Thoughts on the Plane: Flight UA1384 to Bangkok

Once an Immigration officer asked me jokingly if I lived on a plane, my passport is so full of country stamps. I have flown a great deal in many parts of the world for the past decade and have many stories to tell about these travels even in the planes!

Lately I have been meeting more and more rather boisterous passengers who sometimes travel in large groups by air. I don’t want to mention the country, but if I hear a group of rather excitable travelers checking in at the gate, I know that there might be trouble in the flight ahead.

Inconsideration seems to be on the rise among passengers. I have seen passengers that don’t seem to care that the backpacks or bags they are carrying hit every passenger seated in the aisle seats as they scramble to sit down. I have seen passengers complain loudly if there is a bag in the compartment above their seat, even removing the baggage of others and placing it in the aisle so they could store their own luggage directly above their seat.  I have seen whole families completely ignore seat assignments and take over a section of the plane regardless of their actual assigned seat. When asked to move to their proper seat by attendant staff, these families would argue loudly and refuse to move for many minutes. I have watched as these families talked loudly across the aisles with one another, even cough and spit phlegm on the floor,  shaved their faces and brushed their teeth in the aisles. These are also the kind of passengers that kick the seat in front of them if the passenger in the forward seat tries to recline their seat or comb their hair onto neighboring passengers.

There is so much more of this kind of behavior these days, it is not surprising that the flight attendants seem a little more tired and unfriendly; they don’t seem to smile as brightly these days…

Once you board the plane, you obviously cannot get off until you have reached your destination; you are trapped in a completely enclosed space, surrounded by other passengers sometimes for up to 5 to 6 hours at a time. If surrounded by boisterous passenger groups, the flight attendants words “Please relax and enjoy your flight” can feel like an empty wish.

One problem, especially when flying international flights in Asia is that sometimes the flight attendant staff does know how to distinguish people from different Asian countries by looks. As a Japanese person, I have more than once been thought of as part of a very boisterous group from another Asian country because the flight attendant did not know the difference. This is also a reflection on the reputation of the Japanese people which before reflecting I found disconcerting.

Most of my travels are international, and except for connecting flights, I rarely fly domestically in the U.S.

I did have an opportunity to fly to Philadelphia however, and was mildly surprised to find some of the same boisterous behavior on a domestic flight in the USA.

Just as the crew was about to shut the gates, a young woman boarded the plane dragging an extremely large suitcase. Her seat was assigned next to me and I rose to help her store her luggage in the overhead compartment since she was too short to reach it. I made room for her bag and as I stored her luggage for her, she sat down on her seat and began playing with her cell phone. It was my pleasure to help her, but I was a little surprised that she did not bother to even say “thank you”. The young lady then started to talk to the woman across the aisle from her and talked consistently for the next 3 hours; every minute, from take off to landing in Philadelphia…

Her monologue began with her birth place and the purpose of her coming to the United States. Soon however it turned into a tirade about discrimination in the U.S., United States hegemony in troubled areas of the world and the weakness of democracy. Finally she began to recite “history” of Japanese misdeeds after World War II with the people of her country and an island that she insisted was part of her country territory. The women held captive by the young passenger did what she could to listen to the 3 hour oration with pleasantries and weak smiles.

This was an early morning flight and many of the passengers were trying to sleep. I couldn’t sleep however as I found myself angered by the untrue history she was reciting next to me about the Japanese.

My mind flashed to a memory of children I had met in Ankara, Turkey. These children approached me at a historical site; an old castle in Ankara. They were amateur guides that worked for pennies, but had a lot of information to tell me about the castle. When I asked them a question however, they could not answer and would just start over with the information they knew. It dawned on me that their recital was not based on understanding the words they spoke; they were just words they had memorized.

I had seen this before in a Muslim orphanage for boys in Bangladesh; boys about 4 or 5 years old reciting the Koran facing a wall. Even at that age, they could recite volumes of scripture by memorizing and repeating phrases for up to 10 hours a day for weeks on end. I wondered, “Does this kind of education even exist in Japan or the United States?

The young lady on the plane was from a country adjacent to Japan. She was on her way to Philadelphia to attend a prestigious University in Pennsylvania after finishing her English studies in Denver. She had obviously received a good education however; by listening to her I realized she was much like the children in Ankara and Bangladesh. She had not been educated as a critical thinker nor had she developed any sort of sophistication in her understanding of the world.  I actually began to feel sorry for her, she basically had just been brainwashed to believe what she was suppose to believe.

When we finally landed in Philadelphia, I turned to the woman who had been listening to this young lady for 3  hours and said “You are very patient”. She replied, “It was a good study. I am sure you love her country too” she said with an ironic smile.

The young lady began to nag me to get here luggage down for her from the overhead compartment. After obliging her request, she did not say thank you as she clambered for the exit. I wondered if she even knew that there had been a Japanese person sitting next to her the entire flight…

Her country of origin mandates a “one child per couple policy” and she probably grew up with all of the benefits of an only child in a wealthy family; comfort, higher education and material wealth. Her morality and manners were woefully lacking however, evidenced in the fact that she did not even say thank you to an old man for helping her with her luggage. Her attitude was a reflection of a national attitude I believe that is still reflected in international relationships. “Me, me, me – more, more, more”.

I hope this young lady learns well at the University she is going to attend in Pennsylvania. I hope that she will be able to learn about common sense, respect, morality and true democracy. The lady that had to listen to her the entire flight handled the conversation with wisdom and good manners. I just felt mad, but that is a sign of my own short temper towards this young lady.

As I exited the plane, a boy ahead of me with his mother dropped his jacket. I picked it up and returned it to him. He took the jacket quietly saying nothing until his mother asked him firmly, “What do you say?” The boy replied, “Thank you” in a small voice. The mother thanked me too. With just those two words, “Thank you”, I forgot what had just happened in the plane.


The words “Thank you” are two words God gave human beings to build relationships between all people. It does not matter what kind of status you have achieved if you do not understand appreciation and have the ability to say “Thank you”, you will never be blessed with the richness this life can give.

There is a phrase that is still popular in the continent of Asia; a phrase that originated centuries ago.; “E Shoku Tarite Reisetsu o Shiro”. Generally this translates to mean, “People must first be fed. Only when there has been enough to eat will propriety, manners, appreciation and respect for others be possible”. Today there are countries that  have achieved wealth, technological development and a level of luxury, i.e. they have been fed, but have not yet achieved “reisetsu” or an appreciation and respect for others on an international level. Well fed, well bred but not yet understanding manners and appreciation.


Oh boy! I think I had better take a deep breath! It sounds like have nothing but criticism to say! I need to turn my focus around and think about how this experience relates to me. I don’t think that it is really fair to reflect on the behavior of those from other countries unless I look at my own country too. Do the Japanese have room to criticize, really?

Much of what I have experienced with this new generation of travelers is a side effect I think from a rapidly rising economy. There was a time when the Japanese economy was at its peak; a “bubble economy” we call it, when Japanese travelers too left a very bad impression in the world; an impression that we are still trying to recover from.

Back in the day, Japanese tourists and businessmen as well unleashed themselves on the world! Famous international resorts and historical sites were flooded with large groups of Japanese tourists led by guides holding signs and shouting in Japanese over megaphones to keep their groups in line. Souvenir shops and guide services catered to the Japanese, hawking their wares with Japanese phrases.

These groups of Japanese tourists paid little mind to others around them. I remember seeing a large group of ladies using BOTH the ladies and the men’s restrooms at the same time for convenience. I ran into a woman coming out of the men’s room and thought I had mistakenly gone into the wrong restroom!

I also remember watching other tourists trying to take photos of their friends in front of a landmark as large groups of Japanese tourists marched through their shot, oblivious of those around them.

It used to be a common sight to see Japanese men wearing jinbei (casual summer clothes for men) and zori (Japanese sandals) accompanied by groups of young local girls, stumbling from bar to bar on all day bar tours in the Philippines and Thailand. It still is a common sight in Manila.

At the peak of the Japanese “bubble economy”, so many Japanese men traveled to the Philippines and Thailand, spreading money everywhere on wine, women and song that an entire industry sprang up catering to their indulgences. Even today after clearing customs and immigration at the Manila airport in the Philippines, airport staff chase after Japanese travelers shouting “Shacho san (boss man), do you need a Philippine wife or do you want a Philippine girlfriend”? Such rude welcomes to a foreign country, but you have to ask, “Who made this Japanese  stereotype”?

During those “good old days” I remember a Japan Airlines steward, who happened to be one of my students told me, “Japanese families behave very differently on flights depending if the flight is headed to North America or Asia. Japanese families when headed to North America, keep their kids in line and reprimand and control them if they start acting up. Japanese families when headed to Asia seem less inclined to control their children and don’t seem to care if their children are noisy or bother other passengers.

“Why the difference in behavior?” I asked. He replied, “It was a Japanese attitude at that time that seemed to look down on other Asian people and up to Westerners”. The collective reputation of the Japanese became so negative internationally that Japanese manners and behavior became a national topic domestically and a national campaign to change.

Now when I see boisterous inconsiderate groups on planes I must remind myself of how other Asian people used to feel about the Japanese.

Seeing this old behavior reincarnated in people from other countries might just be copied behavior that has come to equated with wealthy status; behavior remembered from the Japanese, behavior that Emily (translator of this article) says Europeans used to label as “the ugly America” in the 70’s.


In recent times, friction has arisen between Japan and neighboring countries over conflicts as long ago as WW2. Political struggles settled long ago historically carry nationalistic bitterness that lingers even generations later. This bitterness is difficult to overcome…

How do we repair this lingering damage from past conflicts and experiences between countries? I believe through communication. Communication between everyday people, with a slow and steady commitment to renewed understanding through cultural exchange.

On the flight to Philadelphia, the young woman’s long dissertation on the evils of Japan was based on stereo types and filtered history taught to her about conflicts 2 to 3 generations ago.  Interestingly, this girl of a new generation  did not mention anything about the territorial expansion on land and territorial waters  of her country that so many Asian countries are worried about today.

There is much to do to heal these wounds.

The plane is starting to descend into Bangkok so my time is up. I have lots more I would like to write but it will have to wait until next time. We are about to land and the large group of passengers behind me is still chatting noisily, obviously having had a lot to drink.

Wait a minute…they are speaking Japanese!

Gaku Homma
In the air over Thailand
March 25th, 2015