The Proper (Japanese) Way

img_0128“Hey I’m at a Japanese restaurant and the rice is served perfectly round.  Should I say something?”

This question came from my son, a twenty-six year-old raised in the culture even thought he has spent his entire life in the US.  Trying to give his girlfriend an authentic experience, he’d taken her to what he thought was a legitimate Japanese establishment, but the little rice mountain sitting under his chin was a “dead” give away that it was not. Now he was dealing with what he thought was an ominous sign: rice, you see, is only to be mounded when serving ancestors.

Naw just flatten it out a bit and make the best of it.”  I told him.  

One of the very first things that attracted me to Japan was the ritualistic processes of daily life.  I noticed it the very first time I entered a Japanese home.  And how could I not as my host sister quickly pointed out how I had improperly stepped on the “dirty part” of the entryway instead of stepping out of my shoes up onto the raised section of the floor.  I had quite literally set foot in the house when already I was screwing up!

In Japan, it seems, there is a proper way to do most things.  Off the top of my head, a few of the lessons I was taught that summer in 1980 and beyond as my Japanese husband sought to “train me” to do all things correctly are:

– One should not sleep with a fan blowing over you as apparently it can cause almost instant death.

– Never bath without showering first.  If there is anyone else in the house you will be sharing the water– and even if you live alone it’s gross.

– When leaving a room do not show your backside.  Instead back out and quietly, without a sound, close the door behind you.

– Begin personal correspondence with a comment on the weather.

– Ensure all shoes in the entryway are pointing out.  Men in the house often expect their wives and mothers to orient their shoes; while women leave their shoes properly oriented every time.

– There is a proper way to sit at one’s desk and prescribed method of holding a pencil to write.  This is taught early on at school.

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– Guests are to be served first– and the service is to continue with the wife hardly taking a seat.

– A good wife will refill the glasses of the the males as they drink and never allow a glass to go much below half before offering to refill.

– The pointed end of the chopsticks should point left; the same side the rice bowl is to be placed.

– Sweeping the floor should not involve grand motions that could raise any bit of dust.

– Wiping cloths should be folded neatly and refolded often to expose a clean side while cleaning.

– Women should not laugh loudly in public.

– Look busy even if you are not.

– Even police chasing a criminal would remove their shoes before entering a home.  Never ever, under any circumstances, let the bottom of your footwear touch an inside surface.

– When setting anything down on a table, ensure to glide it into place so as not to make a sound.

– Arrive before your boss; leave after.

– Never make excuses for a mistake.  Just accept the blame and try never to make the same error.

– Offer and receive with two hands– all the while looking intently at the object as it is passed.

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Coming from what I would describe as a rural, blue-collar Midwest home where there was essentially no protocol beyond mowing the yard in relatively straight cuts, you can imagine how difficult it was for me to adjust to the subtle nuances that defined how every small task should be accomplished…properly.  Especially, as I became a Japanese housewife at a very young age with little information and one very cruel teacher…my lessons on how to do this or that were often followed by internalized fits of tears.

My response to my son’s question last night, texted from the bogus joint somewhere near Detroit, was not the one his father would have given.  It would not surprise me if, in fact, his father would have recommended scolding the wait  staff and leaving his meal untouched.  But I, having left behind many of the trappings of my former life as a Japanese wife– and knowing for certain that no one dies from improperly served rice, told him to let the insignificant indiscretion go and enjoy his evening out.

***

In a forthcoming “Part II” on Japanese processes, I’ll expand on how this protocol can be both beneficial; but at the same time undermine the very culture that demands it.

 

 

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24 thoughts on “The Proper (Japanese) Way

  1. I really admire your bravery and perseverance! Even though I am an Asian, I’ve declined an arranged blind date with a Japanese. I knew that I wouldn’t be able to stand the constant disciplining given my free spirited nature.
    Too many rituals was also one of the reason I dropped Kendo. Japanese sensei were too strict for my taste and had an unintentional way of making non-Japanese felt discouraged. I fare better at Taekwondo. Also, the reason I sucked at Japanese was because my Nihongo sensei refused to explain in a language other than in Japanese and expected me to guess. I can’t change sensei as everyone else preferred another sensei. Due to popular demand, the other sensei refused to accept more student so that she won’t offend anyone. I was stuck and miserable for a year but that was the way things work in public universities. It had been a great learning experience though. At least I got a taste of the Japanese rigidity.

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    • I am not surprised by your teachers’ demands. This manner creates pressures for students and results in somewhat odd outlets for the Japanese. Thus we all can enjoy Japanese creativity that is born of their escapism tendencies. To understand how some rather strange and often perverse/twisted manga, anime and other post modern (and even older) arts come to be, it is good to understand that what seems disciplined on one hand can be painfully restraining. Why not just relax in the first place?

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  2. Love this post. One of the hardest things to grasp about another culture is not just that the same behavior may be tolerated or not, be given moral weight or not, but that some behaviors aren’t even named and effectively don’t exist. Students would ask me “what is the right way of doing x in America?” with the assumption that it was some similarly defined, but different, action. Often there was no action, it wasn’t named, or in almost cases definitely wasn’t a target of value judgments for doing it a “right” or “wrong” way.

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    • Especially years ago, when we were less culturally, racially, and overall socially sensitive we were a much loser lot of folks. I remember going to town barefoot and enjoying a very free existence without many social norms. Nowadays there is a need to be mindful of our speech in public and take care so as not to offed; otherwise there is little need to worry about how this or that is done as we can always claim style! While the customs of Japan are quaint and often useful (sometimes efficient or aesthetic), it garners a need to let lose somehow, someway. Karaoke comes to mind as a nice outlet that seemed to be a private version of nodojiman that boomed first in the 80’s with private karaoke booths. There are quite a few examples; both the cool and perverse. Thank you for your comment!

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  3. There’s a lot of these I do not do. Some I had never even heard before. I just chalk up my ignorance to not being Japanese and no one ever told me some of these things. My husband sure didn’t. Sometimes he expects me to just know. Uh…still not Japanese, I remind him. Also, I’m pretty proud of my loud American laugh. At first he was shocked, but I think he’s gotten used to it. It’s not going anywhere.

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    • Yeah Pink…I believe you have a strong sense of yourself which I know you will maintain. I was with my ex just as I turned 17. And he was super traditional. So I was trainable. All of this was way before the internet. But even so on the late nineties those points about work life were totally at play.

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      • I think the one about sliding the food on the table. It sounds a bit showy and ridiculous to me. I didn’t know about sweeping but it makes sense. I didn’t know about the busy one either though I try to look busy so people won’t ask me to do stuff. 😀

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      • Haha, perhaps I should not have used the term “slide,” but because I do not have the ability to set something easily without making a “slight clunk,” I have to kind of hover glide objects into place. Y wording was influenced by my blindness.

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  4. I have a question! How do you respond when people offer you food or suddenly gives you some type of gift.

    I seriously don’t know how to react. If I should accept it or not and if I should how should I accept it.

    In my culture, if someone offers you food, even if you don’t want, you have to accept it. And at least try the food once in their presence.

    And if they offer you gifts you must accept it but always saying something like “oh no you didn’t have to” or something along those lines. In my culture they don’t expect gratitude. I mean, it’s weird. You must say thank you but in a sense they don’t expect it. It’s just, people dont think too much about it I guess from where I come from.

    I don’t know about the Japanese. I’m a bit confused about how to properly react.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi Elizabeth! I remember receiving food often (both gift packaged and in household containers) and sometimes a homemade craft item. Generally we did not unwrap or open boxes, but just received both hands extended and head bowed with a thank you. There is no need to ooh and ahh or make any big deal; not need to reciprocate…that is unless the person has given you a reuasable tupper or the like; or visits your home. All reusable tuppers/containers should be refilled within a few weeks with some similar food– preferrably your homemade fare. “You shouldn’t have!” modesty is not something I heard very often. I remember giving an old woman (Nakagawa san from my stories…) the designer sunglasses off of my face because she was squinting in the sun and I told her to please keep them as she had no where to go to buy a pair on her own. The accepted gratefully, and the next week she passed me ichimanen in an envelope. I tried to push it back to her as I in no way needed money, but I could tell it would hurt her not to “pay something” for the shades. I thanked her for the money.

      One of my mistakes early on was in using the term “gokurousama” when a neighbor stopped to give me a lift with her car. That term, I was told later, was for someone who was doing your favor as a duty! So in that way, I had thanked her for doing my service. It is a difficult term to use, but most often it is used between people who are closer to each other. My mother -in-law often used it to me when I did some duty to assist her. I hope this helps! I enjoy your casual diary-style writing!

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      • Thank you so much for your reply! I think I have responded wrongly a few times 😅 now I know!
        Your blog was very helpful. I had noticed what you described before, but didn’t know that is considered the proper way! I sometimes get really anxious because I don’t know if I’m doing something wrong.
        Thanks for reading my blog too. I’m glad you enjoy it though it has many typos most of the time!!

        Liked by 1 person

  5. […] “The Proper (Japanese) Way” is the manner by which this or that action is to be effectively carried out in Japanese social contexts.  The prescribed method is most often an aesthetic etiquette that sometimes has practical applications in that it can facilitate the action being accomplished efficiently well or “lean” as they say in business environments. […]

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  6. Oh my goodness, it must be so stifling to live like that! But then, if you iknow no better I suppose it doesn’t matter. Very interesting. I expect it must be a relief to have been able to shed the rigidity.
    Thank you so much for the follow 🙂

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  7. It was a different life that’s for sure! There are a couple of other books by women married to Japanese and they really have gotten into the routines (as I did), but it seems they are married to more modern men who are not abusive as was my case.

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