From: Peter Rivard
Date: Sat Mar 29, 2003 9:45:14 PM Japan
To: Newsletter
Subject: Faux pas

Hi, all,

       Yes, I've finally managed to commit a cultural faux pas. In three years, it's my first! Really!
       I was planning to go to a four-day high school English seminar, and I thought it would be nice to print out some business cards to give out to the kids (yup, I'm still Mr. Entertainment). Since my hobby is photography in a land where YOU ARE YOUR HOBBY, I decided to use a photo on my card--in fact, for variety, I made up two different ones. The first used one of my favorite pictures.

       I added some information in English, sized it for a business card, and printed out ten of them on one sheet as a test. As the printer started whirring, what should have been obvious after three years here finally occurred to me: "I don't think I can use this business card in Japan" (I may have used shorter words at the time). I cut it into individual cards and stuffed them into my wallet as I ran out to get sushi, thinking that I could ask any of my students if I ran into them at the restaurant--even if they told me I couldn't, in fact, use them, my stupidity would give them a laugh and explaining it to me would be a good opportunity to use English for something real.
       At the restaurant, I ran into former student Haruka and her father--I've often run into the family there, though usually with her little sister Misato, who's still my student, and without Haruka (I guess she normally doesn't deserve sushi). Haruka laughed when she saw the card, then did a pretty good job of explaining what I'd already realized: anything associated with death is big bad luck in a Buddhist country. Giving out a picture of a graveyard strikes a Japanese as really creepy, like giving out a picture of a coffin or a dead body would be for us. When she showed it to her father, he became quite serious and told me I absolutely could not give out these cards, that it would be quite offensive. Whereupon his daughter and everyone else in the place asked for one, just for the novelty of it--it was dumb enough to be funny, and no one else they know would have done it (that had pretty much been my boss' response when she saw it--"Oh, no, you can't use those. Can I have one?"). I'll probably end up giving out more of the "bad" cards than the "good" ones I made at the same time.
       The "bad" cards turned out to be a great prop at school--not only for soliciting attempts to explain Japanese culture to me in English (I love challenging the smart kids to use their limited English to explain something they wouldn't have thought they were up to), but also just for entertainment value, to show that I make mistakes, too, and to point out how cultures can differ. While some westerners aren't comfortable in a cemetery, in general we're able to find them quite beautiful, whereas my kids explained that for most Japanese cemeteries are always a bit spooky, especially at night, as in this shot. While not everyone may appreciate my photograph, I doubt it would make any westerner uncomfortable.

       So having made two versions for variety paid off, as I had a "good" card ready to go.
O genki de,


p.s.: I finally realized when listening to so many explanations of the bad feelings they evoke why Japanese cemeteries, with a few notable exceptions, are so much less attractive than ours: the notion of making a cemetery beautiful or pleasant strikes them as nothing less than perverse.


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