BY HARUT SASSOUNIAN
I visited the amazing land of Japan for the first time last month.
The minute I set foot on Tokyo’s Narita Airport, it felt like entering a surreal country – almost too good to be true!
The first thing that one notices is the extreme politeness of the Japanese people. Their repeated bowing to greet guests is incomparably more respectful than our customary casual handshake. I was amazed to find out that everyone gets the same excellent service, at no extra charge! No one gets tips, including waiters and parking attendants.
Japan is impeccably clean. No litter can be found anywhere. Piles of dirt or garbage are nowhere to be seen. You cannot find a single car in the streets with a dent or speck of dust. Even trucks hauling construction materials are covered with a net and hosed down before leaving the loading site, not to scatter dirt on city streets. Amazingly, after a typhoon directly hit Tokyo, there was no debris in the streets.
To top it all, there is very little crime in Japan due to the calm demeanor of the population and absence of guns. Despite Tokyo’s crowded sidewalks, everyone goes about their business, without pushing or shoving, arguing or raising their voices. Drivers respect traffic laws and conduct their cars in an orderly manner, without cutting in front of others or honking horns.
Many people are seen in the streets wearing medical masks. One would think that they were protecting themselves from catching the flu or some other disease from passersby. It turns out that the mask wearers were the ones who had the flu. They were being exceedingly considerate, not wishing to pass their germs onto others!
Besides visiting Japanese shrines and ancient palaces, I had the opportunity to engage in Armenian-related activities in this far away land. I was pleased to learn that the Republic of Armenia had an Embassy in Tokyo. Amb. Hrant Pogosyan and Attache Monica Simonyan received me graciously and briefed me about their relentless efforts to foster friendly relations between the two countries. We discussed opportunities for collaboration between the Armenian community in the United States and the Embassy of Armenia in Japan, particularly during the upcoming Centennial of the Armenian Genocide.
A totally unexpected treat was the concert organized by the Armenian Embassy, celebrating the 110th anniversary of Aram Khachaturian’s birth. Three top musicians, pianists Armen Babakhanian and Julietta Vardanyan, and cellist Aram Talalyan, had flown from Armenia especially for this one night performance. The Japanese audience, foreign diplomats, and a handful of Armenian students and businessmen were highly impressed with Khachaturian’s music and the virtuosity of the performers. I even met a Japanese scholar who spoke Armenian fluently. I had never heard Armenian spoken with a Japanese accent!
Japanese friends had kindly arranged that I meet CEO’s of several major corporations in Tokyo and Kyoto and discuss investment possibilities in Armenia. I was highly impressed by state of the art stem-cell research laboratory at Kyoto University.
Later that day I had the unique opportunity to give a lecture to a group of bright university students and their professors. They spoke English quite well and asked numerous questions, even though I was told that Japanese students normally do not ask questions. My talk covered the Armenian Genocide, the Artsakh (Karabagh) conflict, Syria’s civil war, the Arab Spring, the controversial issue of Comfort Women, and the necessity of peaceful resolution of conflicts.
After returning to Tokyo, my hosts surprised me by presenting me from the archives of The Japan Times newspaper, a copy of the issue dated Oct. 4, 1998, which had a half-page article about my humanitarian efforts for Armenia on behalf of the United Armenian Fund.
My final meeting was with three high-ranking Japanese government officials with whom I discussed at length Japan’s relations with Armenia, Azerbaijan, Turkey, China, Russia, and South Korea.
My conversations with Japanese university students and government leaders made me realize that Armenians have made a habit of concentrating all of their political efforts on the Middle East, Europe, North and South America, and totally ignoring the large number of strategically important countries in Asia.
It may be politically and economically more productive to extend the span of our attention to countries whose citizens know hardly anything about Armenia and Armenians.