Twenty Things I Really Like About Japan
By Stanley Bing

(FORTUNE Magazine) – 1. The Japan Air Lines lounge in New York. It's ten in the morning. People are drinking Scotch and beer and smoking up a storm. Dudes!

2. The flight over. Men in Black is screened in English, then in Japanese. Just as good both times, particularly the big roach. How often do you get a chance to eat, sleep, and watch TV for 14 hours with no phones around and nobody to discuss the key implications of proactive activity?

3. Full employment. Off the train from the airport, there's a person in a uniform to take the first portion of my ticket, another several yards farther on to take the second portion, still another several paces beyond that to take the final portion. Then there's an elderly woman ushering us onto the waiting escalator with, I must say, a very nice flourish, and, at last, another to make sure we alight in safety and comfort.

4. The bullet train is very keen. Take the Green Car. Wowzers. Luxury and how. They come around and give you a hot towel and, somewhat later, bitter Chinese tea in a small paper can. It's not really paper, but it isn't cardboard or plastic either. What the heck is it?

5. Bogus English. It's everywhere. On that can of Chinese tea, for instance, it says DELICIOUS REFRESHING BEVERAGE DRINK. On a yo-yo I buy as a present, it says FABULOUS FUN SPINNING TOY. Getting off the train at my destination, I spot a very big business building in the central square. On top of this big business building is a large, neon English message that says BIG BUSINESS BUILDING.

6. Vending machines. Toss a coin, and you'll hit one offering just about anything you could possibly want. My favorite items: (1) strong coffee in weeny little cans that comes out of the machine piping hot; (2) tasty shirt-and-tie combinations; (3) a sports drink called Pocari Sweat. It's "refreshment water" that is "quickly absorbed into the body tissues due to its fine osmolality." I drink some. It tastes like a combination of Gatorade and, yes, sweat.

7. Fish. Fish is what it's all about. Fish is where it's at. Fish, fish, and fish, with fish in fish sauce. Can I have some fish with my fish? If you don't like fish, you can go to McDonald's, or to Kentucky Fried Chicken, if you have a reservation.

8. Squid on a stick. It's for sale at the 7-Eleven, in a little vat of water where the Slurpees ought to be. People buy them at breakfast time.

9. The whole business-card thing. The ritual is, offer the card with both hands with a slight inclination of your head, its information facing your colleague. He'll do likewise. Make sure to read the contents of his card and indicate approval with a certain amount of bobbing and weaving. Under no circumstances produce a card from a wallet in your back pocket, by the way. I would tell you what message that conveys to a Japanese business person, but this is a family magazine. Isn't it?

10. Bowing. I'm with Donald Trump, who prefers it to handshaking. Of course, it can be taken to ridiculous lengths. Anyone who has seen a group of guys uncertain about their relative status trying to enter or exit an elevator knows what I mean. But then, we have backslapping.

11. Making change. When you buy even a package of Xylish chewing gum, you get your change back in a small tray, eliminating all hand-to-hand contact. It makes every sordid little transaction kind of elegant...and hygienic too!

12. Little surgical masks. Speaking of clean, fully 10% of the population seems to be walking around wearing them, either to protect others from their germs or vice versa. Both ways, I think that's nice.

13. Gum. After Xylish, I like Black Black, the "triple combination high-tech chewing gum," and Muscat, with a "fresh and fruity fragrance" and a taste that mingles floor wax, soap, furniture polish, and grape Fanta, with a soupcon of Ban Roll-On.

14. Other cool products. I also like Pocky, a cookie stick covered with chocolate. Inexplicably, Pocky comes in two varieties: Pocky for Men and Pocky for Women. After much discussion, colleagues are incapable of ascertaining a difference. I think that's very '90s, don't you?

15. No room service. Masks notwithstanding, I get the flu. In bed with a temperature of 103.5, I call down to the front desk and inquire if I might have some orange juice delivered to my room. "To your room?" says the bellman. He is absolutely mystified. After a while he says gently, "I suppose I could bring it to your room as a personal favor...." I reply, "I would take it as a very great personal favor." Two minutes later the orange juice is there--two litres of it. The guy won't accept a tip, either.

16. No tipping. Yes, you heard me right--the nation seems not to understand the concept of additional money for services rendered. My new friend with the orange juice recoils at my proffered coins as if insulted. I feel bad. When you think about it, who pays a pal for a personal favor?

17. Karaoke. My friend Ko takes me out one night. We drink a lot of beer and sing many tunes. Ko takes the drill very seriously, unlike my American friends, who try to make out the whole thing is a joke. Ko sings "My Way." It's a great performance, and reveals some lovely things about him. I sing "Foxy Lady" and do the same.

18. The food test. The next night, Ko takes us out for dinner and drinks. Somewhere near 18 beers later, he comes up to me with an enormous grin and what looks like a gigantic fried sardine on a plate. "You eat this!" he commands. I have a choice. Head or tail. Without thinking, I put the head in my mouth and eat it. It has eyeballs. They are sour and crunchy. Ko's face explodes with good fellowship. We hug. I know guys who've been asked to eat raw horse and live shrimp. Both did as they were told. It's a great custom and really cements a friendship.

19. Japanese TV. There's CNN in Japanese, and a show where a man and a woman simply walk around a golf course, playing and talking. On channel 11, a man pours a fish-based brown sauce over a large, white, gelatinous cube. Another channel broadcasts nonstop action--people fishing. At 3 A.M. there is Gunfight at the O.K. Corral, with Burt Lancaster and Kirk Douglas, in English. I nearly weep when I realize it isn't dubbed.

20. Going home. I don't mean it the way it sounds. On the bullet train back to Tokyo, the sun is rising over the Japanese Alps...wood smoke wafting over tiny ancient homes...the Green Car filled with the sound of families laughing together, eating their breakfasts of, okay, fish...the feeling of having done business a world away, and done it well...the strangeness of the Japanese landscape, crammed with houses and churches and power stations and driving ranges and farms and gas stations, all in close proximity...the sensation of coming back into my office afterward and looking out the window at the same old thing...and seeing it for the first time...

And it is good.

By day, STANLEY BING is a real executive at a real FORTUNE 500 company he'd rather not name.