This weekend I've been thinking about Japan quite a bit. I'm working on something new about my adventures in Japan, but first I wanted to post this again. It's funny how much I miss that place.
Originally posted on Observatons of a Misfit
March 11, 2005
Mostly Bizarre, With a Chance of Showers
When I volunteered to serve a mission for my church, it never occurred to me that I would end up in Japan. When I got the letter telling me where I’d be serving, I was stunned. I’d never really been out of Utah, other than a few weeks in California. I had no idea what to expect. Nevertheless, I was determined to succeed. Therefore, I prepared, as most people would, with
the time-honored study method of watching "The Karate Kid II." This was very helpful, as I learned two very important facts: first, many people in Japan have a tendency to converse in Japanese. And, secondly, that America and Japan are very different cultures in almost every conceivable way, especially where manners are concerned.
If I were to describe the 18 months I spent in Japan with a single word, I’d have to say it was “wet.” At the risk of over generalizing, I would estimate that it rains at least 360 days a year in Japan. But one word is not enough to describe a country with Japan’s culture, ancient history, art, and its staggering beauty and traditions. Therefore, I would also like to choose the word, and I say this with the deepest possible respect, “bizarre”.
From the moment I stepped off the plane, I was suddenly illiterate. I heard conversations that I didn’t understand. I saw billboards and neon signs (the Japanese are very fond of neon) that I couldn’t read. I felt like I had suddenly lost several IQ points. Fortunately, as I looked out the car window (trying not to notice the steering wheel was on the wrong side and the sensation that no one was driving the car) I finally saw, shining through the torrential downpour of the early April evening a shining beacon of familiarity: the Golden Arches. It wasn’t much, but it was beautiful to me.
Missionaries are not permitted to be alone, ever. We are assigned a “companion” missionary, and a new missionary is usually assigned to someone with more experience. So I wasn’t overly concerned by the fact that despite spending eight weeks studying Japanese for 10 hours a day at
a training center, the only words I could pronounce with confidence were hibachi and Sony. These words didn’t come up in conversation as much as you might think. My first companion was American, so I figured I’d be okay until I learned a few words. And during the brief time I was with her before she transferred, I’m happy to say that I learned to say a couple of complete sentences. True, I said them with a Tennessee accent, just like hers, but I learned them. I realized I didn’t know enough to carry on a conversation, but I wasn’t terribly worried. In fact, I was fine, right up until the moment I was introduced to my new companion. Her name was Hiromi Nakamatsu, a lovely girl, born and raised on Okinawa. With only rudimentary language skills between us (she could name the members of New Kids on the Block), we somehow managed to communicate.
Typical of the Japanese obsession with manners, my companion very politely refrained from pointing out that I was carrying a bag every day with the label from the airport still attached. I don’t know why I didn’t remove it. I was probably afraid I’d offend someone or break a law if I did take it off. One afternoon, we were waiting for a train and she offered to help me practice my reading. At her suggestion, I tried to read the sticker on my bag. Carefully sounding out each syllable I said, “oo ee su ki. Ooowiskee...whiskey?”
“Yes!” she said, apparently greatly relieved. She had been waiting for me to realize on my own that I was traipsing around Japan as a Mormon missionary with a label on my bag advertising the leading brand of whiskey.
I took advantage of a rare candid moment. “Have I been saying or doing other things wrong too?”
“You speak very well!” she answered.
This was Japanese for, “Yes, you idiot, you’ve been making a fool of yourself on a daily basis.”
Correcting people is considered very rude in Japan. The down side to this was that my companion was too embarrassed on my behalf to correct my errors, of which I’m certain there were many.
“No, really,” I insisted. “I want to know when I make a mistake. I can’t learn if I don’t know what I’m doing wrong.”
After a lengthy discussion during which she assured me repeatedly that I spoke Japanese like a native (of America, presumably), my companion finally, and very reluctantly, admitted that, among other things, I had been referring to people as carrots, and that the word I was using daily for "spiritual" was just the tiniest bit incorrect.
“What is the right word?” I asked
“Reiteki.” she whispered, after apologizing profusely for correcting me.
“What have I been saying?”
“Seiteki” she told me, nearly in tears with shame.
I fumbled through my dictionary and discovered, to my horror, that although I had been trying to tell people that going to church was an enjoyable "spiritual experience," I was actually saying something slightly different. I had, in fact, been promising everyone I met "going to church can be an enjoyable sexual experience." In retrospect, it seems odd that, with promises like that, we didn’t have people beating down our door.
Naturally, the language mistakes are not one-sided. In America, it’s common to see Chinese or Japanese characters on t-shirts, jewelry designs, or even tattoos. We see them on signs and the little cartons from the Chinese take-out places. Most of us probably never even question just what these characters might mean. For all we know, someone is having a huge laugh at our expense with nonsensical phrases or obscene words on various items. I came up with this theory when I noticed a certain phenomenon in Japan. English is everywhere; it just never makes sense. Its purpose is purely decorative. The rice steamer in our apartment was inscribed with the thought-provoking phrase, “It is always so sweetly nice to drinking the happy tea with our family, naked.” On one street there was a bakery sign which proclaimed “Baked Flesh Dairy” and it was with more than a little concern that I read the words “White People Tissue” on a box of Japan’s version of Kleenex in the store one day. What did this mean? White tissue for people? Tissue for white people? Tissue of white people? What was in this box? One of my most cherished souvenirs is a bag from a store called “Sissy Boy” which sold, as you may have already guessed, stationery.
The Japanese adhere strictly to a precise behavioral code. The implicit rules of conduct are so complex and detailed, I could write an entire book about it and still barely scratch the surface. Suffice it to say, if an act seems familiar and socially acceptable to you as an American, it’s probably better that you resist the impulse to actually do it in Japan. Conversely, if any behavior seems crude or impolite in anyway, then it is very likely acceptable. For example, making certain digestive noises, which I am much too refined to describe, is perfectly acceptable in Japan.
I was carefully and repeatedly instructed about common American behavior that the Japanese find offensive. It would be easier to sum up what is not considered offensive about our culture: Disneyland. Other than that, we’re pretty much rude, uncouth boors who are unfit to socialize with other cultures. (It’s okay to buy their cars, however.) If the world were a formal dinner party, America would be the guest who shows up late, wearing a “Grateful Dead” t-shirt, and engages in loud, inappropriate conversation and unforgivable behavior such as leaving chopsticks standing upright in a bowl of rice.
By committing various seemingly harmless acts in Japan, I was able to bring shame on myself, my family, and my entire country. My first day there, I did something they consider truly outrageous. I didn’t even think about it. Prepare to be horrified. As I was walking, I put a piece of chewing gum in my mouth. Now, I know what you’re thinking: that walking and chewing gum at the same time is a display of great physical coordination of which we, as Americans, are particularly proud! This is precisely this kind of thinking that has made us the social sloths we are today. Only an extremely ill mannered cretin (or an American) would do something like walking and eating at the same time. Chewing gum in public, or anywhere else for that matter, is frowned upon. Walking while chewing gum is just asking to be deported. I know what you’re thinking now, and the answer to your question is: No, belching after eating while walking doesn’t compensate for the offense.
The inside of the mouth must never be seen, hence the images we’ve seen of demure Japanese women covering their mouths when they laugh. (Laughing loudly is taboo, as well; for women, anyway. Sedate giggling is the preferred, traditional method for expressing mirth.) There are also issues with the soles of the feet. You shouldn’t cross your legs, lest you subject some poor soul
to the shameless exhibition of the underside of your feet. If your hands are full, don’t even think about nudging a door open with your foot. Of course there’s an entire “manners code” devoted to shoes. It is important to remove your shoes when entering a home or an apartment. Once you remove your shoes, naturally, you put on a pair of slippers. However, if you enter a room with
straw mats on the floor, the slippers come off again. If you visit the “honorable hand-washing place” (the bathroom), you change into yet another pair of slippers. My husband, who also served a mission in Japan (although we didn’t meet each other there), told me he once forgot to make the slipper switch upon leaving the restroom while visiting someone’s home. When it was time to leave he noticed he was still wearing the bathroom slippers. The slippers sometimes have little stick figure drawings of people on them to remind you why you are in the bathroom in the first place, just in case you forget once you’re there. The Japanese are nothing if not helpful. Obviously, Mike and all of his descendants will carry the burden of the slipper fiasco for all time.
So, now that we understand that we don’t ever reveal the crude sight of the soles of our feet or the inside of our mouths, I would like to address the traditional ensemble of the Sumo wrestler. Seriously, these little outfits are grossly inadequate as far as coverage is concerned. In fact, I’m reasonably certain that parading about that way in America would lead to an arrest and
possibly a visit to a padded cell. Well, maybe not everywhere in America. My point is, how on earth is it acceptable for grown men to cavort about, attired in something which would not even pass as a bathing suit, yet the inadvertent display of the soles of one’s feet can be so excruciatingly offensive? There is, of course, an answer to this question. Probably. I just have no idea what it is.
I also couldn’t help noticing that many people in Japan seemed to be, what I call, for lack of a better term, clothing impaired. This was only in certain places like bathhouses and, evidently, apartment balconies. Still, I admit I was more than a little startled by how many people in Japan thought nothing of wandering about like Lady Godiva. (Without the horse, obviously. They ride bicycles, instead.) These are people who routinely bathe together. Not at home, of course, that would be scandalous. They go out in public for group bathing.
You will be very relieved to learn, however, that modesty still has a place in Japan. While traveling about we saw many of the ancient, traditional carved stone statues of Buddha and other deities that are common throughout Japan. There were often little offerings of potato chips and juice boxes left in front of them. The thing that really completed the scene, for me anyway, was the fact that the statues were frequently dressed, as you might expect, in Snoopy t-shirts.
Knowing what to keep covered, and how, is among the mysteries of the Orient. Sunglasses, for example, are not a good idea, unless you really want to be mistaken for a member of the Mafia. One day, during a brief moment when the rain had stopped, I pulled out a pair of sunglasses.
“What are you doing?” my companion gasped. (It was surprising how quickly she adapted to correcting me.) I looked around, making sure my feet were covered and my mouth was closed.
“What?” I finally asked. I lived in a state of paralyzed paranoia for at least the first month I was in Japan.
“The sunglasses. We don’t wear sunglasses.”
“No,” she said firmly.
“No.” She was adamant. “You mustn’t ever wear sunglasses here.”
“Is there a reason for this?” I asked.
“People will think you’re with the Mafia,” she warned.
“You can’t be serious.”
“Oh, I am. Only the Mafia wears sunglasses.”
“So you’re saying people are going to look at me and say, ‘Look, there’s a member of the Mafia
posing as an American missionary’?”
“Just put the glasses away.”
The Japanese Mafia can also be identified by the fact that they are the only ones driving American cars (Cadillacs, mostly), and are noticeably lacking a pinkie finger.
All in all, living in Japan was not exactly what I thought it would be when I watched "The Karate Kid." I saw, said, did and ate things I never thought possible. I'm pleased to say that I did learn to speak passable Japanese, though nowadays I only use it when I need to speak privately to Mike and our son is eavesdropping. I would never have believed how much I would come to love a country, a culture, and a people that seemed so, well, foreign. I hope to return one day, and when I do, I will don my sunglasses with impunity and swim at the beach in my modest, Catalina one-piece.