Within minutes of checking us into our hotel room, our Japanese hostess took us out for a nighttime walk through the streets of Tokyo. We had no particular plan at that point, so we just wandered around, stepping into a shop or two, at our hostess’s suggestion. One of the shops we stepped into was called Bic Camera. Based on the name, my husband and I were expecting a camera shop. Instead we found ourselves inside a portion of the electronics department of a huge, multi-story department store. It was like Best Buy on steroids.
Before going to Japan, I had an image of Japan as a society filled with high-tech gadgets that put American ingenuity to shame. My experiences in Tokyo did little to change my mind. Even the toilets electronic controls for additional features that I’d never seen before.
I have to admit that as a high school student, Japan and China were often mingled in my mind. Both had languages that were equally unintelligible to me, both had shut themselves off from contact with western nations for a time, and both had sent soldiers to shoot at my Grandfather at one time or another. As mixed up in my mind as the two countries sometimes were, I was also aware of differences. The news stories that I read described competition from Japanese business as a threat to US economic growth but frequently lumped China in with “the third world”.
Now, the news stories that I read often portray China as threat to US economic growth and sometimes even to US security. Even so, China has not completely shaken off the “third world” label. I arrived at Shanghai at night, tired and thirsty. When we arrived at our hotel, I found a small plaque posted above the sink. It read “Non-drink water”. Eventually, we ventured out to restaurants with some Chinese friends. For our beverage, we had a choice of hot tea, soda or a refreshing drink of boiling hot water. I learned that in China, a cold drink of water on a hot day is risk that people can’t afford to take.
We also ventured out of the hotel for some sight-seeing. Everywhere we went in Shanghai, we were accosted by individuals selling “watches and bags”. The only time anyone had approached us on the streets of Tokyo was when a uniformed official from an information booth kindly handed us an English map.
The contrast between Japan and China was most striking when I went to the toilet. In Japan, I saw “remote controlled” toilets everywhere, in hotels, restaurants, airports and even people’s homes. In China, except for the hotels and one museum, the toilets were glorified holes in the ground, holes that flushed, but holes nonetheless.
While in China and Japan, I was fascinated by the past accomplishments of both the Chinese and the Japanese. I was also impressed by modern Japan. Modern China, however, is a puzzle to me, almost a contradiction in terms. Shanghai has a mag-lev train and the taxi cabs are equipped with interactive touch screens to entertain passengers, but the citizens lack toilet seats and potable tap water.