Words to the wise

In the past week I interviewed about a dozen Japanese people form various walks of life to find out what advice they would give to a foreigner who was about to visit their country forthe first time. Here’s what they told me.


In addition to this quote, they also told me to mention that no one wears a chonmage topknot any more. Also, no one carries a sword. Several of them mentioned that kimonos are not everyday apparel — and they haven’t been for a long, long time. At first it surprised me that this would be such frequently repeated piece of advice. However, some of these people have actually had foreign visitors who were disappointed not to find hordes of kimono-wearers thronging the local McDonald’s. I suppose the kimono-clad Japanese is a lot like the trigger-happy American, the Briton in a bowler, or the Australian who has a kangaroo fetch his morning newspaper. If you look hard enough you might actually find such people, but they are not typical or even common. In fact, that guy with the kangaroo might not exist at all. But speaking of stereotypes….


A similar sentiment is that “Most Japanese think all foreigners are American.” Some non-Americans and non-Anglophones are understandably annoyed by this attitude. One Frenchman recently wrote a Japanese magazine article on this topic that was illustrated with his picture. In it, he is wearing a scowl and a T-shirt that says, “Je ne suis pas Americain. Watashi wa Amerika-jin ja nai.” Not long ago a Canadian tourist stopped a Japanese man on the street to ask for directions. When they parted a few moments later, the Canadian handed the Japanese a Canadian flag lapel pin as a token of gratitude. He apparently had a pocket full of them just for this purpose. I wasn’t there, but I know about this little incident because the Japanese guy was so impressed that he wrote a letter to the editor of the Yomiuri Shimbun (reprinted in the Daily Yomiuri) in which he praised this fabulous example of grass-roots diplomacy.
So that’s one way to deal with it.


This is excellent advice. Don’t let your lack of linguistic expertise stop you from taking it. In any country, you can go surprisingly far even if you know just a little of the language. If you know more, you can go even further. If you don’t know any you won’t go anywhere. Several people complained of having met foreigners who assume that all Japanese people speak English. Well, they don’t. (And those who do speak English never use the word “honorable,” as in “Visit my honorable home for a cup of honorable tea.”)
One woman — who speaks excellent English — told me how she watched some Anglophone foreigners struggling to place an order at the local Wendy’s hamburger restaurant. “It took them a very long time,” she said, “and they only got potatoes.” I asked if she had offered to help them.
This might be because…


Several people told me that foreigners shouldn’t be offended when Japanese refuse to talk to them because “Japanese are shy.” One man amended that to say that Japanese are shy only when speaking English. This seems pretty reasonable. Speaking to strangers in a foreign language will produce a “shy” reaction in any country on earth. Still, some people are shy — or worse — even when one approaches them in their native language. I once had an old woman wave me off with a look of pure disgust when I said “Sumimasen” (“Excuse me”) as a prelude to asking her for directions. On the other hand, I once had a postman leave his vehicle and walk more than a block off his route just to point me the right way. I’m happy to say that the usual reaction is closer to his end of the spectrum than to hers. So, maybe the Japanese should give themselves a little credit. They aren’t as shy as some of them think they are.


One lady told suggested that foreigners should be told, “Don’t be surprised at the bad looks of high school students. They are very ugly, the most ugly in world history.” This struck me as rather harsh, so I asked her to elaborate. She told me that she disapproved of the heavy makeup and bleached hair currently in vogue among high school girls. I should stress that this is her opinion, not mine. Still, while we are on the topic of high school fashion, I might mention that the skirts worn by many high school girls, even in winter, are too short. It’s not unusual to see girls walking up a flight of stairs (such as at a train station) with one or both hands covering the lower portion of their buttocks because their skirts simply aren’t adequate to do the job in that situation. I actually feel a little sorry for girls who are driven to such an extreme. It’s a textbook case of fashion before function.


Most of the Japanese people who were present when this remark was made said that it was often difficult even for them to understand such announcements. Some things are the same all over the world.


This is another piece of advice that was repeated several times. Prince Charles was once photographed striding into a tatami room in heavy black shoes. My Japanese boss showed me this picture about eight years ago and told me that it created quite a sensation when it had been first published years earlier. Apparently, the rest of us still have a lot to make up for, so watch your step.


Finally, one man pointed out that Japanese bow in situations in which Westerners shake hands. To be accommodating, Japanese meeting foreigners for the first time often shake hands and bow simultaneously. Therefore, he warned me, “Take care not to hit your head.”
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