I’m sitting at the airport, waiting for my flight home and (OY) to another conference, I had some time to reflect about my time in Japan.

The New York Times Magazine published an article titled “The fierce imagination of Haruki Murakami” and it begins:

“I prepared for my first-ever trip to Japan, this summer, almost entirely by immersing myself in the work of Haruki Murakami. This turned out to be a horrible idea. Under the influence of Hurakami, I arrived in Tokyo expecting Barcelona or Paris or Berlin – a cosmopolitan world capital whose straight-talking citizens were fluent not only in English but also in all the nooks and crannies of Western culture: jazz, theater, literature, sitcoms, film noir, opera, rock’n roll. But this, as really anyone else in the world could have told you, is not what Japan is like at all. Japan – real, actual, visitable Japan – turned out to be intensely, inflexibly, unapologetically Japanese.”

This was the second time in Japan for me. The first time I didn’t care for it. I stayed just in Tokyo, visited many sights, enjoyed what I saw but, in the end, it left me cold. It happens. There are many places that will leave me cold no matter what: Hannover, Dallas, Brussels. They are just names, cities, a lot to see, nothing to experience. Nothing to feel. (For me, anyway.)

Japan is a tough nut to crack. Barely anybody speaks English enough to have a real conversation (I got much luckier this time.), the restaurants can be divided into two categories: the ones with pictures/food replicas outside (signaling tourist trap) and the ones without any English anywhere. I refused to eat tourist trap food, and so you end up eating cartilage soup once in a while and your whole world is reduced to pointing at stuff. Japanese behavior and mannerisms are so different from the Western world, it’s astonishing how foreign you can feel in one of the global hubs of the world. Last year I left thinking: I might not return. One time is enough.

It was never Japan. It was always me.

I was invited to speak again at ad:tech Tokyo this year and since I could combine it with a workshop in Kyoto, I decided to head out again.

This time it was different.

I’m not sure what it was: Expecting the feeling to be a foreigner in a foreign world. Leaving the Tokyo bubble and heading out to Hiroshima and Kyoto. Having real conversations not just pointing wars. Maybe it was all of these things that allowed to look behind the mask of Japan that each foreign visitor encounters.

Coming from a different world, Japan feels very uniform and like a conformist society. I’m sure that’s true but it also is completely wrong. In many ways, Japans has many rules and everybody makes up their own. Let me give you an example: I rented a bike yesterday and visited a few places in Kyoto while enjoying a glorious 80 degree day. As you know, you have to ride on the left side. I asked the rental place about any specific rules. His answer: “There are too many. Just don’t bother.” Sounds more like Italy, not Japan.

He was right.

The sidewalks are split for pedestrian and bike usage. You see people walking on the bike lane, bikes riding on the pedestrian lane. Left, right – who cares? It was complete anarchy. My head spun. This is Japan, this is not Paris or New York where you make up rules on the fly. No, it was more chaotic without ever being chaotic. When people blocked the whole sidewalk, you just approach them slowly without any bells or cursing. Eventually, they will move to the side. Imagine that in Germany? 10 seconds in fist fights would break out. “This is my lane.” “Move to the side, f*+*&$% idiot.”

It felt so liberating to ride the bike in Kyoto. No real rules, just making sure not to hit anyone and not to be hit. Suddenly, a society filled with school kids wearing the same hats and school uniforms, where uniqueness seems to be lost in translation, suddenly that country felt more liberated and relaxed than any other place I’ve ever been before.

We make judgements way too quickly

Rob Campbell wrote a great post about the Chinese story that makes its rounds around the world: A little girl  who was run over in a Chinese city and then ignored by multiple passers-by, despite writhing in agony and suffering from obvious serious injury. Horrific behavior but as bad is our tendency to apply the judgement of a few to a whole country. Suddenly, every Chinese person is cold and heartless.

We’re so quick to judge:

Every Arab is a terrorist.

Every German is either a Nazi or an engineer.

Every person from the South is a hick.

Every Greek is a tax evader.

Every banker is an unethical pig.

Every unemployed person is lazy.

I know, we need to make quick judgments to survive in this world. But we owe it to ourselves to keep our minds open. All the time. People evolve. People change. And our opinions of them should, too.