One experience more than any other lead me to understand the artificial constructs of Japanese society. I was at the bookstore paying for a book when I was suddenly struck by the girl working the register. She had long, wonderfully straight brown hair tied back in a ponytail with bangs hanging low on her forehead and big bright eyes that shone as she smiled at me. And what a lovely smile it was. I’ve always been a sucker for a pretty smile; and the way her whole face lit up as she took my money, wrapped up my book, and graciously thanked me for my purchase sent my head spinning. I smiled coyly back and responded with a flirtatious you’re welcome in Japanese, to which she again bowed with that enchanting smile.
I was proud of myself—she was a beautiful girl, and here she had shown me such rapt attention. I turned to catch her eye again and saw her backed against the wall, arms folded securely in front of her as she stared vacantly into the distance ignoring me who had just flirted so successfully with her. She had become a completely different person. Our interaction had finished, and there was no further need for her to even acknowledge my presence. Her face, which had once radiated such bright energy, was now blankly devoid of all emotion. The change was so abrupt and so complete that it left me feeling confused and uneasy about what I had seen.
The girl at the bookstore had been ordered by her boss to smile and bow politely at me even though she didn’t want to. She did it because she had to. I see that attitude everywhere I turn now, and I can’t make it go away.