I sauntered into the local post office the other day to use the cash machine, a usually mundane event that requires no consciousness whatsoever.
Since many cash machines in Japan are located inside buildings such as banks and post offices, some ATMs are not accessible after hours. As a result, crime at ATMs is scant. So I was startled to find two men in black waiting for me as I left the machine at around 9 a.m. They accosted me before I could even get to the door.
Befuddled, I scrutinized the men for a moment. Their suits were actually dark gray, not black, and they were, thankfully, employees of the post office. I vaguely recalled a bit of hustle and bustle as I entered the post office, but hadn’t taken much notice as my mind was on the fresh, crisp yen notes that would soon spit themselves out of the ATM.
The two employees were bowing deeply while the senior of the two said, “We’re so sorry, Amy-san” while holding something blue in his extended hands. Sorry about what, I wondered. Looking over their bowed backs, I could see the vacant post office counter.
What could be so important that these men, who comprise the entire staff of the post office, would abandon their posts?
“We’re terribly sorry,” he iterated.
Gosh, had someone died? Again, he thrust his hand out with the blue thing in it, and said, “The other day when you were in here, we gave you the wrong change for your transaction.” Another deep bow.
“You did?” I said, trying to recall. Honestly, I couldn’t even remember that I’d been to the post office, let alone actually carried out a transaction. Such prosaic visits are routinely followed by complete amnesia after they have been checked off my “to do” list.
At this point I realized I should probably accept the blue thing he was trying to give me. But there was more. The other guy was holding a white thing. And a cash envelope.
I still couldn’t clearly recall the incident, but hey, if people were giving out free money, I wasn’t going to knock it back.
So I put out my hands and accepted the gifts: the standard pack of white tissues, a blue face towel and the Japan Post cash envelope. On the front of the envelope was written, in pencil, “¥10.”
You really shouldn’t have worried, I said, realizing the implications: Someone had to do overtime the night before to track down how in the world they ended up ¥10 over (about 8 cents!) and who was responsible for it.
Perhaps it was attributed to the shape-shifting qualities of the foreigner that had distracted the employee and accounted for the error. A meeting would have followed to discuss how to fix the ¥10 problem, in which various gifts would be suggested for compensation and emotional trauma.
In my small Japanese community, people don’t give gifts in multiples of even numbers (it’s bad luck), so while the envelope with the ¥10 coin and a face towel would have made a fine pair, protocol dictated that an extra pack of tissues would make an even three, so to speak.
The senior employee mentioned, just so it didn’t go overlooked, that the ¥10 they had inadvertently swindled out of me was inside the envelope. I cast a doubtful eye inside, but indeed, there it was! It wasn’t the newly minted, shiny coin I would have rather accepted, mind you, and a bit of warmth from having been held in another’s hand first would have been welcome on this chilly day, but nonetheless, I accepted the cold and dirty coin snuggling in the corner of the envelope.
And while we’re at it, I may as well admit that the “¥10” penciled in on the face of the envelope could have been written with a calligraphy pen instead. As a matter of fact, it had been a little carelessly written, if you ask me, the amount underlined twice as if it was of some importance. The only thing missing was an exclamation point. And not just one.
I could almost hear the applause when they handed me the gifts in the manner of presenting an Academy Award. I had to fight back a curtsey.
With my shoulders thrown back and my posture more erect, I accepted my gifts, smiled politely and proceeded out of the post office over an imaginary red carpet while the entire staff bowed ceremoniously in the aftermath of my aura. A moment of princess.
It’s times like these that I chuckle to myself and am reminded why I love living in Japan. Even more importantly, perhaps, is that these small but distinct acts of Japanese kindness so eloquently answer the burning question of my native countrymen: Why do you still live in Japan — rather than living in the “land of the free” (where you can access almost all ATMs 24 hours a day) and the “home of the brave” (where you just might get mugged for doing so)?
Oh, and just in case you’re wondering what I did with the ¥10, I decided to save it.
Japan Lite appears in print on the fourth Monday Community Page of the month. Comments: email@example.com