If we could all so depend on the kindness of strangers . . .


The Japanese are renowned for their kindness to foreigners. I tell myself this late at night as I shiver in my pajamas, my wife having once again swiped all the bed covers. And as the chatter of my teeth quickly makes it too noisy to sleep, I remember that many foreigners — especially those from non-Western lands — consider the Japanese reputation for benevolence to be exaggerated.

While I cannot comment on the cold feelings that some Japanese have for the outside world, I do know I am about to put my wife to the ultimate test of compassion. Will she or will she not share the blanket with this poor, freezing foreigner . . . who also happens to be her husband and father of her kids?

I softly nudge her and coo my request, something like, “Hey! Give me the blanket or else!”

To which she responds in the same way she always does. With a swift flip in the opposite direction and a definitive “Mmmph.”

“Mmmph” being a shady Japanese term best translated as either “Go away” or “Losers weepers.”

Then, as my skin rises in Alpine goose bumps and my brain bubbles with wrath, I wake up enough to recall two things.

1. In most cases, the Japanese I know have been very kind. Blankets aside, this usually includes my wife.

2. We have extra covers in the closet.

But before I step to get one, I cannot help but take a quick stroll through the memories of kindnesses past.

“I like your necktie,” I once told a Japanese colleague during my first year here. The comment was intended as simple small talk as we waited in silence before the opening toast at a dinner party. The man’s reaction, however, was not small at all. He slipped off his tie and gave it to me.

I sat there, more embarrassed than happy. And when a young woman took the seat next to me, I pondered long on whether I should say I liked her dress.

During my early days in Japan, I was routinely dumbfounded when, upon asking street directions, people would drop what they were doing and walk me to my destination.

While I tend to dumbfound easily, my experience also includes the following:

In hitchhiking from Osaka to Tokyo, I found a driver willing to take me the first 10 km or so to his hometown of Yao. But once we arrived, he volunteered to take me a little further . . . and then a little further . . . and then a little further.

Eventually we ended up in Nagoya. More than two freeway hours from his home.

But even then he wasn’t through. At the last rest stop, he hopped from car to car, tapping on windows and begging other drivers to take me yet further.

At which point, I felt like a cultural leech. Albeit a leech who decided to hide his shame until after he’d reached Tokyo.

We foreigners are often accused of milking Japanese generosity. I knew one exchange student in particular who grew bug-eyed on discovering that her homestay family would buy her anything she fancied. That was 15 years ago, and I think that family is still paying its debts.

Yet, the longer a person stays and the more Japanese they speak, the less likely they are to see such mind-boggling munificence. Still, in a spectator sense, I had my mind boggled just recently.

A friend of a friend wrote asking if he could sleep on our floor on a trip from the United States through Europe and onto Japan. I told him our floor was indeed quite comfortable and sent him my work and home phone numbers for when he arrived.

And — just in case — I gave him the phone number of an apartment where we would be living for two weeks while we had some minor construction done on our house.

Yet this number proved wrong — a fact we discovered only upon moving and much too late to notify our backpacking guest.

Time trickled by and we returned to our home. Many weeks later I finally got a call at my office. “Hey,” said Mike the guest. “I made it! I’m at the airport, but just spoke to your wife and got directions. She’s going to meet me at your station and take me to your house.”

So I quickly phoned home to see if I needed to pick up any extra goodies for supper — only to find that my wife had received no such call. She had not made arrangements to meet anyone, anywhere.

I sat perplexed. Then, on a wild guess, I dialed the mistaken number I had been given for the apartment.

A woman answered. A woman who, by coincidence, shared the same first name as my wife.

Yes, an unknown foreign man had called her a little while ago. The man had identified her by name and said he planned to spend the weekend.

To this unknown foreigner, she had screwed up the best of her English and answered: “Welcome!” She made plans to meet him and now she and her family were busy preparing the mother of all meals.

For a total stranger.

Back in bed, I shake my head and misquote Blanche Dubois in “A Streetcar Named Desire.” “What a world it would be,” I say to my wife, “if we could all so depend on the kindness of strangers.”

Yet, my wife doesn’t answer. For she is on a streetcar named dreamland. One which rolls away quickly, leaving me with only warm sentiments. That’s right. She has snatched my blankets again.