Every time I enter a crowded elevator or the hotel breakfast room it happens. Immediately everyone shrinks slightly and turns away from me, a subtle but noticeable shift. As a non-Japanese travelling most mostly among nationals I’m not sure how, but I immediately understand the situation.
My body, on the other hand, responds with visceral shock. When I tell the story, Westerners respond the same way: How horrible. Yet from the moment it first happened my intuition understood something else.
The gesture is a lovely and touching gift. In a crowded society where personal space is at a premium, people demonstrate their good manners by making themselves a little smaller and turning away.
By doing so, they tacitly say: Hai dozo. Please come in. There is room for you. See? We’ve all tightened a little to fit you in. Please, don’t worry; we won’t intrude on you. Please, be at ease.
How easily I might have mistaken their readiness to include me for rejection.