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In Japan, I Couldn't Crack the Code

By Dave Barry
Miami Herald
Sunday, February 22, 1998; Page D17

NAGANO — And so, with the Winter Olympics finally over, it's time to gather up our belongings and pack our suitcases. Then it's time to set our suitcases on fire, because we have been wearing these belongings for three solid weeks and we never want to see them again.

But before I bid these Olympics the traditional Japanese farewell ("hasta la vista") I'd like to take a moment to try to sum up what I have learned about this fascinating country:


Japan is just as mysterious to me today as it was when I got here. Among the baffling paradoxes are:

Paradox One: The police are unarmed, but everybody obeys the law. I sometimes left my room unlocked, and I often left my laptop computer sitting unattended in public for hours; nothing ever happened. I've been out on the streets of Nagano very late at night, and I never once felt even slightly threatened by anything, unless you count the food.

Paradox Two: You almost never see trash cans, but you never see litter. I think Nagano has a grand total of one trash can, which is probably referred to in travel guides as "The Nagano Trash Can." But the streets are spotless. There is probably less free-range trash in this whole nation than under the front seat of my car.

Paradox Three: There is no tipping, but the service is fantastic. The instant you walk into a store or restaurant, the staff shouts out traditional Japanese greetings. At least I assume those are traditional greetings. They could be shouting: "Ignorant Westerner! Whatever you order, including popcorn, we shall put a raw egg in it!" But at least they sound enthusiastic. They take your order immediately; they bring the food fast; they apologize for taking so long; and when you leave, they always shout a cheerful traditional thank-you ("Next time, you get moth larvae!").

Another Mystery of Japan is one that has confounded Western visitors for thousands of years: How the hell do the taxis work? The taxis here have yellow, blue and red lights, which, as far as I have been able to interpret, mean the following:

A yellow light means: "This taxi might stop and pick you up. Or it might whiz past you. Or it might stop, but then, as you run toward it gratefully, it will dart away. Ha ha! Such a playful taxi!"

A blue light means: "Do not approach this taxi. It is reserved for the emperor of Japan. It has been sitting at this spot, waiting for him, since 1928. Do not even look directly at this taxi."

A red light means: "This taxi is equipped with a red light."

But the ultimate Mystery of Japan will always be the language. I caught the Official Virus of the Olympics and went to the press center medical facility. They took my temperature with a thermometer they told me to stick under my "arm pocket." Then a doctor looked into my mouth. He said something in Japanese to the interpreter, who said: "The doctor says you have a throat injection."

I said: "You mean a throat infection?"

The interpreter said something to the doctor, who said something back, and then the interpreter said to me, just a little sternly: "The doctor says you have a throat injection."

"Okay," I said.

Then the doctor said something else to the interpreter, who said to me: "The doctor will give you some ... ah ... I don't know this word."

"Cold medicine?" I suggested.

"Ah!" he said. "Code medicine!" He said some Japanese words and "code medicine" to the doctor, who nodded and said to me, "code medicine."

So I'm taking code medicine for my throat injection. I am frankly not feeling so hot; plus I was awakened Saturday morning by an unscheduled earthquake; plus, not to beat a dead horse, but every article of clothing I own smells like a dead horse.

And so, even though the Japanese have been unbelievably gracious hosts, I'm sick and tired and brain-dead and ready to go home, back to the land of litter, crime and indifferent service. At least I understand the way our taxis work. They may smell like arm pockets, but they're scrutable.

I have no idea what's going on back in the States. Did we bomb Iraq? What has the president denied lately? Does Monica Lewinsky have her own TV show yet? And speaking of TV, did anybody back home pay any attention to the Olympics? Here we keep hearing that the CBS coverage (motto: "We'll Show You An Actual Sporting Event When You Pry The Microphones Out Of Our Cold, Dead Fingers") has been getting worse ratings than The Compost Channel. Maybe Americans just don't care about these winter sports. Maybe the Olympics should include some more-telegenic events, like Nude Curling or Ski-Jumping Cows. Maybe we should bomb CBS.

Maybe I should find out what's in this medicine. Dave Barry is a syndicated columnist.

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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