Destinations: Japan (1982): Tokyo
We landed not at Haneda, but at Narita airport. Narita was opened to traffic in 1978 after Haneda became overcrowded and facing problem relating to expansion. The flight from Shanghai took about an hour and a half. From the clock inside the terminal I noticed that Tokyo was an hour ahead of Shanghai. We soon headed for the city 63 kilometres away in a shiny regular-sized bus. Outside it was a contrast from China with latest Japanese cars zipping past, their bodies sparkling in the sun as if given a vigorous spit-and-polish. After some time as I looked out of the window I found the bus climbing a flyover that spiralled on to become a multi-tiered affair and I could see down below at other two levels cars speeding up and down. In front I could see a nondescript truck climbing the flyover, its tail-pipe emitting no smoke indicating its perfect combustion and engine efficiency. OUrs keep emitting smoke till today from their tail-pipes.
We were put up at the Tokyo Grand Hotel in the area known as Shibakoen. It was perhaps a 3-star affair and each one of us was given a single room. The room was small but the management of space was to be seen to be believed. Every conceivable comfort had been provided in those 120-odd sq.ft. In that small area there was even a television set which had 8 colour channels. In 1982 we had only one B&W channel, the second coming later. The bath was small but it was neatly planned with no clutter despite a small plastic tub in which one could only stand to take a shower. Plastic was optimally used from bath tub to walls. Japan is short of space and, hence, even their houses are small with the available space optimally used. The room overlooked a wide road with a baseball ground on one of its sides.
Having checked in I had some time before the next engagement. I wanted to have the film rolls exposed in China to be processed. Taking directions from the Reception I headed to the studio which was within walking distance. Colour film rolls – for slides and negatives – were kept outside the shop in a heap in a basket. One could pick up any and leave the money nearby in a container. The same was the case with pocket-sized calculators which were very scarce in India till then. The gent behind the counters took all my details and said that the prints would be ready by evening. I was surprised as in Delhi one had to deposit the rolls at Kodak on Janpath who would send them to Bombay. The films would come processed with prints only after three weeks. Here it was enormously different. Obviously automated printing of colour-negatives had already commenced in Japan. It came to India later in mid 1980s.
The first engagement was an introductory session with the senior officials of the Ministry who informed us of the schedule and the itinerary for the fortnight that we would be spending in Japan. While we would be looking at the postal facilities and doing some sites in Tokyo we were also to visit Yokohama, Osaka, Kyoto and Nara. In the process we were told we would be having a ride on the Bullet Train, till then a technological marvel and at that time the fastest in the world. At the inaugural, I also saw for the first time the wireless microphones. The absence of a tangle of wires on the floor made me look around when I saw the amplifier in one corner. Japan, after all, was then the technological superpower.
Soon after returning from the Ministry of Communications I headed for the photographer. As soon as he saw me he said he had delivered the rolls at the Hotel. I asked "to whom?" He said to the Reception. I asked "payment?” He said they made it. This was incredible. Thanking him I returned to the Hotel and checked with the Reception and they gave me the fat packet and said I could pay anytime I wished. Thoroughly overwhelmed I paid for the films there and then. Things have been made incredibly smooth by evolving a work-culture that ensures conveniences for the people.
In Japan the emphasis was on showing their processes which happened to be different from China with more technology inducted into them. We were taken to their computer centre where we had to leave our shoes outside. The machines, dust-sensitive and huge like cupboards, were lined up against the walls. Surely, primitive in comparison to today’s progressively miniaturized versions, these were being made use of for various operations.
Nihonbashi post office was a totally computerized office with minimal manual operations. Everything, from booking of a mail piece to its sorting and bagging for destination moved on the basis of computer programmes that were guided by optical character readers (OCRs). OCRs were extensively used so much so that the Japanese authorities had even printed postal stationery amenable to processing by them. At that time the OCRs in Japan could read hand-written digits in eight different styles. Watching the machines in operations many a time one felt that as if an invisible supernatural hand was behind the moving trays, bags in small trolleys that would travel on rails to predetermined destinations guided remotely by computers.
The OCRs were also in use at metro stations in ticket dispensers. The machines could read the currency notes shoved in and spit out a desired railway ticket and also drop the change in a tray. At the Communications Museum I saw for the first time facsimile machines. Unlike the current tiny ones, these were of the size of a smallish refrigerator, say of 150 litres. I signed on a piece of paper and it was run through the machine only to yield a copy from another one kept a few metres away.
Japanese technology, particularly in the area of consumer electronics, was moving towards its peak. The country was still in manufacturing – the shift to China came much later. Soni, Sansui, National, Sharp etc. were household names in India but their products were largely unavailable. The market was starving for them and was partially fed by smuggling. And, there in Tokyo in the area called Akihabara electronic goods were stacked up in shop after shop from floor to the roof. Until then I had never seen video recorders/players, food processors and such like. It was mindboggling. That’s when one realised the differences between an industrialized rich nation and an un-developed country. Ours was a closed economy, trying to be self-reliant without much capability – and a (pseudo) socialist republic to boot.
Japan had already wrested leadership from Germany in the area of photographic equipment. Gone were the days when Exaktas, Leicas, Agfas, Rollies used to call the shots. The quality products from Asahi Pentax, Nikon, Minolta, Konica and so on were a rage, I dare say, even in China. Even I had acquired from my sister in the US a Minolta SLR with a 50mm lens with f stop of 1.4. The Japanese later broke the “zero barrier” making the lens incredibly powerful.
Our consultant, Pat Kearney, was a professional photograph and used to shoot regattas held in Hobart in Tasmania, his home town. While he was looking for a telescopic long lens I wanted a few accessories. I joined him in the quest for some photographic equipment. We had to go to Shinjuku, the commercial centre, where a reputed shop dealing in cameras and other photographic stuff was suggested to us. We took the Metro from close to our Hotel. It was my first metro ride. We in India did not have metros nor was there any in Sri Lanka, Malaysia, Singapore or China - the countries I had been to. The Shinjuku metro station was probably a junction of several lines and was therefore huge. It had seemingly another city underground with shops, restaurants, tailors, beauty parlours and what have you. People were relaxing, sipping coffee or having beer. The whole place was so well lit that one really did not miss daylight. It was just as crowded as perhaps the city over-ground. A similar atmosphere I later saw in Hibiya City where we used to change to go to Ginza. Once I even walked right through the underground passageway to Ginza from Hibiya; it was like going past an entire township.
Yudobashi in Shinjuku with a crowd of tall high-rises was not a very big shop in its two or three floors yet was into retailing almost all brands of Japanese cameras. That is why the salesmen would raise a racket as soon as one entered the shop inviting the visitor to their respective shop. It was more like the meat market we had in Gwalior where one would be greeted with a chorus of shouts of invites as soon as one entered it. Yudobashi was indeed a great shop and one would find every conceivable camera, lens or accessories there.
After buying an aperture-priority Minolta SLR body and a few accessories I came out and sat on a thoughtfully provided bench to have a smoke. Street lights had come on. Soon I noticed a salesman in his tunic of blue serge trousers, a light blue half-sleeved shirt and a peak cap came out with a broom in hand and started sweeping the area in front of the shop. It was perhaps close to closing time. It seems everyone in Japan sweeps clean their respective business areas – inside and outside – before closing for the day. That is why even early in the morning the city is clean and litter-free. It is so different from our non-functional methods regarding cleanliness in public places. Our people gemnerally dump all their sweepings out on the streets.
A swamp that was filled up way back in the 17th Century to create what later became Ginza is now an upscale commercial and business hub with department stores, boutiques, restaurants and coffee shops. Mitsukoshi, an institution then of chain stores, had its outlet there and I bought from its huge store a lovely-looking orange and black Silver Reed portable typewriter. One would always see crowds milling in the area, particularly in the evenings and at night it is a veritable fairyland with coloured neon illuminating billboards of every well-know Japanese firm. A place ideal for window shopping, I saw animated mannequins swinging their hands holding high-end bags. There is nothing that was not available there. Perhaps on Sundays, a main thoroughfare is blocked for people to come and relax with their families. The cafeterias put their chairs and tables out on the street. It was almost like a fair.
The host administration gave us a fabulous evening at the Imperial Hotel. Located close to the Imperial Palace in the neighbourhood of Ginza, it was a luxurious place and looked every bit like that. Food was mostly Japanese with some Western stuff thrown in. What I liked best was tempura, a dish of battered sea-food and sake, the Japanese wine made out of rice. Quite curiously, it is taken warm.
Since there were no women in our group, wives of Japanese officials were not invited. Instead they had hostesses – young girls in elaborate hair-do, wearing traditional kimonos that generally were not seen on Tokyo streets. During a conversation with one of then I was told that they were all students and had volunteered to be hostesses for the evening mostly to brush up their English. I thought it was a very good idea!
The Japanese are very traditional and polite people. Bowing, for instance is very important and the deeper the bow the greater is the respect shown. At a shop the lady gave me a deep bow and I too had to bow not once but twice to enable her to straighten up. Likewise, “arigato” is a much used word. The word conveys thanks and it is used far too frequently. Japanese people have become westernised in many ways but the hold of their culture and traditions continue to be very strong.
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