Landing in Tokyo spawned an unexpected joy. I’m always excited about the places I travel to. But, in this case, a childlike sense of wonder enveloped me like a kid on Christmas day with giddy thoughts of anticipation almost thrusting me forward vying to fight people to get to the front of the plane just to take a glimpse of the promised circus that is Tokyo.
Having landed in the country, an internal sense of amazement quickly dropped as I remember that I’m not in yet – immigration is yet to be visited and customs is an obstacle I am yet to encounter.
Arriving at the inauguration of a queue (the only thing reminiscent of Britain) I wait to be herded towards an immigration officer, like sushi on a conveyor belt in a restaurant. Something is different here. Involuntary negative emotions swirl my mind, like in most airports.
Being brown when travelling preserves a sense of self-reproach, a feeling of already knowing I will be spot checked more than others. When that moment comes and the immigration officer looks at my passport for more than 3 minutes, others in the queue internally chat with themselves. Guilty by time, that’s what I’ll be, and that’s what we’ll call it. A mass of thoughts stream through my mind like sunlight through a fractured crystal, as I look around trying not to gulp too hard.
In my peripheral vision, I begin to see a lady stomp one boot to the ground, arms crossed with a plastic bag hanging to one side, her black leather handbag matching her black leather jacket drapes on her shoulder, looking at me with eyes that say ‘hurry up, what is it with you? What did you do? Who are you?”. But of course, I haven’t done anything, I merely want the same thing she does after a long 14-hour flight – to get to the hotel, throw my things on the floor and curl up into a ball on a bed. But this woman is fictitious, she’s the mascot for every person at an airport who isn’t brown and isn’t Muslim.
But enough of the fantasy. My mind transitions back to reality, and in my hand, I clutch my red British passport, it’s front cover design 65% worn off from frequent pulling and pushing into my jeans pocket. Covering it is a passport sleeve, it too has lost 65% of its cover design. I think to myself ‘will this be a problem?’ having read FCO guidelines, that some countries reject a damaged passport. Was this the sort of damage they meant?
An old man, smiling, looking me dead in the eyes directs me to an officer. Wow, smiling? In an airport? I thought that was internationally illegal. I hand the officer my passport, he looks through his spectacles gleaning its contents, flicking the pages as he scans the various stamps acquired from NGO and press work in various realms. Three consecutive pages contain artefacts of historical visits to Somalia, Pakistan, Iraq, Jordan. What goes through an immigration officers mind when he sees stamps associated with conflict, violence and touchy political topics?
He scans my passport, takes my thumbprint, and then pushes a button commencing a small printer adjacent to the monitor he is looking into reflected in his glasses permitting me to see the data he has acquired from my passport. A small visa sticker ejects, he rips the perforated edges and slaps it into a page of my passport, smiles and says “thank you!” Wow! Just wow! Service with a smile. If this is a taste of things to come, the world can learn a lot from Japan. According to the news, they have a reputation for disliking foreigners, an untrue sentiment peddled most probably to sell a story, shift a paper and gain a click.
My research into what to expect from Japan has already been quashed. Stories and tips from many – not to sneeze, cough, look at your phone on the metro – all false, although a ‘no talking’ rumour proved to be a welcome actuality.
There is a welcoming smile and gesture towards me in everything I do. On my first day, I ask a young man for directions to Shinjuku metro station. The day was sunny, he squinted through his glasses at the phone I show to him. He wore a black backpack and baggy trousers. Signalling for me to follow him, I do just that. ‘It must be just around the corner’, I think to myself, following him with an appreciative trust.
We walk for 5 minutes, so I say to him in English “I appreciate your help, if you need to get back, I completely understand”. He looks at me, nods and smiles. He didn’t understand me, nor did I him. 15 minutes later, he smiles, bows and turns back in the direction we came from. I haven’t seen anything like it for a long time. It think to myself of an identical scenario in Scotland almost 8 years ago. And behaviour such as this in my native England is non-existent. Unless everyone is shy, or rather, too kind to care.
Thinking to myself whether this is a misunderstanding of cultural kindness? Or is there something I am missing? Is everyone pre-programmed to recognise foreigners and provide kindness by law? Of course, this is my internal chatter galloping away to the stars and interdimensional portal tropes. But landing in the country, within 24 hours I have already come to see a side of Japan many would like to experience, veiled by an assumption through popular media. I ponder for a moment, concluding that this could be just the country we are all looking for.