I HAVE always heard how different Japan is from the rest of the world but nothing prepared me for experiencing the culture and its people first-hand. Their customs and beliefs are steeped in tradition and they live in ways that are seemingly normal to them, but so uncommon to outsiders who are looking in. I spent two solid weeks shooting a travel series across Japan and I feel very fortunate to have had a peek into a culture so different from our own. There were countless things about Japan I found fascinating in more ways than one.
Some of my discoveries were quite awe-inspiring, and some were downright perplexing. I found them an intriguing race of people that were difficult to read at times. One needs to be aware that you could offend a Japanese person without realising. They may simply be too polite to point it out. When we were filming in Osaka, the Kyanite.tv crew from Malaysia were taken out for a meal and our host, Zizan Razak, and everyone at the table was exchanging jokes and in really good spirits.
One of our cameraman reached for a long piece of sashimi with his chopsticks but he was struggling with it so my producer helped him to jointly transport the piece of food on to his plate. The Japanese who were dining with us went utterly still for a heartbeat, before conversation continued as per normal. In those two seconds, if you were not looking at the shock registered on their faces, you might have missed it but my producer asked our guide about it later, wondering about what we did that was so wrong.
We were informed that there are many rules to observe when eating with chopsticks. It is taken very seriously in Japan. Unfortunately, we committed the biggest taboo at the dining table because food must never be shared or passed from chopstick to chopstick because this resembles a custom at Japanese funerals when cremated bones are ceremoniously transferred to the urn.
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Our guide reassured us that we probably would be forgiven because we were foreigners. Having said that, foreigners who were wise enough to learn about how to be polite at table were a step ahead in doing business and making friends in Japan. Our film crew never meant to be offensive but what they did was a big no-no which should be avoided at all costs. We took a mental note of this for future meals with the locals.
Another basic thing I found really unique in Japan were their toilets. In my hotel room, the seat had a sensor to automatically open when you were approaching. Most toilet seats were also heated and played a flushing sound (like music) when a person was using the bathroom. I did not understand this. Our local guide said many women used to flush twice in the past, wasting a lot of water before this clever solution was implemented because they did not wish to be heard in the act. Hence, the automatic flushing music solved the problem because it covered up the sounds of a person going to the toilet! I also noticed the streets were also spotless. There was hardly a piece of litter anywhere. In fact, smokers do not even ash on the street so they all carry pocket ashtrays. An interesting thing happened when we were shooting the world’s tallest broadcast tower (the Tokyo Sky Tree). My guide accidentally left his iPhone on a public bench on the pavement.
Thousands of people must have gone past that bench by the time he discovered he had left his phone behind. We could not understand why he was trying to contact the public authorities to try and recover his phone. We assumed he would never get it back but our guide told us it was a high probability he would recover this phone. In fact, even lost wallets are often returned to their owners and as a token of appreciation, the person who recovers their wallet usually gives the person who found it 10% of its contents as a “thank you” gesture.
You can imagine how surprised we all were to discover that our guide did actually get his phone back, as predicted because someone had turned it over to the police! Not long after, our client left her iPhone in the bathroom of a major shopping mall and she also got it back. Japan really fascinated me in every way from the old to the new. We had an opportunity to film a popular girl group called Tokyo Girls Style. They were as cute and adorable as the Hello Kitty theme park we shot them in.
Then stepping back into time, there was a ninja we filmed, who was swift and soundless in his movements. He struck fear in our hearts with his knife-throwing precision. Another highlight for me was watching a real-life geisha perform, because her every graceful movement was an art form in itself. If you ever get the chance, you must go to Japan to experience their culture for yourself.