Eugene is friendly and has joined our trivia team a couple of times when his family is MIA. He blushes when I tell him he speaks English very well. He’s only 20 and a student at university in Malaysia where he was born and has lived his entire life. He tells me he learned English in school, where it is compulsory along with Mandarin Chinese and Malay.
Eugene has never been to an English-speaking country but he’s been to other countries in Asia and not too long ago visited Europe, where the Coliseum in Rome was his favorite tourist attraction. He loves ruins, he tells me.
Eugene is the only non-Westerner passenger I’ve met onboard Diamond Princess so far. That’s despite the fact that the majority of people on this cruise, perhaps just under 50 percent, are from Japan, which isn’t surprising considering the ship has been sailing from Yokohama, Japan for about two months, and will stay in the region before heading Down Under to Australia in November.
In order to cater to the Japanese market, Diamond Princess underwent a multimillion dollar refurbishment to add spaces like Izumi Japanese Bath and Kai Sushi, as well as Japanese-style toilets and décor. At least half the crew speak Japanese and the rest are encouraged — and monetarily incentivized — to learn the language; all speak English. Entertainment is offered in English and Japanese, with some shows offered only in one or the other language.
There is a comfortable balance between the two sets of passengers: Japanese and Westerners (including many of Asian descent who now live in North America or Australia). I have yet to meet any of the Japanese passengers though, most of who are older and speak little English. But I receive a smile on the elevator and an arigato (thank you) when I let them pass first in a hallway.
As a rule, the Japanese passengers are quiet, but eager to participate in anything interactive, whether it be dancing or a 60-second challenge to see who is the first to get a balloon into a bag using only their head (for instance). Demonstrations on the ship are packed — everything from ballroom dancing to vegetable carving and towel folding.
Having read some of the early reviews of Diamond Princess, post-refurbishment, which were dominated more by Japanese passengers and which, therefore, had less English-language programming, I had expected to feel like a fish out of water.
Instead, I have found that sharing Diamond Princess with so many Japanese passengers makes for one of the most unique cruise experiences I’ve ever had. The casino, for example, is a ghost town much of the time, but if you want a spot at an afternoon’s arts and crafts session, you’d better get there early. And the enthusiasm the Japanese brought to learning a Western line dance or participating in a karaoke session is more enjoyable than I ever thought possible.
But it’s not just the Japanese passengers that make this cruise so unique. While every sailing on every ship I’ve ever been on has had its fair share of international passengers, North Americans have always dominated. On this cruise visiting Taiwan and South Korea, Americans and Canadians are in the minority with most passengers coming from Japan, Australia and New Zealand. That means much of the onboard entertainment is aimed at those crowds and not Americans. MUTS (movies under the stars), for instance, is as likely to broadcast an Australian Rules Football or Rugby Union match, as it is to show a Hollywood movie. And the onboard comedy shows are Australian in flavor.
It also means I’ve had the chance to meet loads of Aussies, including retired couple Ted and Sylvia, with whom my husband and I teamed up with at the very first trivia session and have not gone a day without seeing yet. I’m going to miss my new international friends when we leave the ship. And though I know I’ll always enjoy every cruise I take in the future, I can’t help wonder if a cruise ship full of North Americans is going to feel a little flat after the richness of culture this sailing has given me.