Winter Olympics: `Help,' the sign read. `We are being kidnapped by our driver!'

MIKE ROWBOTTOM ON THE JOYS OF JAPANESE PROTOCOL
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All my life, people have told me to stop hunching my shoulders and stand up straight. Finally, I have discovered a country where my natural stoop is advantageous - in that it can be mistaken for a bow.

I am still woefully ignorant about the nuances of nodding one's head in Japan, but I know this - the people here do it at you all the time, and if you do it back you are responding appropriately. You can tell that, because they nod at you again.

Before being deposited on these shores, we members of the Fourth Estate were reminded of the importance of protocol in Japanese society.

Business cards, for instance, are essential props in the social game. Conversations proceed in set patterns, moving through generally recognised stages.

And, not surprisingly, the rules regarding the treatment of Royal personages are formalised to the point of ritual.

Thus, when Princess Anne decided to travel 70 kilometres out of Nagano town centre to watch the British men's curling team on Tuesday night, there were numerous blazered officials and dark-suited security men awaiting her as she stepped off the bullet train at Karuizawa.

Two men in suits, talking into their handsets, moved ahead of the party towards a shiny black limousine waiting in the station forecourt, and opened the rear door with something of a flourish before realising that something was going terribly wrong.

The Princess, wearing sensible brown snowboots and a British Olympic padded jacket, had turned left, rather than right, and was heading in determined fashion for the team minibus.

The expression on the men's faces mingled deep incomprehension with rising alarm.

For a moment they stood frozen. Then they sprinted to catch up with the Royal party, whereupon an interpreter made a dismissive gesture towards their suddenly redundant limo. There was nothing else for it - they had to cram into the minibus as well.

Losing face is a serious business in this country.

Somewhere on the Olympic media transportation circuit there is a driver who will always look back upon these Games, and in particular his journey to Wednesday's ski jump competition, with a shudder of horror.

His - our - everbody's problems began about a mile and a half from the event site, when the single lane traffic became completely jammed.

After 20 minutes or so, with the start time fast approaching, the mood on the coach began to change. From being merely hot - through a combination of brilliant sunshine and a not-so-brilliant ventilation system - the occupants of the bus became hot and bothered.

Noticing that the snowy path beside the road was beginning to fill with pedestrians, a group of us moved to the front and asked the driver to open the door.

He did not answer, or even acknowledge our request. Instead, face set under the peak of his cap, he stared furiously out of his windscreen.

The request was repeated, politely at first, and then less politely. As the clamour of voices rose, the pressure to act in some way or other clearly became intolerable for the man at the wheel. He slammed open his side window, slammed it shut again - and resumed his furious staring.

By now a large French photographer with shaggy black hair had barged his way to the front. "Open the door!" he shouted. "This is a disgrace! This is a violation of the people."

He banged his tripod against the window, then reached down and sounded the coach horn.

Among the things I had been told before coming to Nagano was the fact that Japanese can appear verbally vague to Western visitors and have a particularly marked aversion to saying the word "No."

But as the horn blared, and the Frenchman raved, this particular Japanese person was able to overcome that national reticence. "Open the door now!" the photographer demanded. "No..no..no!" replied the driver, staring him out.

At this point, the coach was in tumult, and a tall Pole was desperately trying to engage the attention of passers-by by holding a notice to the windows.

"Help," it read. "We are kidnapped by driver!"

If that was so, our kidnapper - clearly under orders to drop media representatives only at official stops - was a man in torment.

Suddenly his attention was caught by something happening half-way down the coach. A journalist had slid open one of the large safety windows and was disappearing backwards from the vehicle.

Torn between the impulses to shut the window and remain at his post, our driver was now experiencing perhaps the worst moment of his entire life.

The sniff of fresh air was too much for me and my British colleague - we too left by the unofficial side exit. And as we trod the dazzling snow, my friend started humming the theme from The Great Escape.

I am glad for protocol, because seeing it breached is such fun.

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