Every time I visit Japan, I make an oath never to go back to that country again. It’s distressing for Egyptians to behold such organization, progress, good behavior – things we all know are useless in Egypt.
In fact, they may even be a waste of time because round here, we’re too busy dealing with dirt, chaos and bad manners, we don’t have time for those petty, outdated Japanese habits that we’ve put behind us for more than a century.
I once rode the fastest train in the world, the Bullet Train, from Tokyo to the old capital Kyoto where I was invited to lecture on Modern Arabic Literature at the university.
As I stood on the platform I recalled being on the exact same spot in the summer of 1999, about to board the very same train.
The ticket indicated that my seat was in a green carriage, since the classes are color-coded green, red or yellow, instead of first, second or third class. My Japanese companion asked me to stand at the area designated for green carriages. At precisely the right time the train arrived, stopping within a few inches of where I was waiting for it on the platform.
I was suddenly overcome with grief at our dire state and, eager to express my ire at such Japanese precision, and after making sure he’d never visited Egypt, I told my companion in jest: “The green carriage has stopped a few inches to my right not exactly in front of me, how can such chaos be tolerated?
But it seems the young Japanese man didn’t get the joke. He blushed with embarrassment as he apologized for what happened, assuring me that it rarely happens and promising to inform the responsible officials so it would never happen again.
“Such lack of discipline is very harmful to your country, I said, smiling to mitigate the situation which quickly took an unexpected turn.
Although my Japanese companion politely smiled back, he continued throughout the entire three-hour duration of the trip to pace up and down the train speaking to employees on the train who apologized to me one after the other for what happened.
When we arrived in Kyoto, I was welcomed by the stationmaster himself who was there to offer his apologies for what happened in Tokyo, assuring me that it will never happen again.
Wary that these apologies would continue throughout my whole stay in Japan and ruin the trip, I finally admitted to my companion that I was only joking and that it was inconsequential to me whether the green carriage landed right in front of me or a few inches to my right.
“Why? he asked in astonishment.
“Because these things are likely to happen by our standards, I said. “And they can happen anywhere.
“But they don’t happen in Japan, he said.
“But Japan isn’t the only country in the world, I said. “There are other countries I won’t name, which don’t specify where the carriage will stop at all. As soon as the train arrives, passengers rush to the doors and start pushing them in with their luggage, blocking the way for other passengers in a creative chaos others would even envy us for.
It seemed that my companion couldn’t understand what I said, so I continued: “It’s a matter of personal freedom and every country has the right to apply the system it prefers.
During my last trip to Japan, I remembered that situation as I waited in the designated green area on the Kyoto Station platform and decided not to make any comments this time, no matter where the carriage stopped.
I was adamant not to ruin my stay with a series of endless apologies.
But no sooner had the train arrived right on the dot, of course, and I found the door of the green carriage right in front of me – which also ruined my stay as I lamented the state of other countries dear to my heart.
It seems I’ve reached the depths of a clinical depression that has made me swear never to set foot in Japan again!
Mohamed Salmawyis President of the Arab Writer’s Union and editor-in-chief of Al-Ahram Hebdo. This article is syndicated in the Arabic press.