Even ten years ago, the world seemed bigger. Japan still had a bit of that “Oriental” mystique, and visitors to its shores sent reports home of an exotic land populated by simple, if slightly daft, inhabitants:
“The Japanese are so friendly and polite!” (Actually, the folks who just gave you directions were Taiwanese tourists)
“Japan’s so safe and clean.” (Lots of countries are. Okay, maybe not the U.S.)
“The Japanese value harmony.” (Yeah, fear of authority will do that to people)
And visitors asked quaint, naive questions about cultural practices, such as:
“When and how should I bow?” (Not very often, and not very much)
“How should I eat sushi?” (Insert it in your mouth and chew)
“What’s a good gift for a Japanese host family?” (Buy a small, super-expensive cake from a Japanese department store, then take whatever horrible thing you carried from your home country and chuck it in the dumpster)
Minding Your Manners in Japan
Until now, I’d always maintained that visitors to Japan didn’t need some book on Japanese etiquette—oh my, you picked your nose with the wrong finger, how culturally insensitive—but instead could get by just observing others and using a modicum of common sense.
Apparently I was wrong.
I mean, well, Ken Seeroi’s never really wrong—simply overly magnanimous in this case. So that’s a good thing, right? Okay, let’s just say a bit mistaken, and leave it at that.
Because right now, there’s a tsunami overwhelming Japan’s shores, washing away all those minor niceties and subtleties of social conduct like so many matchstick houses. And I doubt there’s a seawall high enough to stop it.
The Unstoppable Wave of Screw Everybody Else
So maybe a month ago, I was in CoCo Ichibanya spooning downing this massive breakfast of vegetable and grease curry. Nothing like a spice-level 4 to really chase away the blues. And by blues, I mean hangover, of course. Granted, the laminated menu and plastic pitcher of water on your table don’t exactly qualify Coco Ichi as a fine-dining experience, but still they serve up a steaming plate of deliciousness that’ll make your heart stop, literally. I’d highly recommend it for anyone on a budget, suffering from anorexia, or training for the Tour de France. If you’ve got ten bucks and need a quick 2000 calories of saturated fat, it’s the place to go.
And at the counter was a young, black guy, sitting there eating curry.
I couldn’t believe it. None of the other customers could believe it either. The staff didn’t know what to do. Because he was eating and watching a video on his phone. And we were all listening to the same video. For some unfathomable reason, the guy wasn’t using earphones.
Honestly, I was stunned. Everyone in the place was looking at each other. I felt like, I don’t know, maybe I should say something? Like what’s the protocol here? White guy talks to black guy about etiquette of yellow guy? Or is it better for white guy to leave yellow guy to deal with black guy, and go back to eating brown guy food?
Finally, I just finished my carrots and potatoes and left. Ken Seeroi’s already got his hands full dealing with Japanese folks. I don’t need to add foreigners to the mix.
But two days later, it happened again.
Dining Out in Japan
I was in a rather fancy restaurant. Okay, I was on a date. Don’t tell my other girlfriends. We’d ordered a second bottle of pinot grigio and were eating this delightful fettuccine with langostinos in a garlic wine sauce, plus a black olive and anchovy pizza. And an arugula salad topped with avocado and ripe tomatoes. And an assorted cheese plate. And some salmon carapaccio with capers. She’s actually kind of a big girl, I guess. Healthy appetite and all. Hey, I don’t mind; Ken Seeroi’ll take anything. Whatever, that’s not the point.
So suddenly, in the middle of a mouthful of wine and fettuccine, the soft conversational buzz of the restaurant was torn to shreds by a blaring speaker. On the other side of the room, three middle-aged white women were huddled around a phone, guffawing at a video playing out loud like everyone else was invisible. I was like, Holy crap, when did this become okay?
The tide just keeps rising and rising. Next, a white guy in Starbucks, having a Skype conversation with his girlfriend, sans earphones. Who needs to hear this? And by the way, No, the two of you should not take a trip to Spain and put it on your credit cards. Jeez, save up already; it’s called delayed gratification. Google it. Apparently, the smart of the phone doesn’t rub off onto its user.
Then later, outside at Starbucks, a white woman sitting at a table, listening to music. Again, no earphones. Lady, I know your phone came with them, and you can hear music better if you use them, so why are you doing this? Not everybody freaking likes smooth jazz.
Japanese Etiquette, Indoors and Out
But okay, I figured I’d take some time out and go for a run down by the river. There, I can get away from the crowds and breathe some fresh air. Or at least new yellow particulates drifting over from China. Very relaxing, plus it burns off a bit of that curry and pizza. Running, that is, not the horrible yellow dust. And as I’m gliding along like a gazelle, suddenly I hear the sounds of a festival. And I’m like cool, because I love festivals, and plus then I’d be obliged to stop and have a beer. So that’s a win-win. But as the festival gets closer, it turns into a short blonde girl with the loudest phone in the universe strapped to her arm. Like a fit version of Radio Raheem in a jog bra.
So I’m trying to picture this. Before you go running, you’re like, Let’s see, what would make this exercise experience even better? Drinking some Gatorade? Nah, that’s not it. Putting on a fluorescent top and some Oakley’s? Well, that’s a good start but…I know! What if I attached a speaker that’s loud as fuck to my arm so everybody around me could enjoy my workout too? Yeah, that’d do the trick.
Tourists in Japan
Now, I’m gonna go out on a limb and guess these folks weren’t Japanese. And that’s great—Japan loves tourists. Bring us your Yankee dollars. I’m sure you’re from some wonderful if terribly cacophonous country. But hey, it’s all good. When I visit your house, I’ll be sure to pack a a bag of tin cans and a broom handle. But if you choose to travel in Japan, you might give a moment’s thought to the nation you’re visiting. Screw worrying about using chopsticks or how to take a bath. That’s minor stuff. If you don’t have enough common sense to realize you’re bothering the shit out of everyone within earshot, maybe you should go back to whatever barn you escaped from and sit on your hay bale until you can figure it out.
The Japanese Viewpoint
Then, a couple of weeks after we’d had dinner, I met my lady friend again. She didn’t seem to have lost much weight. But, in for a penny, in for a pound I always say, so I suggested we go round the corner to this quiet little bar for some snacks and cocktails.
It was a still night, and a light rain was falling as we walked under a row of trees with branches lit from below, and I asked her in Japanese, “Remember the other night?”
“At the restaurant?” she answered.
“Yeah, you know, with the three ladies, watching the video. Do you think I should’ve said something?”
“Maybe,” she said softly.
“Like, what would you say?”
And for the first time in a long time, she spoke English.
“I’d say,” she replied in a thick voice, “Bitches, turn off the phone and be quiet!”
I was like Whoa, somebody’s been listening to Tupac again. This definitely calls for a couple Hennessey shots.
“Yeah, I guess that’d suffice,” I said.
“Leave it to me,” she said.
So there you have it. I don’t know what the rules of etiquette are in whatever obnoxious place you come from, but here in Japan, you might want to try turning off your speakerphone. This is not a small woman you’re messing with, trust me.