Navigating Your Way Though Japan

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Are you visiting Japan and having concerns about getting lost? Don’t worry. In Japan, nothing, and no one, ever gets lost. Japan is not only an over-civilized country, but it is over-regulated too.

First of all, there are signs everywhere. Signs with street names, signs that point out where you should stand in line, signs that tell you what vehicle will arrive to transport you to the other side of town… signs everywhere.

Should you learn some Japanese so you will be able to read the signs? No way. Don’t even think you can come close to reading Japanese quickly. Japanese people don’t use one kind of script, they use three different alphabets which they mix while employing them. For old words with many meanings they use Chinese characters, which don’t express sounds but meanings themselves. For modern words they use their own phonetic alphabet. And to make it even more complicated, they have a third phonetic alphabet for foreign words.

In the big cities, all the signs will be in Japanese as well as English, though the English will be funny Japanese-English. The names on the signs have the phonetic pronunciation in our own western alphabet added to it. Then, to make it even easier, if you pronounce all the letters you read like you would think is logical, there’s a very good chance you’re actually doing really well. Japanese people don’t swallow parts of words like other people do, as they do not use any emphasis in their language. Though hard to learn, Japanese words are easy to recognize. If you learn a name by heart, you will recognize it when it is announced.

Now for the most wonderful thing: People and things in Japan really do behave exactly according to the signs. It’s part of the mentality. A Japanese person will never arrive late. “On time” is five minutes early. A train will always arrive exactly on time. When there is a line on the pavement to say how people should form a queue—and there are many such lines—the Japanese will wait on that line, face to back, no muddling around with it. People really love to queue over there. Even when you have a numbered seat ticket, people will form a neat queue for entering the building or vehicle they are waiting for.

The most wonderful example is this: On an escalator in Japan, people will stand only on the left side. The right side is for walking. You can watch mobs running to the staircase, and about two hundred meters before the staircase, the mob will seemingly automatically split into two neat queues before even reaching the escalator. And except for the peak hours where it will be simply impossible getting somewhere without pushing, no one will push. Nobody seems to try and take someone else’s place. Maybe because in Tokyo, everything is so punctual that everybody knows exactly when he or she will arrive?

As for you, you’ll get your temples and enjoy the culture of samurai swords and manga comics as much as you want, and you’ll get there in time.

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