Osaka, the third largest city in Japan with a population of more than 17 million in the greater metropolitan area, has the reputation of being one of the rougher cities in Japan. Compared to Tokyo, where millions of businessmen and woman in ubiquitous black suits and shoes ride the trains like zombies in a trance, the people of Osaka can sometimes be a little more straightforward and colorful. It’s often said that Osaka people just like to be different.
They stand on the right side of the escalator (instead of the uniform left in Tokyo), they bump into you with uttering as many sumimasen (excuse me) and they sometimes can be a little abrasive. The first time I ever witnessed a Japanese person shouting at someone was in Osaka’s JR Fukushima Station, where a man in casual jeans and a sweatshirt screamed at the train attendants for a good 10 minutes (he was still shouting when I boarded the train). The train attendants just stood there without so much blinking and let the man release his energy.
But even with that said, Osaka is still in Japan, meaning although it has a grittier vibe compared to other Japanese cities, it’s still a city brimming with people who work to death and travel to and from business in uniform fashion. It’s a way of life everywhere in Japan. You follow the rules. You are on time. You straighten your black suit or skirt and do what you are told without complaining. Their work ethic is both admirable and maddening at times, like an entire population of people is just waiting to break free from the chains of twelve-hour per day labor.
So when I spotted a Japanese man wearing a blue baja shirt, patterned bell-bottom jeans and red shoes on an Osaka JR Loop Line train, my eyes were drawn to his colorful wardrobe. Amid the surrounding grey of the train and passengers wearing conservative weekend clothing, he stood out like a rainbow emerging from the clouds after a rainfall. He was probably in his early 50s and had a full head of long, stringy grey hair. His youth was far gone in his face, but his clothes spoke another language. The vibrant colors of his clothes seemed to scream:
I am proud of who I am!
I can’t say for certain if he thought the same thing, but I was proud of him.
Japanese people are some of the most courteous people I have ever met. Customer service here is a way life and the standard compares to no other country I have visited. This ideal extends beyond stores, too. Rarely have I met a Japanese person who won’t go out of his or her way to help me. If I need help finding a bus, there are dozens of trustworthy people I know I can ask on the street.
With that said, however, being on trains and in crowded train stations isn’t where their courtesy shines. I went to Tokyo for a meeting recently and was reminded what it’s like to be packed in a train like a sardine. In train stations people brushed so quickly behind me that I felt dizzy. Everyone is in their own world, listening to music and clutching their newly-purchased designer items like a mother does her baby. In Chiba, I witnessed a mad rush to the train where two young women slammed their bodies into the train like popsicle sticks. It’s likely that they had to make the train or would have been late for work.
Even in the countryside, where you’re much less likely to encounter packed train stations anything like those in Tokyo, people tend to walk without much regard to those around them. Every time I look around the train, Japanese people are on their cellphones, playing games or reading emails.
So when I saw a woman lose her glove in Takaoka Station, the second largest city in Toyama, I didn’t want to stay shut inside a bubble. I noticed the woman lose her glove as I was sitting in the waiting area. I stared at the glove for a solid minute, thinking of what to tell the woman in Japanese. She was now sitting a few seats from me and was looking at her phone. Everyone else around me was either napping or glued to their cellphones. Not wanting to ignore it, I gently picked the glove up and carried it over to her. She looked to be about 60. She was elegant in a brown suede coat and reminded me of my mother a bit. “Sumimasen,” (excuse me) I said. She looked up surprised and instantly uttered a stream of “arigatous” (thank you).
A few moments later, she got up to leave. Before she left the station, she looked back at me and bowed twice.
It was a simple gesture of gratitude, and it made my day.