December 31st, 2005


JAL girls

I'm always very interested in my first impressions of Japan after I've been away for a while, because in a way they're the strongest and most revealing ones, before it all becomes familiar and habitual. Japan begins as soon as you board a Japanese plane. So, for me, this time, it began when I came aboard Japan Airlines flight 7788 at Rome airport. A twelve hour flight gives you lots of time to observe air hostesses, so I thought I'd write something about the JAL hostesses here. Not just the ones on the Rome-Tokyo flight, but the JAL staff at Narita, Haneda and on my connecting flight to Osaka.

I'd thought I was flying to Japan with Alitalia, but it turns out the Italian carrier has merged with the Japanese one (they're both suffering from "sick company syndrome", apparently). The flight was full, 95% Japanese people returning from package and shopping holidays to Rome. (Few Italians go to Japan as tourists.) So there was no sense that the hostesses were there as ambassadors for Japanese culture for foreign tourists. (Of course, Japanese are also Japanese ambassadors to other Japanese.) Rather, they represented authority in the typical way domestic Japanese service workers do: they were solicitous, formal, fragrant, theatrical, robotic, considerate, authoritative and yet fawning. Their "submission" to the passengers was a kind of kabuki act concealing their utter power and domination over us. Different attendants had different styles, though; an older woman had a wheedlingly generous maternal manner; she spoke to us loudly and indulgently as if we were spoiled kids. Another, an extremely beautiful yet frosty-cold young woman with an elaborate pinned hairstyle, seemed slightly sarcastic in the ritualised movements with which she catered to our whims, her compliance seeming to conceal the austere glacial sexual pride of a powerful princess or witch (Tilda Swinton in the Narnia film, perhaps).

On this plane and the next, and at the Japanese airports, everyone was at once incredibly nice and somewhat distant. I had been rebooked on a complicated route after snowy weather in Berlin made me miss my connecting flight, and was almost certain my baggage would go astray as it did when I flew to Japan last year with British Airways. But not only did the baggage arrive with me, the JAL staff acted like guardian angels. At Haneda I couldn't help smiling; in the big empty hall of Terminal 1 there were about 14 JAL girls where other airlines would have employed two or three. I was served by a young blushing trainee who bowed and begged my pardon every few seconds. When I walked off looking confused about where to check my baggage, a "guardian angel" ran after me just to make sure I knew where to go. On the walls hung, instead of advertisements, stunningly beautiful natural scenes, backlit; a gully filled with blossoming trees, a dragonfly, an old wooden barn; Shinto-corporate greenery. "Welcome to Summerisle," the florid images seemed to say.

Japan is a soft country. There's something breezy and floral about it; after all, it is a Pacific atoll. Sometimes you get wafts of Pacific ease, a slow-paced sensuality. At the same time, Japan is an incredibly efficient and uptight "Northern" country. Imagine how Germany must seem to Africans; Japan feels like that to a Briton. They have all the ugly industrial infrastructure we have, but somehow it's exaggeratedly tidy, neat, well-organised, superlegitimate. From the noctural shuttle bus I glimpse a corner of a car park, pristine clean, in which a uniformed official stands forlornly by an area marked with black and white diagonal stripes. His job is to guide cars around this striped area (marked with bollards striped in the same way), but there are no cars. He wears white gloves, of course, like the bus driver and like the officials who help load suitcases at each stop. These bus stewards have to make a theatrical announcement before boarding the bus and bowing. They make this speech in the vicinity of the bus stop even when there are no passengers at all. After they've boarded, greeted the passengers with a small speech and a low bow, they get off and go back to their solitary wait for the next bus.

Meanwhile, on the bus, a tape plays back. The corporate welcome tape of the bus company. Impossibly melancholy and beautiful pentatonic Japanese music in a minor key, followed by a welcome in a female actor's voice (clipped, precise, solicitous, slightly distant and otherworldly, as if emanating from an even-more-extremely conservative 1950s). Then the bus driver speaks into his microphone, a husky mumble of solicitation. I'm overwhelmed with an impression of overlapping luxuries; the luxury of overstaffing, the luxury of multiple audio systems, a Pacific fertility luxury, the luxury of the utter cleanliness of everything I see and touch, the luxury of ultra-efficiency. As a consumer, I am already bowing and smiling to everyone as they bow and smile to me. I certainly feel suddenly more tender and considerate. Tokyo slips by outside the bus. Its high density housing and elevated expressways might, in another urban context, represent hell (the blocks of flats look like oil refineries). But here, because of the refinement and tenderness of everything, they're fine. There's a soft, sensual, consensual, luxurious magic that prevails in Japan, taking the sharpest and ugliest edges off the urban infrastructure. They have the same infrastructure we do in the West (albeit cleaner), but they operate it with different software. It changes everything.

Aboard my second JAL flight I pay attention to the images in the safety film which tell me it's inconsiderate to other passengers to get drunk, or talk on a cell phone, or to listen to music on headphones. The cartooons illustrating this show nearby passengers with grey clouds over their heads, and the selfish individuals look like criminals, rippers and burners of Japan's gently luxurious, monumentally discreet social fabric. Selfishness criminals! (And yet, on the Rome-Tokyo flight, I had been the considerate one, suffering the atrocious halitosis of the Japanese man next to me and the intrusive seatback behaviour of the Japanese man in front.)

Just a few hours into my thirteenth Japanese trip, and it's all coming back to me in a rush; the superlegitimacy, the conservatism mixed with sensuality, the future-tech co-existing with some ancient fertility religion, the tight organisation yet breezy feel, industrialized yet aestheticized, the sense that something is worth more than money. The control-by-food (the hostesses control us with food, and on the TV in the airport lobbies already food -- Japan's national obsession, along with sex and nature -- is being savoured as the ultimate social communicator and controller). And everywhere there's consideration as a marker of social virtue (one imagines the hostesses have longed, since they were little girls, to control others by serving others). It's a kind of communism, a horizontality. Be a good citizen! Help others! Overstaffing, subsidy, a kind of protected, collectivist capitalism which Kojin Karatani has called "communist capitalism". (The Haneda lobby, with its discreet and beautiful JAL spring scenes instead of advertisements, could almost be a communist airport lobby; North Korea, perhaps.)

Some adorably cute kids, a boy and a girl, are slithering on steel rollbars by the airport window, pointing at the rain flecking the window. Their mother indulges them for a while, then calls them to her kindly. They respond with a loud "Hai!", an obedience which is at once utter compliance and utter delight. Trained to question and resist and sullenly defy, I feel sadly post-Protestant in my grey NON NEIN NO t-shirt. It's as if NON NEIN and NO are what my culture has trained me to say. Saying NON NEIN and NO makes me feel big and clever. I'm spiky, I take shit from no-one! I'm the boss, I'll sue your ass! But when I see how charmingly they say YES here, I feel suddenly very small, silly, white and grey, like the anti-social individual using a cellphone, listening to loud music on headphones, or getting drunk and doing a stupid dance in the aisle.

And here I lie now, in Osaka. The only sounds are the gentle chunder of the Panasonic air conditioning unit (a discreet breeze different from the harsh rush of American units) and a tinkling music coming from the street outside, the refined, sentimental melody played by... the garbage truck.