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Mind your manners, a tutorial

Wednesday, February 14th, 2007

“Honorable customers, sorry to have made you wait as it is a burden for you.” The waiter is holding two plates and our ticket. We’re in one of many family style restaurants that offer food low on cost and atmosphere. The waiter continues:

“One order of cream sauce pasta with asparagus.” I raise my hand and bow slightly. At least I think I do. Maybe I blink my eyes and nod, or raise my eyebrows and say “hai.” I can never be sure anymore, but rest assured I do something awkward in an attempt to be polite. The waiter then one-ups me by standing hesitantly with the second dish.

“One order of hamburger steak with cheese.” Chiaki isn’t paying attention. She’s engrossed in her cell phone, reading some email. This strange standoff lasts only a second but it seems longer to me. He looks at me and can’t seem to put the plate down without some kind of confirmation. Maybe I look hungry, like I could use an extra entrée. That’s probably the truth. Finally I motion to Chiaki. He nods. Just as he suspected, the dish was hers.

This interaction seems absurd but is often the reality of living in such a polite society as Japan. As in this exchange, I’m often baffled by how much common sense is abandoned in the name of politeness. If one person has claimed the pasta, one could deduce that the remaining dish might go to the remaining person at the table. But what if he were wrong? Can you imagine the shock of the customers and ensuing embarrassment?

Everywhere in Japan you can observe how people go to such extreme lengths to tip-toe around each other. Here are a couple tips to observe to help you through your day:

1. Constantly mutter “sumimasen” (excuse me). A slur of indistinguishable sss sounds will suffice. This will give you a “polite buffer zone” if anyone should come out of nowhere and become offended by your innate inadequacies.

2. When driving, all passing should be done at no more than 3km per hour so as to not startle drivers who choose to turn. Bicycles should be given 2-3 meters of space at all times. Try to completely enter the lane of oncoming traffic if possible when passing bicycles and pedestrians.

3. Whatever you do, don’t believe your eyes. If your looking for someone, and you think you may have found them, it’s best to ask another person if they are really there. I learned this trick from the kids at my schools. Everyday they enter the teacher’s room, look straight at me, and ask if the English teacher is there. I say I am indeed there, and we head off to English class.

4. All rules and politeness are suspended when on a crowded train. Groping even seems to be okay in this situation! You also needn’t worry about any niceties if you’re drunk or you are older than 70 years of age.

Please lets enjoying Japan!  !*(^o^)*!

The Founding of Japan?

Tuesday, February 13th, 2007

Monday February, 11

Today is National Foundation Day, a national holiday that was re-introduced in 1966 after going through a series of ups and downs over the course of Japanese history.  The day is supposedly dates back to the crowning of Japan’s first official emperor, Jimmu; an event and person which historians still debate having ever existed.  The holiday also became influential during the Meiji Restoration, and was used to bolster Japanese nationalism in Japan’s aggressive colonial period.  Understandably, the holiday was sidelined after the war until the modest version observed today was agreed upon forty years ago.  It seems to me it can be described as somewhere between the USA’s Memorial Day and Flag Day.  It is a low key affair compared to its history as a major festival.

I’ve asked several people what this day means to them and the answers vary.  Naito Sensei, a teacher at my school told me he reflects on the state of his homeland, but he thinks most people view it as just another three day weekend.  My girlfriend responded to my questions about the day with a puzzled stare.

“Ken koku kinen no hi…desu ka?” she said.  “Nani sore?  (What’s that?)”  I like to think her ignorance on the subject is a result of her sporadic nursing schedule and not having normal statewide holidays, but I have a feeling that most young people would respond similarly.  And who’s to blame them?

My first reaction to this holiday, National Foundation Day, was also one of puzzlement.  I mean when could Japan really claim to be founded?  There exist a handful of countries that are basically as old as time, that gradually grew into countries as the concept came to exist.  Greece, England, China, and Japan among others all share a legacy of power and sovereignty unique to most of the world.  Japan is an even rarer case in that it has maintained a territorial and ethnic solidarity unlike any other country on Earth.  England’s always been England, China always China; but the Scots, Irish, Tibetans and Uighurs would like to change these facts perhaps.  This isn’t the case in Japan.

The former colonies of the world shoot off fireworks and shake an angry fist or two at their former rulers, while Japan quietly enjoys a day off, recognizing that it is still the island nation it’s always been.

Return to Tsukuba-san

Tuesday, February 13th, 2007

Sunday, February 11, 2007

The sun shining through the curtains this morning was an unexpected surprise. Last night we fell asleep to the sound of a downpour and expected a day spent relaxing indoors. ... [Continue reading this entry]

Japanese kids

Friday, February 9th, 2007
It's been interesting to see how the students' reactions to me have changed over the course of the year. Initially I was looking forward to teaching fifth and sixth graders based on my positive experience teaching Chinese elementary kids ... [Continue reading this entry]

Don’t say the D-word

Thursday, February 8th, 2007
Yes, English is difficult. Any language is difficult. Most rewarding undertakings in life are difficult. We adults realize this, but must keep this fact secret from the kids. There is a second grade teacher at one of the ... [Continue reading this entry]