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Respect: A Dying Quality in the Modern World

This story is from my recent journey to Japan with my travel companions Ian, Sachin, and Joy. Follow Ian and Sachin's blog for deep adventure stories and insights into life.

We were lost, somewhere in the heart of the largest city in the world. Everybody around us seemed to know exactly where they were going, as they weaved their ways through the bustling station like seasoned navigators. ‘How could we not know where to go? Everybody else knows. It’s not like we’re idiots,’ I scoffed. We had come equipped with smartphones and a portable WiFi unit; and yet, we still somehow managed to lose our way.

Ian, all of a sudden, interrupted my solemn river of thoughts. “What if we go down to platform 4? That train may go in the direction we need to go.”

“Sure,” I mumbled. What did we have to lose? At this point, we were just four foreign strangers astray in a city of 15 million people. Nobody was going to notice us, so we had to do the best we could to at least try helping ourselves.

We jumped on the escalator that led down into what seemed like a mysterious underworld of railroad tracks. Everybody on the escalator formed a perfect single file line to the left-hand side, making space for anybody who wished to pass by on the right. Ian, meanwhile, decided to opt for the stairs because he wanted the “exercise.” As soon as I got on the escalator, I pulled into the passing lane and raced Ian down to platform 4. To this moment, we have not been able to agree on who exactly won (I like to think I did), but honestly, what happened after that, made me realize that there is something greater in life to worry about than winning or losing.

As the next train on platform 4 blared its shrill horn while arriving to a complete stop, we weighed whether it would take us where we needed to go. I ran inside one of the cars, scanning the map (it felt more like scanning hieroglyphics) for some sort of positive confirmation. Ian, Joy, and Sachin debated furiously out on the platform whether we should risk taking the train or not. We had less than 30 seconds to decide before the doors closed and the opportunity walked out on us forever. I must have looked like I was really struggling, because out of the corner of my eye, I noticed a man smile at me. He calmly approached, and asked:

“Where are you trying to go?”

“Sasazuka station. Do you know if this train stops there?” I was more focused on mentally approximating how much time we had left before the train departed.

“Hmm.” The man studied the map. “Yes, this train does seem to go there.”

I motioned frantically to the others to get inside before our only mode of transportation disappeared into the darkness. “Thank you very much. Arigatou!”

I figured adding the “arigatou” would make my exchange a bit more “authentic.” It was also the only word I knew in Japanese. The doors closed with a loud beep, and the train lurched forward with a loud hiss. I breathed a sigh of relief. At least we were finally headed in the right direction.

“Where are you all from? India?” the man inquired.

“We are all from the United States, but my parents are originally from India.”

“Is it true that Kumar is a popular name there?”

‘What a very strange question,’ I thought. “A lot of people add Kumar to the end of a first name or use it as a middle name. Kumar shows respect, because it means prince,” I explained. “My name is Nihar. So, in India, some people could call me Nihar kumar.”

The man flashed a smile of admiration. “I see. Here, we also believe respect is important. We add ‘san’ to the end of everybody’s name. So, your name here in Japan is Nihar san.”

I returned his smile of admiration. What a simple, but meaningful concept. No matter who the Japanese speak to, they often add a ‘san’ to the end of his or her name to show respect. The man and I talked for many more minutes about the importance of respect in today’s world, and it got me thinking about how this same quality is slowly dying out in Western culture. People are often too concerned with their own well-being to respect the well-being of others. They do not even respect their superiors and elders, let alone their peers.

In Japan, however, respect is of the utmost importance at every corner. Even when emergency service providers need to tend to urgent situations, they turn their vehicle sirens on and announce through a loudspeaker, “we’re going through the red light so please wait a moment” or “an emergency vehicle is approaching so please make your way slowly and carefully to the left. Thank you!” as they drive through the never-ending Tokyo traffic. It is this type of seemingly trivial respect that we desperately need around the world. We need to look after each other and care for the well-being of each other. Until we can do that, each and every one of us will continue being lost on some level.

Just then, the conductor announced on the loudspeaker, “This station is Sasazuka.” I felt content as I stepped off the train that night. I had found myself again, in more ways than just one.

Kinkaku-ji Temple, Japan

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