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Made in Japan

I'M thinking of smiles. I mean the authentic Japanese variety. As we tread the streets of Tokyo for the first time, I ask myself what is unique about smiles in Japan? They keep breaking across unexpected faces.From elderly women in their kimonos to Japanese schoolgirls in their English tunics; from the perspiring yakitori cook, endlessly frying his meats and vegetables on little sticks, to the young hotel maid who insists on lifting our heavy baggage into the taxi. In Japan, smiles evoke. They elicit. They are not obsequious or manipulative. The Japanese smile is made of delighted surprise. It is unfailingly spontaneous. Somehow these people have caught the whole meaning and purpose of smiling. It is the national shorthand for making peace. Not the concern with seeking peace, or with winning peace, or keeping peace. It is simply and beautifully the preoccupation with making peace. And it's the timing, the sincerity, the poising of a smile somewhere between diffidence and discrimination. That's an art, of course. We walk the streets at night. Tokyo is clean. Tokyo is safe. We find the smile of integrity. In this land of smiles, such light on the lips flows out of a trust that is seldom betrayed. On two separate occasions, we come across a motorbike standing deserted on a side street, key in ignition and engine idling as its owner disappears without concern on some brief errand. This kind of insouciance is everywhere. Nor is there anything acquisitive about smiling in Tokyo. At restaurants, you don't tip, but you must be sure to respond to waiters' liberal smiles in the same sweet language. Courtesy has that smile. Courtesy is a compelling virtue here. In some of the narrow streets that network Tokyo, "no parking" signs have been replaced by strategically positioned flower boxes! However unlikely and however demanding the situation, smiles come suddenly and readily like morning light. The only time a smile is invisible is when bowing is deep and long. And how can I forget the gray-haired supervisor at the International House? Invariably, he is smiling. On my departure, I approach him warmly: "My friend, there is always light in your face - whenever I see you, you're smiling!" With only the slightest hesitation, he replies "Ah, sir ... that's because 'You are my sunshine! Only during the dark years between the attack on Pearl Harbor and the atomic bombing of Hiroshima was smiling a mockery in this beautiful country. (Does that gray-haired supervisor recall that "You are my sunshine" was a popular song from the World War II era?) Now I sip ice water with my friend Stephen, who has spent many years in this city. He rebukes the view that, with its claim to technological leadership in the world, Japan is necessarily a materialistic society. He reminds me that the country's ancient culture still deeply influences the Japanese people. It is surprisingly nonmaterial. Each individual is believed to have his kami, a ghost-like force that enables him to exceed human limits. Is this, after all, why smiles are so prolific? Against such nonmaterial backdrop, Christianity is a stranger. For example, the disabled are generally ostracized in Japanese communities. Christian caring, as Westerners know it, does not come naturally to this hierarchic society. Any exception to this is almost startling. We found one. IT was what we noticed at the entrance to subways and other public areas in Tokyo. Strips of yellow bumps were set into the concrete beneath our feet. These strips led into the buildings, curled onto staircases, and down to the subway platforms at a safe distance from the tracks. Their destiny? To be felt gratefully by the feet of the blind as they find their way about the city. While eyes turn away from the struggles of the disabled in this city, what, you may ask, makes possible such painstaking, smiling care? From decisions on invisible municipal committees to the low-key purposing of church life, the Westerner continues to stumble across paradox. Church life? I'm not speaking now of the crowded activity at the Meiji Shrine. I'm thinking rather of those isolated Christian groups in Tokyo. They appear at first incongruous, like some graft on a deeply rooted, oblivious culture. But together, these differing Christian denominations make up an invigorating minority, which keeps appearing like another smile across urban Japanese awareness. Here, ideas and deeds come together to breathe out the fragrance of caring lives into the bowing, largely uncomprehending community. In this remarkable country, where East has truly married West, where only 15 percent of the terrain is actually habitable, and where adaptability has been the proof of national genius, the smile is legendary. Now my wife, Rosalind, and I bring back with us something of this "legend" together. Here we are at the airport, waiting for our return flight to Toronto. We will be in the air 13 hours nonstop. I remind her that this is the first wedding anniversary we've shared that will last 37 hours. The delighted surprise I see is definitely "made in Japan!"

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