and wished me a pleasant journey in English.
I’ve noticed that there seem to be a lot of people who do quite menial tasks like this, but do them with grace and dignity. At the door to most educational establishments, there are men in uniform whose only job appears to be to wave a flag to indicate that you can proceed into the car park.
Mrs Thatcher made sure that most jobs like this disappeared in the UK. Even if they still existed, I doubt whether people would carry them out in such a professional way.
I don’t really understand sumo, but I am hooked on watching it on TV. We all know that a sumo fight can last barely ten seconds. If it lasts thirty seconds, it’s an epic. But if you only see the fights themselves, you miss the best part.
You have to watch the live performances, not the highlights. That way, you see the amazing build-up, with one or other of the fighters crouching down to start and then deciding to shuffle around for a while until his head is right.
Then BAM!!!!!!!!! – the greatest collision of human flesh in the world.
And at the end, maximum respect shown to the opponent, win or lose. We have SO much to learn in the west!
OK, OK … karaoke is a bit naff in the UK, partly I think because there are still pubs where the karaoke section isn’t separate, so you have to put up with listening to a bunch of guys wearing ‘Len’s Stag Night 2011’ T-shirts.
Karaoke shouldn’t be like that – it should be you and your pals in a separate room, like it is here in Asia. And that’s what I’m hoping we’ll be doing on Sunday night at the JALT conference.
10 Mobile music
And, lest we forget, Japan produced the first truly mobile music machine – the Sony Walkman. The original played cassettes.
I first saw someone wearing headphones in public on a subway station in Tokyo in 1979 when I was there with the English Teaching Theatre and I thought – I HAVE to get one of those.
I saved up my pennies and got one. A few years later, Sony introduced the Discman, which played CDs. I got one of those too eventually – they were monumentally expensive, as I remember.
I was actually a bit disappointed with the Discman – you couldn’t wear it when you were jogging, because it jumped from track to track. Or at least mine did.
But we should never forget that the Walkman was a game-changer, and probably had the young Steve Jobs scratching his chin to come up with something that did the same thing, only better…
I just checked and 1979 was the year that the Walkman was launched so the guy I saw was a VERY early adopter. 🙂
And finally, the reason I’m here. For the last four years, Korean and Japanese students have been using my book Smart Choice. Part of the reason I’m here is to promote the second edition. End of commercial!
You will see that I have accentuated the positive in the above notes. I’d be keen to hear from people who live and work – or have lived and worked – in this region. If you want to paint a different picture, please feel free. That’s what this forum is for!
And if you’re planning to come to the OUP Day in Seoul or the JALT conference in Tokyo, please come and say hello.