There are two Japans.
One is popularly painted in the Western press as the Japan of $2 cups of coffee, $15-an-hour hostess bars (not including drinks) and $25 hotel lunches. This is the special preserve of the Western tourist and official visitor who is encouraged neither by travel agents nor the Japanese to venture very far from the bustling, high-priced tourist ghettos.
To be fair, some travel sections have published articles pointing out how travelers in Japan can sharply cut their costs -- and get at least a little closer to the Japanese -- by eating away from the hotels and by staying in native inns when possible.
However, the realities of today's air fares, pushed higher despite deregulation by inflationary pressures and the cost of fuel, make it more feasible -- especially for the first-time visitor -- to see Japan from the vantage point of a more economical package tour that follows the predictable tourist circuit.
But this is not the real Japan.
While it is true that Japanese businessmen are often found in the expensive Akassaka night clubs, bank-rolled by fat company expensive accounts, and the youth frequent the discos in Roppongi because they like the "international" atmosphere, the average Japanese cannot identify with the picture of Japan most foreign tourists bring home.
The only way to get an insight into the real Japan is through the eyes and mind of a resident, but the natural reserve and closed, close-knit society in Japan (not to mention the language barrier) almost always prevent the short-term visitor from making those contacts.
For a few lucky Washingtonians, though, a little advance planning can provide a very successful way to open some of those closed doors through the Washington International Center's home hospitality program. The center, a 30-year-old private organization, works with the U.S. State Department and Agency for International Development (AID) to provide an orientation program on American living for official foreign visitors who come to the United States for professional training. The home-hospitality volunteers -- about 800 Washington-area families are currently on the WIC roster -- participate by inviting visiting foreigners to their homes for a "traditional" American dinner.
Most WIC volunteers don't get a chance to visit the countries of foreigners they entertain. Many of the visitors are from underdeveloped countries not on the usual tourist routes. Of the 4,619 international visitors in 1979, for example, about one-third were from Africa. The next largest groups -- about one-ninth each -- were from Latin America and from the Middle East. Of the total, only 161 were Japanese.
My husband and I, planning a month of sightseeing in Japan, had a chance to see if our several years of WIC volunteer would have any practical rewards. We received a warm reception and generosity from our Japanese guests-turned-hosts that was more than we could have expected.
Entertaining the Japanese in your home is one way to make their "closed society" work in your favor. For the Japanese, an invitation to a dinner in someone's home is a rare occurrence and the sign of a close relationship. In addition, the Japanese sense of obligation, called "giri," is so well-developed and universal that it would be almost inconceivable for a Japanese to leave his social debt unpaid, once given a chance.
Establishing your foreign contacts through WIC entertaining does require some advance planning, however, because the center may not always have foreign visitors from the countries you are interested in at the time you are interested. As a home-hospitality volunteer you can request visitors from specific countries and in specific lines of work that match your own interests or professional background. As a result, when I learned I would be sent to Japan on a Fulbright journalism grant, I informed the center several months before departure time that we would be interested in entertaining any Japanese visitors that had. Thus we met officials from the Japanese Finance and Agriculture ministries and an officer from the Industry Club of Japan, a business group, who in turn entertained us in Japan. (Before our departure, I wrote to our acquaintances to let them know when we would be coming and that we would like to meet them again.)
In addition to the regular dinner guests, the center had also been requested, to place a Japanese college economics student in an American home for two weeks, and the center's director for home hospiality, Norma McCaig, contacted us to see if we were interested.
One night in our house, the young Japanese, obviously influenced by traditional male chauvinism, was openly amazed to find my husband cooking dinner and informed us of the "old Japanese proverb: Man does not go in kitchen." Nevertheless, he must have been impressed, because he contacted us immediately after our arrival in Japan and offered to cook dinner for us. In fact, he showed me how to make a quick, cheap and easy tofu recipe that he learned from his mother!
Since I would be staying on for a longer period, he also took me on a tour of the neighborhood "supermarket," a Japanese version of a discount store, to look for an inexpensive Japanese-style bed (futon) and get a lesson in identifying various Japanese foods in the food section. Even if you're not planning on an extended visit, it is interesting to find out what are those strange vegetables, pickles and soybean products you will see in all the neighborhood markets. If you are staying, or planning to prepare some of your own meals, it is far cheaper to learn to live on a modified Japanese diet rather than a $7 slice of beef ribsteak and a $1.50 can of imported vegetables from the Meidi-ya or Kinokuni food stores which serve the foreign community.
Our contact at the Agriculture Ministry invited us to dinner at his home in Kokohama, met at the train station downtown and took a 1 1/2-hour ride with us to his suburban home. On the way he talked of his involvement in a special group that seeks to preserve the Japanese heritage, and about the importance of keeping strong family ties to maintain the customs. His parents live with him, and he said he felt it important to show them respect and obedience so that his children, in turn, will follow the example of filial respect and obedience. He also explained the Japanese feeling of "giri."
He gave us a tour of his small, well-cared-for Japanese garden and bonsai collection. His wife, who did not join us, except to serve food and pour sake (which is customary among traditional wives), prepared an elaborate tempura dinner, and we ate in a traditional Japanese room with a view of the garden, sitting at a low table on a floor covered with the ubiquitous straw tatami mats.
The Tourist Information Centers in Tokyo, Kyoto and other major tourist cities will arrange home visits with a few days' advance notice, but rarely will it be for a full dinner, usually just tea and sweets, and the hosts will not have the same sense of obligation to see that you are well taken care of.
Our visitor from the Industry Club of Japan returned our hospitality by inviting us to a dinner of Western-style food at his club located near downtown Tokyo station. The building rivals the Cosmos Club in old-style Renaissance ornateness. First, we were formally introduced to his boss and a younger business researcher on the staff over sherry in a separate visitors' room. The dinner was elegantly served, followed by a tour of the building, one of the few remaining historic buildings in downtown Tokyo.
Because of his contacts with the Imperial Household, which maintains the grounds of the Imperial palaces and gardens in Tokyo and Kyoto, he offered to make the arrangements for a tour of the Kyoto palace and gardens. The next day he called and told us exactly when and where to meet our contact in Kyoto.
Trying to visit the Imperial palaces can be a botheresome thing because the staff requires a written request in advance and in person: You cannot write ahead from your previous stop or from the United States. As with most things in Japan, it always helps to have a Japanese contact to cut through red tape. While our tour of the Kyoto palace proved to be the regularly scheduled English-language tour, we did not have to bother waiting several days for the paperwork to go through.
After that tour, we were escorted by shauffeur-driven car and an English-speaking guide from the staff of the palace police force to the palace gardens and then to Shugakuin, the Imperial garden on the outskirts of town which was a favorite summer resting place for the Emperors. In between, our guide stopped for lunch at a local noodle shop and ordered us tempura soba, a soupy noodle dish topped with a few pieces of batter-fried shrimp, which we learned to slurp with the customary Japanese qusto. This was a typical, inexpensive Japanese lunch spot, but we didn't have to struggle with a Japanese menu and we certainly didn't see any other foreigners there.
Our guide was so delighted with the rare opportunity to practice English, which he said had picked up by listening to conversation classes on the radio and TV, that he in turn invited us to his home for dinner the following night.
Entertaining a foreign visitor who may be getting his first exposure to the independent, free-wheeling and aggressive American life style may not always be easy or relaxing. Unless the foreigner's English is extremely good, the host family has to make an effort to speak slowly and clearly at all times and explain things, such as food and living conditions, which for us are so prosaic that we are not always conscious of them. The foreigners, though, notice those differences and, in fact, may feel uncomfortable because of them. Often the conversation can be stilted because of language limitations; often the foreigner will be uncomfortable because he is afraid of doing something impolite, or is not accustomed to being as outspoken or critical of politics or customs in his own country as we are in ours.
In the case of Japanese who, in Japan, place great emphasis on form and ritual, the problem may be even more severe. During one dinner, I served our Japanese guest's wife the first plate of food, which would be customary by our standards, but then noticed here complete discomfort and even hesitancy to take the plate. Later I realized that in the traditional Japanese family the husband always gets served first, and then wondered if perhaps I had offended them. Also, the wives are sledom accustomed to joining their husbands in social events and rarely speak English. One of our visitors arrived in an elaborate and richly designed silk kimono outfit and sat through the entire evening without saying a single word.
Nevertheless, once in Japan, we invariably found our friends to be much more relaxed and effusive on their home soil. They all seemed to relish the opportunity to show us their country and were extremely articulate in explaining Japanese customs and behavior.
One benefit of meeting Japanese through WIC entertaining is that the visitors to the United States will all have been exposed to the "strange" customs of Americans and therefore the American visitor to Japan won't have to worry so much about performing some unintentionally rude act in their company.
In addition, those who stay in America for even a short visit all speak English well enough to be able to explain points of Japanese culture and custom, and help in making travel arrangements that might be impossible for the non-Japanese-speaking American traveler. For example, one Japanese friend, whom we had met through WIC three years ago, explained how to take the local train to Nikko shrine, the famous tourist mecca outside Toyko. He also drew a detailed map of the area with directions on getting from the train station to Nikko park, thus saving 80 percent of the cost of a one- or two-day guided tour to the area. For the non-Japanese-speaker, of course, the language barrier usually makes taking a bus tour a must, just another way Japan travel can be made more expensive.
But the more personal dimension was that this friend, an executive from Fuji-Xerox, and his wife, gave us travel tips after a day scouring Tokyo neighborhood antique shops and the Kappa-Bashi restaurant wholesale district west of Asakasa Temple, where a host of Japanese-style kitchen accessories, ranging from packages of 200 plain wooden chopsticks to Japanese-style ceramics, to beautiful copper shabu-shabu (a type of meat fondu) pots, can be found more cheaply than in the famous Ginza department store.
After the shopping, we stopped at one of the notoriously expensive Japanese coffee shops for an hour of conversation on Japanese life and travel tips. The coffee shops are popular social gathering places since Japanese housing is so crowded and dispersed. Waiters don't pressure customers to order more drinks or to leave a table after one cup of coffee, which makes that one- or two-dollar cup not quite so outrageous.
As a parting gesture, one of our Japanese contacts and his wife showed up at Haneda Airport as a sendoff for my husband two hours before his 10 p.m. flight back home. It is a tradition, I learned, that the Japanese are fond of keeping for their close friends and family.
Of course, it is impossible to guarantee that any of these experiences would be repeated for other travelers to Japan. It all depends on the personalities and special interests involved in the individual contacts. But it is safe to say that personal contact with residents of a foreign country is likely to open some interesting new doors and provide insights not available on the best-planned tour. At the very least, an evening of conversation with a foreign visitor from the country you are planning to visit can provide some useful and up-to-date predepature tips.
For further information on WIC contact Sara L. Shafer, director of services, or Norma McCaig, director of home hospitality, 1630 Crescent Place NW, Washington, D.C. 20009, phone 332-1025).