To: newsletter
From: "Peter M. Rivard"
Subject: More Japanese culture and Engrish


Good morning, Western world,

      More local customs and rituals. On occasion, I go to dinner and drinking parties ("enkai") with the teachers after school (I generally drive home and ride my bike out to the enkai to save on cab fare). One of the younger teachers will act as MC, calling us to order after everyone's arrived and inviting the kocho to speak, then whatever teacher may be relevant to the reason for the enkai. Then the waitresses bring lots of big bottles of beer and a few bottles of tea; we crack these open and pour for each other (never pour your own), but we don't drink. Generally the kyoto gives the toast, as he is pretty funny (well, at least they all laugh at his jokes), closing with the magic word, "kanpai," at which we all drink. Clicking glasses is coming into practice here. Then we put our hands together and mutter "itadakimasu" ("I receive") and begin eating. There doesn't seem to be much religious thought in this (these are the least religious people in the world), but it's so ingrained that I see people with McDonalds in their cars do this before they open the bag. At the enkai, people initiate contact by pouring for each other. If your glass is full, you are obligated to drink it down a bit to make room when someone offers to pour you more. However, you can take a fake sip by just putting it to your lips, and the pourer will add just a drop, and you can politely say you've had enough, or you've switched to another beverage. In fact, at some point the sake will appear, and if you choose sake instead of beer (as I do), you decline all further beer. You don't mix beverages here. If you want to talk to someone who is not right next to you, you grab a bottle and kneel next to that person to pour for him or her. People have different degrees of zealousness about pouring, but some will never let your cup get more than one sip below the brim, others will let you get down to barely more than half a cup. Always, always, be on the lookout for emptying cups around you--your neighbor's cup running down reflects your bad manners.
      Another interesting cultural phenomenon here is the importance of formulaic speech. An example is the excessive "good morning" chanting. Also, one hears the phrase "onegai shimasu" ("please do so") everywhere; it's divorced from meaning, just being a politeness, but is especially common when someone (else) is doing something that can in any remote way be considered as for you or to you. Girls and women, especially, chant this endlessly. During tennis practice, for instance, the girl hitting practice serves will shout this just before serving, and the girl receiving lobs for practice will shout just before the other hits the ball at her. We chant it all the time in the teachers' room whenever anyone does anything--most of us don't even look up: we here "o-ne" and join in for "gai shimasu." You are never wrong to utter this phrase. I've not loitered outside bedrooms, but I strongly respect it must have a presence there, maybe in place of "don't stop!" In restaurants, the waiter will shout it into the kitchen as an order is dropped off, and the kitchen will shout it when an order is ready to be picked up. People seem to shout it at random moments for no reason that I can determine, and everybody else just picks it up and repeats it. Men sometimes pass a few minutes without saying this, but I would love to see a statistical study of how often the average Japanese woman says this in a day.
      My favorite bit of Japaneseness is with dogs. You will occasionally see a woman walking a dog and carrying tissues. After the dog has done its business, the woman will, before bagging the mess, take a tissue and wipe her little friend's tush! No one here has ever seen a man doing this. Oddly, though, dogs here are much less friendly to strangers than back home. I think the sense of the personal is tighter here, so people do not generally touch or talk to other people's dogs--the dogs aren't used to it.
      The idea of keeping the personal much more personal is also an explanation I've been offered for hygiene here. Generally, you can eat off the floor of someone's garage in Japan. You could do surgery in the back yard. However, once people leave their own property, they become inveterate litterers. People throw trash out the windows of their cars constantly (to keep the inside clean), and outdoor public places are disgusting. The beaches are the worst I've ever seen (aside from being uglified with enthusiasm and at great expense by the government). The idea of community is odd--the link to the larger society is stronger than at home as is the link within a family or company, but that with the unknown people around you barely exists. There is no shame in living in an ugly, litter-strewn, tacky neighborhood as long as your own garden is shipshape. There is no feeling of being part of a neighborhood (except where nosiness is concerned). I've talked about this with a group of middle-aged Japanese recently.
      I mentioned in today's other letter about the free kleenex. The only thing more Japanese than free kleenex is English. English is everywhere. Anything that costs more than $10 is likely to have absolutely no Japanese on it. The controls on your stereo, your car, your furnace will all be in English. Product names are in English. Many things have a paragraph of surreal corporate philosophy in English. The most amazing thing is that the people who live submerged in this stuff read none of it. For example, cars are labeled only in English, and yet none of the kids I asked the other day could identify any of the most popular cars out here by name (which is just as well as Saloon Cars, Cultuses, and Eminas [say it three times fast if you don't see the problem] are popular here). Everything has English on it (except groceries, where it could be helpful), and it's usually random. These are the entire texts of some items.

      I think when I go back to America, it'll probably take months for me to stop noticing everything as strange and funny. I'm sure I'll be sending notes like this back to all my Japanese friends. All a matter of perspective, I guess. And, to be honest, I bought a big photo of three Chinese kanji characters just because I like the look of it. They are painted on a wall in China and read, essentially, "post no bills." Now they're art. Same difference.

O genki de

Peter

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