If Iraq was a pressure cooker waiting to explode then Japan is a pot of rice silently simmering away. Rarely does it over boil, life just simmers away.
Waiting for the red man to change to green can often seem like an eternity at pedestrian crossings in Japan. I am standing with an exhausted businessman whose eyes keep opening and closing. I look around the neon lights of Shinjuku and my mind drifts…
In this relative freedom I think of friends like Jill Carol kidnapped in Iraq, no news for months. I often think of her life now and mine here, relative luxury in comparison. Then I feel lucky. I get frustrated waiting for so long at these lights, they take forever. Sometimes I think about crossing on the red man…
I know that as a `gaijin` (foreigner) I can get away with it, but I don’t want to stand out. Japan has that effect on even me now. It is not a fear from the authorities punishing me more from the people around me. What will they think, or say.
It reminds me of Saddam`s Iraq, except there the fear was different.
But fear brings social order which brings safety as well. And I feel incredibly safe here. I remember feeling as safe in Saddam’s Iraq. No one would ever touch me. The only time they did was when I was wandering through a market without my government minders, I’d walked ahead alone. Suddenly I was surrounded by a threatening gang who wanted to know who I was and what I was doing. My minders were quick on the scene, as soon as the gang knew I was `authorized` they were friendly. I found it touching that people care for their country and their land.
A couple of years later a friend did a crazy walk into Saddam’s Iraq following an ancient trail from Istanbul to Baghdad to Syria. He walked over the border from Turkey into Iraq. Rural Iraqi’s never knew who he was, kept thinking he was an American pilot shot down. This was during relative peace in the years between the attacks on Iraq. Rural Iraqi’s would run up and attack him. He had caught a bad disease and was on deaths doorstep. He was saved by other Iraqi’s who became his friends. They housed him, fed him and saved his life. He wrote to me the other day saying the very same people who he is still friends with had been arrested for insurgent attacks against the American occupiers. Funny, when I think of insurgents I think of the time I was stopped in the market and the time my friend was stopped walking into Iraq ~ the same people gave my friend a place to stay and saved his life.
I’m itching to cross the road but still the little man is red. The crowd builds and patiently, obediently waits and waits… as if a race is to begin. The man next to me can hardly stay awake. I look at the faces of people around and wonder what they are thinking. I wonder sometimes if they are thinking. If they have the time to think. They are all dressed in the uniform black suits shirts and ties marching around the streets on aimless missions of work, following duties so dutiful and orderly like economic soldiers of work.
15 years after the bubble burst there is a wariness amongst the Japanese. This is a country finally coming out of recession, but with scares. I met a businessman the other day, who was nearly made homeless when the bubble burst. He seems jaded today. I visited his own company who make a special brand of sake. He was showing me around his offices where hundreds of people work. He is faced with streamlining his company and has to loose 100 employees by the end of March. It reminds me of what happened in Britain in the 1980`s. full time jobs are being replaced by part time jobs in Japan.
A bell chimes in the office; it is like a chime from an old grandfather clock. The businessman tells me it is the end of the day ~ but no one is leaving. I ask him why. He laughs looking into the vast office. “They are scared, peer pressure… they don’t want to be the first one to leave… fearing what the others will say”. They all carrying on working waiting for the first one to leave. Is this why the Japanese work so many hours?
It is now nightfall at the pedestrian crossing, 10pm and businessmen are heading home. Have they all been waiting for the first one to leave? Like we are all waiting for the red man to change to green. The road clears, the crowd gets ready to cross.
It feels like it has taken forever. In my mind I have been to Iraq and back but what about the others. I look to the tired Japanese businessman standing next to me, the red man has changed to green but the businessman is fast asleep standing on his feet at the pedestrian crossing.