“Stop that,” she said. “Sit still. You want people to think you’re a better person, don’t you?”
This is me, learning not to do sewing machine leg from Yasuko, my girlfriend.
“Better than whom?” I asked.
Well, Yasuko was crazy, so whatever. But she was also right. Not moving one’s limbs is actually a thing in Japan.
Next, I learned that you shouldn’t wear cologne from my girlfriend Makiko.
I’d worn cologne every day for years. Who doesn’t like the bracing scent of Old Spice? Not Japanese people, apparently, although nobody said a word. So I was beginning to think Makiko was crazy too. But it turns out that, yeah, she was also right. Japanese folks rarely wear fragrances, and like smoking, once you stop doing it, you notice just how offensive it is. Contrary to all logic, nobody wanted to smell my sweet, sweet body. Go figure.
From my girlfriend Ai-chan, I learned you’re not supposed to blow your nose in public.
“You don’t say,” I went ahead and said, stuffing a used napkin deep into my jacket pocket.
And from my girlfriend Misa, I was schooled on the fact that I shouldn’t chew gum while talking.
“Got it,” I said, and spit out a wad of Juicy Fruit.
“Now put it back in the wrapper,” she instructed.
“And throw it away.”
“I’m sorry,” I said.
I’m sure thankful to all the Japanese women who’ve worked together over the years to make me the better person I am today. Although the whole thing reminds me a bit of fourth grade, when Kurtis Mann and I got hot dogs in the school cafeteria.
“You don’t put ketchup on a hot dog!” he said.
“But I like ketchup,” I countered.
“What are you, Ken, some kinda faggot?” he replied.
You really can’t argue with that chain of logic. And so I kept my predilections closeted, and only indulged them at home, with like-minded friends. I can only hope that someday the world will accept me for the ketchup-loving faggot I was born. Anyway, Lady Gaga understands.
How hot dogs and Lady Gaga relate to Japanese customs, God only knows, but uh, hey, isn’t that AKB48 over there?
How to Study Japanese
So imagine my surprise when last weekend, I found myself sitting next to a white guy studying Japanese at Starbucks. Okay, that’s not the surprising part. Every white guy studies Japanese at Starbucks. What made this notable was the fact that he was chewing gum, wearing cologne, and blowing his nose, all while furiously powering an invisible loom.
And I was like, “Excuse me, but it won’t do you any good to study the language if you’re a walking collection of social offenses.” But of course I didn’t really say that, because I’m Japanese. And plus he was a pretty huge dude.
Now, Japanese people aren’t polite by any means. Visitors to Japan have a strange tendency to mistake custom for courtesy. Bowing isn’t polite any more than shaking hands is friendly. Which is to say that sometimes it is, and sometimes you hate the mofo but do it anyway, because that’s just what you do.
Stay in Japan long enough and you’ll see grannies shoving their way onto trains, pitching handbags like horseshoes to claim seats. Pass out drunk in the street? Hey, no problem, provided it’s the holiday season, one of a dozen yearly festivals, or any weekend. Okay, maybe the occasional weekday as well. Anyway, your polite friends will ensure your safety by promptly abandoning your ass on the sidewalk.
Or you might think that, in a country rife with influenza, covering your mouth when you cough would just be basic hygiene, but good luck with that, Jonas Salk. And good luck trying to point out the nonsensical profiling that results in Spanish people getting handed the English menu at El Borracho, while Korean folks get the Japanese menu at the Golden Dragon.
But okay, it’s “their” country. We just work, live, and die here. Whatever. Ken Seeroi’s 2017 resolution is to let more stuff go. That, and to drink less. My favorite resolutions are the ones I can recycle from year to year.
Either way, and unfortunately, it seems you can forget about following Japanese customs, politeness, or trying to fit in. Not because they aren’t valuable or important. They absolutely are. But because they’re being made irrelevant, washed away by a recent tsunami overrunning Japan’s shores. You’ve probably already seen the signs, or can guess what it is. But let’s wait till next time to face that dark wave.