Charlie Stross, the science fiction writer, describes his visit to Japan:
Tokyo left me feeling like an illiterate Albanian shepherd teleported without warning to the UK, staring slack-jawed in wonder at the vast, gleaming, powerful public works of metropolitan Huddersfield, reeking of wealth and efficiency and a goat-free future. From the thirty-seventh floor of a skyscraper I looked out across the high rise skyline, red lights blinking fretfully in the grip of a typhoon as winds strong enough to blow sheets of rain up the glass of the window rumbled around me, and I realized: this future has no place for goats.
On our last day in Kyoto, Feorag and I left our hotel and headed for downtown Kyoto. As we descended the steps into Shichijo subway station, an elderly fellow rushed over. “Hello! Remember me?” He called. (Apparently we'd met him a couple of days earlier, in a haze of shrine-going that ended with us both getting templed out.) “Here, please can you help me?” His spoken English was heavily accented. He dug around in his belt pack and pulled out a a sheaf of papers which he thrust under my nose. “Can you proof-read?”
It took us a quarter of an hour to disentangle ourselves from his polite but insistent demands that we check the English vernacular in his papers, which turned out to be part of the second edition of a huge Japanese-English dictionary — which, as Professor of English at Kyoto University, he was editing. Self-effacing politeness is a fearsome weapon: between us we checked at least five pages before we realized escape was possible.
In self-defense I have to admit that I'm not used to being mugged on the subway by feral English professors and forced to proof-read Japanese-English dictionary entries: I have entirely the wrong reflexes for such social situations and so, as one is trained to do when confronted with a situation that promises embarrassment, one tends to go with the flow.
In the UK, with a few exceptions — the uniformed services of government, police and military and fire services — we respond poorly to being placed in a uniform; it's a sign of depersonalization, stripping us of individuality. In Japan, however, uniforms are everywhere. Even people who don't have to wear them seem to gravitate towards workwear that's uniform in its appearance: taxi drivers in dark suits, peaked hats, and white gloves. Uniforms confer status — a uniform is a sign that you belong to some greater social context, to a corporation or a shop or a school or something important.
And so, we have an island safe for eccentric English professors: an island where outward conformity provides an ill-fitting disguise for social experimentation and strange subcultures. An island where people live like the crew of a generation starship in flight towards the future, nevertheless dragging the scars of ancient history behind them.