Today marks the last day of my short and sweet two-week stay in my hometown, Tokyo.
First thing that I immediately notice about Tokyo whenever I come home is the amazing efficiency of its public transportation system. Trains run right on the dot to the second, and this is nothing short of a miracle if you are used to transportation in other cities, especially considering the sheer number of people that depend on this system to work this well in order for Tokyo’s economy to keep on going day in and day out. If Tokyo’s public transportation were to suddenly cease to exist, the hit to the economy will be on the order of billions of dollars every single day.
From the well thought-out UI design on the signs all over Shinjuku station that direct people to the exact platform amongst the dozens of platforms of all the different train lines that run through there, to the software-driven timely announcements that inform people of the status of the trains about to arrive and how they can stand to make getting off and on the trains efficient and quick, to the railroad employee who sets up the ramp for a customer in a wheel-chair and contacts some other employee at some other station about the exact train, car and door number where this person is expected to get off so he can be greeted and helped off the train at his destination, to the IC cards that every passenger carries which electronically records the origin and destination of each of our trips to automatically deduct the correct fare without anyone having to stand in line, all of these little things are executed in perfect coordination to transport millions of people every day so they all get to their respective destinations at the exact time they had planned to get there. To me, Tokyo’s public transportation is a work of art, and the people that made it are artists. This is art because it is unique. There is nothing like it anywhere else in the world.
Speaking of art and Tokyo, I am thankful to have met one artist, Bidu, on this trip.
I use the term “artist” in a general sense. To me, an artist is a person who creates something original. Just because a person draws, plays music, or writes, does not mean that that person is an artist. In contrast, one does not have to partake specifically in those activities to be an artist. For instance, Bidu is a kitchen worker at Google Japan. Perhaps not what people imagine when they hear “artist”.
When you use a Google product, do you think about the people that made it possible? Probably not, but even if you do, maybe you just think about Larry and Sergey whom the public often credits as having built everything Google. If you’re a bit more versed in how software works, maybe you think about the engineers who wrote the code. But I bet you don’t think about the kitchen worker. But Bidu is just as crucial to Google’s products as anyone working at Google.
Bidu is an artist. If you work for Google and have been to the cafe at the Tokyo office, you know who he is, because he most likely greeted you with his big smile as soon as you walked in and asked how your day was going.
On my first day, I just smiled back, and told him that I’m slightly jet-lagged, but otherwise great. I got my food and sat down.
Second day, he greeted me again, so I smiled back again and sat down, but this time close to him where I could hear him as I ate my food. I noticed that he is a bilingual, talking fluent English and Japanese depending on who came in.
Third day, I sat facing the direction where he was working to see him work. I noticed that he actually does more than just greet people. He helps people find what they’re looking for, directed the traffic as the cafe got crowded, transports clean utensils and bowls from the kitchen to the pile as they run low, cleans little spills here and there as people grab the food, and manages to throw in conversations with many people all while doing his job, forming connections. Then a blind person walked in. He immediately took notice and gave him the run down of the stations and the kinds of foods available at each, and made him a plate of all the foods that he wanted.
Fourth day, I noticed that he is actually not just bilingual. He was chatting up with one of the employees in French, so add that to his list of languages.
Fifth day, I got really curious so I asked him if he spoke any other languages. It turns out that he is not just trilingual and his mother tongue isn’t even Japanese, English, or French. He is from the Democratic Republic of Congo, and he grew up learning one of the indigenous languages spoken in his home.
One day the following week, I did not sleep well the previous night so came in a bit tired. He noticed and told me, “You look tired. Grab some coffee, great food, feel refreshed, and ‘ganbatte’ with your job.” (Ganbatte is one of those Japanese words that don’t have a direct English translation, but it’s kind of like “Fight On!”)
You see why I call him an artist. He is not just following some manual of what a kitchen worker ought to do. He is paying close attention to the needs of the people, and is creating an awesome dining experience for the people that come in during their busy and often stressful workday.
We are often led to believe that the dent we can make in this world depends on our job titles. Well, that is simply not true. A job is just your platform, and to quote Khalil Gibran, “work is love made visible.” The art that you make depends on you, not your title. This is true specially in this day and age when the needs of the world changes so quickly and whatever job you trained for will get outdated very quickly. But no matter what life has led you up to this point, if you have a job, somebody is paying you to do what you do, which means there is value in what you do. So are you going to treat it as such, and make art with it? Or are you going to be a cog in a machine and treat your job as some menial task? The choice is yours.