I’ve been in Tokyo for over 3 weeks now, and there’s still so much of the city I haven’t seen. But as I mentioned in my last post, I’ve been happy taking this Japanese class every day. Though the routine has put a pause on my city-wide exploring, it’s allowed me to explore in a different way – getting to know the surrounding neighborhood in depth, talking to my classmates, nailing down my commute through the crazy underground complex that is Shinjuku Station, and learning about the culture through language. Returning home to dinner with my host family every evening completes this sense of ‘normal day-to-day life’ that I’ve rarely encountered on the first 8 months of the Watson.
I would love to take the class for more than 2 weeks, which is the school’s minimum, but it’s expensive – and as I mentioned, it does take time away from researching project connections and trying to set up meetings. For that reason, I couldn’t justify spending much more of the Watson grant on the class than I already am, though Watson fellows are allowed to take language classes while abroad. I figured that I should try language study in at least one of my six Watson countries, and Japanese was a good fit since I’ve always been intrigued by the language and the culture, and I’ve wanted to study a language with a different alphabet (or 3, in the case of Japanese), and finally, I think English has the least amount of mileage here compared to the other countries on my list.
Anyhoo, before my class today, I was on a mission to get business cards. Yep, business cards, or “meishi” in Japan (often translated to “name cards”). I’m going to a trade show tomorrow here in Tokyo that will showcase various nursing products, including the healthcare robots that inspired me to name my Watson project “Robots & Gizmos: Interfaces of Health.” Though the expo is free admittance, I have to show up with proof of my pre-registration (a printed email) and two business cards. I’m not sure why – I suppose I’ll find out tomorrow – but of course my first thought was, well, I don’t have any business cards.
A while ago, someone told me about a meishi-making machine in Shinjuku Station, the station I now travel to every day for class. A machine just for making business cards – could I be that lucky? I searched online and found a video from a few years ago of an American using such a machine. I watched the video, which printed 30 business cards for 1000 yen (just under $10), and memorized the look of the machine. Once I arrived at Shinjuku station, I looked around at all the machines. I was surrounded by metro-pass machines, ATMs, and even coin lockers, but Shinjuku Station is big and confusing; it took a good five or ten minutes of scoping out the scene to find the meishi machine, nestled in next to a photobooth machine (for passport or school photos) in a quiet spot. I was thrilled to find the machine exactly as it was in the video I had watched. Of course, being designed for Japanese business men, the whole interface was in Japanese. The first button I hit caused the machine to immediately spit out my 1000 yen bill, and I tried that a couple times before realizing it was the ‘cancel’ button.
There were about 20 one-sided black-and-white designs to choose from, none of them very thrilling or aesthetically pleasing, and I picked one but couldn’t figure out how to add my email address. Eventually I navigated back to the first screen, picked a less interesting but less confusing design, and I managed to figure the rest out. Basically, I pushed a lot of buttons until it made sense. Luckily no one else was waiting to use the machine! Once I was done, the machine started sputtering out the 30 cards one by one. One little plastic flap was all that stopped them from flying out of the machine, which looked fairly old. At this point, bending down to peek at the growing stack of cards, I was cracking up. Then finally I had all my cards! I was surprised at the quality of the cards – obviously not cardstock, but thicker than regular paper.
According to the internet, meishi are a big deal in Japan, and there are all sorts of rules about how to use them in the most polite and formal way: say “はじめまして” (“hajimemashite”, or “nice to meet you”) when giving your card, never give a wrinkled card, always accept someone else’s card with two hands and a bow, etc. Well, my meishi certainly lack any interesting designs or features, but I’m interested to see how this all comes into play.
Later in the day, feeling bolstered by the success of my business card printing, I went to a 7-11 over my lunch break to print the aforementioned pre-registration email. The 7-11 stores here have a system called “net print” that allows you to create a free online account, upload various documents and/or photos from your computer at home, and print them at any store. 7-11 stores are all over Tokyo (along with the other brands of konbini, or convenience store), and most of them have a big Kinko’s-esque printer. I uploaded my pre-registration email in the morning, and in the afternoon, I typed the ‘reservation code’ corresponding to my document on 7-11’s printer screen. I put in my 30 yen (about a quarter’s worth of cash), and voila, it started printing…a photograph. The long, type-heavy email I needed as a printout for the expo was coming to me in 4×6 glossy form. I’m not sure what button I mistakenly pressed to have that happen, but I needed to get back to school for my next class, so here’s hoping it works! Well, you win some, you lose some.
Anyway, all of this – the business card machine in the busy station, the net-print system in the convenience stores – is obviously for the large ‘businessperson’ culture here. In a city like Tokyo that is so focused on work, famous for its insanely crowded rush-hour trains, it makes sense that there would be such conveniences for the city’s career-focused individuals. But I also feel like this is a uniquely Japan thing, and I wonder why. I can’t imagine a business card machine in New York’s Financial District. Wouldn’t you just go to a Staples or a Kinko’s and get your cards made there? Even if you needed them day-of, as I did, I’m sure you could find an express service at these places.
I think these conveniences exist here not only to be extremely practical for the average Tokyoite businessperson, but also to save customers the trouble of needing to talk to someone in person. Maybe it’s time consuming to have a conversation with someone, and it can be a bit awkward as well. Japanese has multiple layers of formality, and when a customer and a shopkeeper interact using the language, they will use many polite words that complicate and lengthen the conversation. I’m not saying this is a bad thing at all – I think it’s lovely, and it’s nice to know exactly what’s appropriate to say in such situations – but I can imagine that it gets a bit tiring. So maybe if you’ve just had a packed commute, and you’re rushing off to a business meeting where you will be using a ton of formal language, you want to get your business cards without having any extra interactions. That would also explain why the trains, where most people are on their phones wearing earbuds, and restaurants, where many customers eating alone at lunchtime and may have ordered by pushing a button, are so quiet – small moments of peace and minimal interaction and no need to worry about word choice in a city as busy as Tokyo.
Just a thought.