It rained last week. And as I walked into the lobby of my Japanese office building, there was my coworker in front of me, the strawberry-blonde gal who speaks pretty good Japanese. And perhaps because she’d mostly mastered the language, it was surprising to note she’d failed to successfully navigate the entire minefield of Japanese customs: she hadn’t wrapped up her umbrella. You know that little strap you wind around to hold the umbrella closed? Yeah, she hadn’t done that. This is the Japanese equivalent of not zipping up your fly.
Sure, it was just a minor oversight, but that’s the point. Because in this country, every minor thing’s somehow a major thing. I’m trying to think of a way to put this nicely, but um, Japan’s anal as fuck. Yeah, really no way to spruce up that phrase.
The Eraser Incident
I first discovered this when my old girlfriend and I visited two of her friends at their apartment. After dinner, I jotted down some Japanese words I was trying to remember, and then at one point erased one of the words. Suddenly, the entire conversation stopped and they all gazed at me in horror.
“What?” I said.
“E-e-eraser pieces on the floor!” my girlfriend stammered, in the exact same tone an American would say, “You just backed yer car over ma dawg!”
Thus commenced five minutes of us attempting to pick microscopic eraser sweepings from the floor while deeply apologizing.
Chopsticks on the First Date
So what I’ve learned about Japanese customs is that small things matter a disproportionate amount. Take this first date I went on with a rather plain-looking Japanese girl. Actually, I’d remembered her as a whole lot more attractive when I met her at a Tokyo networking event, but then maybe I’d had a few cocktails.
Anyway, I’d dressed nicely, even taken a shower, made a reservation at this fancy restaurant, and just as we were about to commence with dinner, she said,
“You know, that’s not how you’re supposed to pick up chopsticks.”
Then she proceeded with detailed instructions. Apparently, Ken Seeroi shouldn’t just grab at them like a savage and start eating. Oh no, he’s to gently grasp the little sticks with his right paw in an overhand fashion, then rest them briefly on the left paw as he switches to an underhand grip. At which point I believe you’re free to begin shoveling food into your pie hole.
This served to underscore two points. The first, that I’d never be able to do even simple things right; and second, that my date was a little bitch. Sorry, I really gotta work on speaking more delicately. Suffice to say she was Japanese.
Japanese Customs no one Tells you About
Over the years, I’ve come to learn so many fascinating things about Japan. That when you visit a house or office in the winter, you take off your coat outdoors. That when you approach the cashier at a store, you have your money out and ready, and keep your bills neat and crisp rather than just folded and stuffed into your jeans. That in the summer, you don’t go outside without a shirt on, even on your own balcony. That you also don’t talk on the phone on said balcony for fear of disturbing your neighbors. And while you’re at it forget about ever listening to your stereo at volume.
Everyone knows that when you set the table, the rice goes on the left. Unless you’re eating curry and then perhaps it goes on the right. That if you pour soy sauce into a dish, you drip in an amount appropriate for a newborn infant. That if you’re a male visitor to someone’s home, you sit to pee to avoid splashing. Come to think of it, that likely applies to women as well. That if you use the shower, you meticulously pick up any stray hairs afterward. And that when you leave, you keep on waving Bye until the person’s out of sight.
The Endless List of Japanese Customs
There’s no end to the spoken and unspoken Japanese customs. You don’t set your purse or bag on the ground. Instead, you sit with it uncomfortably behind you on the chair. Before you throw away a plastic bottle, you remove the cap and rip off the label. After lunch, you brush your teeth, using an up-and-down motion. Before you go to bed, you take a shower. After you use the toilet, you wash your bum. You don’t snack at your desk. You never chew gum and you never whistle, except at festivals. You don’t smile for photos and cover your mouth when you laugh. And don’t laugh too much. In public, try to affect a facial expression somewhere between depressed and pissed off. By now, that shouldn’t be too hard to accomplish.
Really, an Endless List
You clean your dog’s paws before you bring little Hachi-chan into the house. If you have a wheelchair, you wipe off the wheels. You never wear cologne, perfume, or use scented hair products. You wash your sneakers but not your jeans. You take off your sunglasses when you greet someone, and your hat when you bow. You don’t honk when you drive, but cheerfully let people cut you off. You don’t talk on a cell phone indoors in public, and that goes double for the train. You don’t run to catch that train, but you can run to the station with your arms down like a zombie, particularly if it’s the last train.
Wow, You’re Really Japanese
Now, do all Japanese people follow all rules? Of course not. Japan’s a big nation with a lot of different people. But most folks know there’s a proper way to eat grapes, peel tangerines, and slice onions. Those’d be the Japanese ways, of course, not your freaky foreign ways. Japanese customs dictate a right and wrong way to stand, sit in a chair, ride an elevator, clap your hands, tie your shoes, and pour a beer.
Japanese customs don’t dictate following any one rule in particular. Rather, you need to be painfully aware of all rules and every thing. Every tiny, ridiculously unimportant thing. Heh, and it used to be that when people said, “Wow, Seeroi Sensei, you’re really Japanese,” I thought it was a compliment. These days, I’m not so sure. I wish I wasn’t shocked by my coworker’s umbrella, her inappropriate blouse, and the small tattoo on her back. Apparently, being Japanese is like eating potato chips, which of course, there’s a correct way to do too. Yeah, you really don’t want to be Japanese. ‘Cause once you start, it’s mighty hard to stop.