Many Japanese suffer from culture shock when posted to the UK to work, but, as their number increases, Peter Popham finds that every effort is being made to make them feel more at home here.
"Japan ... suddenly is being propelled blinking into the light out of the warm, nice, dark corner in which she had been sitting and growing slowly but steadily fat and big in the past 40 years." So wrote Kazuo Chiba, wittiest of Japanese diplomats, in 1989. What he was describing was the shock experienced by Japan on realising that it was now regarded by the world as a major power, and expected to behave as such. But it describes equally well the experience of individual Japanese on being posted to live and work in a place like the UK.
The Japanese fly all over the world these days. They are, or were until the Gulf crisis, the world's most energetic and ubiquitous tourists. Mostly they are tourists in the old-fashioned sense, the "If today's Tuesday, this must be Belgium" school of globe trotting. Marched about in large homogeneous groups, they snap each other in front of the expected monuments, eat in Japanese and Chinese restaurants, sample a musical, buy British souvenirs from Japanese shop assistants in the London branches of Japanese department stores, and zoom off again.
To be posted to the UK to work, on the other hand, means to emerge blinking from a nice warm corner into the cold light of a reality that is very unfamiliar indeed.
The best way to understand how a Japanese reacts to the UK is not to ask (he will be too polite to let on) but to spend some time in Japan. Famously, everything works. Trains run meticulously to the timetable. The Shinkansen "bullet" trains have been careering through Japan for over 25 years and have yet to be involved in a single fatal accident. Mugging is a crime that is practically unknown. It is possible to spend years in Japan without once encountering a dog turd: every dog owner has his poop scoop and polythene bag. Litter is equally uncommon except in famous beauty spots and on the peak of Mount Fuji, where the Japanese unaccountably forget themselves and turn into barbarians.
In the UK the "customer as peasant" philosophy prevails. In Japan the customer is still king: the proverb to that effect is taken very seriously. Visit a Tokyo department store at opening time and that is exactly how you will feel: the immaculate troops of assistants lined up like a guard of honour bow profoundly as you pass. Tokyo was once notorious for its pollution: that cliche is as dated as the notion of Japan as a producer of things that fall to bits. Emission controls are rigorous, catalytic converters have been compulsory for years (one of the "non-tariff barriers" that western exporters used to get steamed up about) and the air in the capital is appreciably sweeter than London's.
The inventory of perfection is tedious and endless. The Japanese like to do things right. But equally strongly they do not like to make their hosts feel bad, so when they come to live in the UK, with its multitude of imperfections to which the natives are more or less inured, they put the bravest face on it and find things to praise.
We have a smaller land mass than Japan but half the population and no ranges of uninhabitable mountains. So while we like to think of Britain as a crowded island, the Japanese find it very spacious and empty. "In Japan we have famous beauty spots, but everywhere in between is ugly and crowded," a Nissan employee based here says. "In Britain everywhere you go is like a beauty spot, like a national park ... all the green hills."
More sincerely still, they like the golf. Golf is the enduring passion of the Japanese businessman, but the astronomic cost of joining a club puts playing on a real course, as opposed to a multi-storey driving range in the suburbs, out of reach of all but the really wealthy. The cheapness and accessibility oF Britain's golf courses has long been one of the most appreciated compensations of exile here. Now, however, the influx of Japanese to Britain has reached such a pitch that the conditions are beginning to approximate to those back home. Shares in the Wentworth course are being offered for sale to Japanese at £800,000 each. The English Golf Union estimates that 500 new courses will be required to satisfy the demand.