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.
– 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.
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.