Thursday, March 4, 2010

Politeness in Japan

In my previous blog I had stated I was going to stop twitting and blogging so much. I gave my reasons. I had an informative and interesting comment to that blog. Because of that comment, I am going to write some more, but in a more concise (I hope)and informative manner.

Quite some time ago, I blogged about racism in Japan. (, July 28, 2009) I have given some more thought to this and believe part of the reason gaijins complain about racism involves the politeness of Japanese society, which they ignore or don't understand.

Politeness is a concept easier to talk about than to actually know and understand. I have included respect, friendliness and formality as synonyms for politeness.

Japan has a structured society that is very different than American society. The first year that I was in Japan, 1960, I was totally ignorant of most of what this entailed. I was fortunate to meet my future wife and her family after I had been in Japan for about one year. I was now seeing things from a different perspective. I learned how to show respect to her mother and father. I never had any pressure to bow politely or greet them in a polite manner, but I just did it, learning from what I observed and was taught. I was only with other Americans at work and in other limited situations. The Japanese showed respect even to people who were only a few years older. This does not happen in America as it is fashionable to treat similar age groups as equals. I believe the differences are where most of the foreigners fail and why they feel there is racism or dislike toward them. Many gaijins who work or live in Japan for long periods of time want to feel they are accepted as if they were Japanese. This is impossible as they are not Japanese! You cannot erase your own learned mores and the values that you hold near and dear just because you move to another country which has its own mores and values.

Letter writing has many differences between the Japanese and the Americans. Because I don't read Japanese, I had to rely on the articles I read. The biggest difference I could fathom was that Japanese apologize many times in their letters but Americans give thanks.

I never worked in Japanese company, but I have a limited understanding of how it works. I did use some Japanese companies for my needs. It was true that when you walked into a large company, with most of the employees sitting at row after row of desks, many would not look up or make eye contact. If you would use Japanese, even if it is very limited, usually somebody would make contact and help you find what you needed. I know several reasons why this happened, but I will not go into the makeup and practices of Japanese companies, because others have done it better. In fact if you research the information available about Japanese politeness, it has been covered extremely well and stated better than I could. Some of these practices have changed over the years since I first went to Japan. For this reason I have tried to paraphrase some important statements made by others and have decided to just give my experiences of politeness in Japanese Society compared to American Society from 1960 to 2009. Not all or many of the attributes are given to the authors of articles and I apologize. If you know who said it first, please let me know and give a comment who said it and where it was stated (Bibliography).

My Japanese is so poor I have great difficulty in speaking and understanding it. But I learned to find my way around asking simple questions repeatedly. I never had problems with Japanese people, only problems of getting lost a lot. Sometimes, people, including Japanese police, would point and tell you what you wanted to know, but it was often wrong because they don't really know the answer. They want to appear to be polite, especially to foreigners, and feel they should give an answer. I think this has changed in recent years and they will now try to find out the correct answer for you. This does not happen in American society. If the answer is unknown you will be told so.

There is one politeness that is customary for many Japanese. It is called "giri" and involves making promises or invitations in which there is little intention of fulfilling. I admit I dislike this practice, but I understand it. If I invite you to my house, I mean it. This is not always true with Japanese you have just met or hardly know. This is changing as Japan becomes more integrated in foreign cultures and media spreads the word about others.

The first thing I noticed after being in Japan for awhile was the politeness that the Japanese showed to each other. My wife's family lived in a small house 3 rooms, a small toilet off one of the rooms and a kitchen. When they changed clothes I noticed they could not always do this in a totally private manner and they would turn their backs toward any potential observer. In their mind, I felt, they were not being noticed. The others, who could observe if they wanted, acted as if there was nobody needing privacy and in that manner, gave the privacy needed. This was such an enigma to me. This type of assumed privacy was something I had never experienced...a politeness learned from necessity. Americans would go to a private room to gain privacy because most had that option. Gaijins might even feel that the assumed privacy was rude.

Sometimes after a date with my wife and returning to her home in the evening, I would be invited to go with the family to the public ofuro (bath). The men and women at this ofuro were separated by a barrier. The owners would sit up on the wall separating the men from the women and take the fee for the bath and chat. They could see on both sides and sometimes it was the husband and sometimes the wife. There was no embarrassment by either sex, young or old. I was the only gaijin, maybe ever, to go to this bath house. The owners would offer me snacks, at no cost. I felt honored and, at first, a little ashamed. Soon, I realized this was just another way of life and politeness that the Japanese showed. This allowed me to diminish the feeling of embarrassment. I don't think a business in America would waive the fee for something just because a foreigner (even their first foreigner) visited their establishment. This has changed somewhat in Japan and most foreigners are charged the same as the citizens. This might be because of the economic times.

Mark Magnier wrote in the February 21, 2001 Los Angeles Times an article entitled, Japan Wonders Where Its Manners Went, about the manners and customs of the Japanese and how it is changing. Quoted is a headline from the Yomiuri Shimbun. "Are Good Manners a Thing of the Past?" Mr. Magnier states, "Although elders everywhere complain about young people, the etiquette erosion here is not confined to "space aliens," the nickname many in Japan have given to their youth." Is this not similar to America? He goes on to report that Japanese airlines are experiencing an increase in inappropriate behavior by passengers. Japanese are increasingly being lectured on how to be considerate. "For those brought up in one of the world's most refined cultures, however, the changes threaten to undermine a core value: the willingness to put aside individual differences in favor of group harmony." This is the usual experience in America. It is just that the level of politeness from which this change is compared is different. "A generation ago, most students enrolled (Tokyo's Seishikai finishing school) to learn about such refined arts as the tea ceremony, but in recent years far more time has been devoted to basics once considered common sense." Manners have been on a steady slide since the school opened 25 years ago, said Principal Tamami Kondo, but in the past few years they've hit rock bottom. "Japanese have been such nice people," she said. "What a shame."

Where do we define the importance in life? Are the Japanese in a steady slide? Are Americans becoming more or less polite? All of these questions are unanswerable at the present time. The future will hold the key as to what has been and is important in life.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Why I (we) twit and blog

I found I was reading twits, blogs, twitting and blogging more and more. I had some insight suddenly and I really feel that most of the time it is for the following reasons:
1. To relieve stress
2. To relieve boredom
3. To put off doing something (usually more important)
4. To make myself feel important
5. To make myself more liked/loved

I was following someone who was quite witty, appeared very intelligent, was an artist and author, and had some good comments. But the twits were so numerous (and I do mean numerous), the most numerous of anyone I have watched or followed. Sometimes the number of twits were so great it would have been impossible for me to read all of them without spending an enormous amount of time. This twitter, sometimes, complained that work necessary for making a living was suffering for all sorts of reasons. Why would anyone twit this much and allow the income producing work to be set aside? My opinion is the twitter wanted to feel important and witty. I no longer follow this person.

This same person did a blog review of a book. The review was well done, but added no insight or new thoughts to several other reviews that had already been done. I think, once again, this person needed to feel important and possibly more loved/liked.

I think my blogs and twits are mostly for the same reasons and after castigating myself and reflecting, I will do less twitting and blogging. My stuff sucks and has no real meaning to anyone but myself. Blogging about my life was done at a time that I was under some stress. It did help relieve that stress, but I now realize nobody else would really be interested in what I said. I also thought it was well done and would be something others would enjoy reading. After re-reading it about 1 to 2 weeks later I felt nobody is going to read such a long blog about a person they don't know. About the only thing I get out of twits and blogs is the opinion of others about news, books, some movies, and items that make me laugh.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Japan Pictures

Walkway from Shinagawa Prince Hotel to Shinagawa Station.


Specialty paper store in Kanaka.

Buddha in one of the many Kanaka Temples.

Sensoji (Asakusa Shrine). I like the colors and the symmetry.

Purifying with incense smoke at Sensoji.

Realistic model of food at department store restaurant. Price is about $16.00. Not bad for this meal.

Fish being BBQ'd. In center is the charcoal and the fish are turned periodically. I have only eaten these fish for asagohan (breakfast). Some eat everything except the tail. I only eat the meat of the fish.

Rock garden Kinugawa-Kawaji Onsen

Pictures taken with Fujifilm Finepix F10 digital camera. 6.3 megapixels.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

My Life with My Japanese Wife

Some funny and some sad things:

As my wife's parents aged they had to be placed in a retirement/care hospital. My mother-in-law was physically well, but suffered from Alzheimer's. My father-in-law, residing in the same hospital, was mentally as sharp as ever, but was physically unable to walk. My mother-in-law would be taken to visit him. She would ask who he was and be told he is your husband. She would state very clearly that he was not her husband because she did not like old men.

My youngest brother-in-law asked his mother if she recognized him. She said no and he explained he was her son. She shook her head and said, "you came out of me?" Naturally, I had to ask if she knew who I was. She said she did because I was strange, in fact, "you have always been strange." Ouch.

During The Marriage Some Funny Things:

1. My wife bought frozen orange juice for the first time. I told her it was pretty good and, also, economical. She served me a glass of frozen thick orange juice the next morning. She stated, it sure isn't very economical to her. I asked her if she diluted it first? You know the answer.

2. We bought meat for swiss steak. My wife thought it was a regular type streak. When I came home from work she served me a martini, which she had learned to make superbly. Next, we sat at the dinner table and she served the swiss steak. She had only fried it on each side and not cooked it for hours, as was necessary. Needless to say, we ate very late that night.

3. Rice. Now all Japanese woman know how to cook gohan, right? Wrong, one more time. Remember, there were no electric rice cookers at the time. Luckily, I had been in my in-laws kitchen one night while my mother-in-law was making the rice. My wife knew you had to wash the rice, but that was all. I watched my mother-in-law make the rice and asked her questions. So when the first time my wife was going to make rice, I had to show her. What a great gaijin husband. (The good part of all this was we would read a cooking book someone gave us for our wedding gift and I would explain to her what the cook book said. From this she became a skilled cook and today, even though she does not enjoy making meals like she did before, she is a fantastic cook.)

4. My wife thought she needed to make some money. This was before we were married. She had asked her father if it was OK. What a good daughter. He said absolutely not. No daughter of his was going to work. She snuck out and got a job in a coffee shop (kissaten). There were twice as many small coffee shops at that time than now. Every 4-5 shops were coffee shops. Who should walk into this coffee shop while she was serving? Boy, all of you are so smart. Her father ripped off the apron from around her waist and hustled her off to home.

5. My wife calls me at the Air Base around dinner time, crying. You have to come and meet me. So I get on the train and two hours later I meet her at a coffee shop. I sat down and she, crying her little heart out, states, "I lied to you." Oh, oh, she is already married? Nope, her parents had changed the age on the documentation when she was born, for some reason, and she was not 23 she was 24. She told me, "I guess you don't want to marry me now." Two hours back on the train and into bed.

6. Another frantic phone call. You have to come to Tokyo as soon as possible. Wham. What this time? By train I commuted for 2 hours. I walked to another coffee shop. OK, what happened? Someone had stolen money from her purse. It was her tuition money for the English School she was attending. She had been going to college, but felt that an English School would be better for her. Her father was mad because she had left her purse wide open with the cash showing and had slung it over her shoulder. You know who paid her tuition? You are all becoming brighter and brighter. 2 hours on the train back.

I have had a good life, but as I may have already stated, I wish I could do some things over. I would have stayed in Japan longer after getting discharged from the military. I know I would have made it financially, somehow. I should have understood my wife better; I should have been a better person. Now I have medical problems, but I hope I am still alive and well enough to return to Tokyo. I want to stay 3 weeks next time, with some travel to Kyoto, etc.


Saturday, November 21, 2009

Japanese Learning Programs, revisited

Had to drive a longer than usual, so I took an old Pimsleur (Intermediate Level) disc and listened to it. In one of my previous blogs I had stated Pimsleur's program had not helped me much in my Japanese conversation learning and understanding. I had not used this program for years and was surprised as to how much I now understood and learned from the two lessons on this particular disc. I feel from the studying I have been doing and the recent trip to Tokyo I am doing better than before. I think the point of this is use as many teaching aids as you can. I should not have dismissed Pimsleur's learning aids and I now include it in my 'good' list. I think that as you progress and find certain programs or tecniques too difficult or what you think are of too little value you should periodically retry and reevaluate them.

When I was in Tokyo I met some gaigakujin friends. One of these had worked in Tokyo for many years and had retired. His Japanese was very good. On the other hand., people who have only been in Japan working for just a few years are even better. Why? I think it is because some people have a propensity to learn foreign languages. I do not have that propensity and don't know why. ( shows this and blogs about his experiences. His Japanese is very good in my opinion). Also, age of the person learning makes some difference.

I hope to return to Japan next year and I will see if all of my new studying results in more and more understanding and speaking.


Tuesday, September 29, 2009

What you don't look for you find.

While I was in the military, a long time ago, I made friends with an American attorney attached to the IG's (Investigating General's) office. He was a second or third generation Japanese, born and raised in Honolulu, and was very wealthy. We both were assigned to an American Air Base, about 2 hours from Tokyo. Even though I became enamored with Japan and the Japanese, I had never thought of marrying a Japanese. But my friend's ambition was to do just that; and it had to be a well respected Japanese girl, not a bar girl, etc. I had been told by my family, before I left for Japan, not to bring back a Japanese wife. I did not even want to get married to any girl, at that time. I was 26 and after many years at the university, I just wanted to be free to do what I wanted.

My wealthy friend rented an apartment in Tokyo and paid the many fees associated with doing just that. Every time he was not on duty, especially on the weekends, he would leave the base for his apartment and go 'hunting' for a wife. He would go to department stores, parks, zoos; you name it, but he never could find his dream. I, on the other hand, didn't want to get married, but loved Tokyo so much, I did the same as my friend, except I stayed in the Bachelor Officers Quarters (BOQ), located near Shibuya. I could not afford the cost of an apartment, even though the exchange rate was ¥360 to the $ and costs for goods were low.

I almost always had a 3 bedroom room at the BOQ to myself . After having been out late one night, I returned to my quarters and went to bed. Upon awakening, I found one of the other beds was occupied. We introduced ourselves. He was on R&R (rest and relaxation) from Korea and had arrived after I had gone to bed. His wife had given her blessing for him to come to Tokyo, if he would bring her back some silk. He asked me if I knew of such a place to buy silk and I told him, I did. I determined what quality of silk his wife wanted and we went to Shibuya for breakfast and a department store to buy the silk. He found the department store as interesting as I always did, so I suggested we start on the top floor and go down and look around, one floor at a time, until we came to where the silk material was sold.

On the top floor a bunch of artists were seated and drawing caricatures of the many patrons. There must have been 8 or more artists, but one's caricatures were special to me. Helping the artists by handing out the paper that was used to draw upon and collecting the money which was going to typhoon victims in another area of Japan, was this beautiful Japanese girl in a kimono.

We watched the artist, that I liked, draw for quite awhile, and then started to leave. As we walked away the good-looking girl tapped me on my shoulder and told me in hesitant English that her father wanted to draw my face. So we returned and I sat in front of the artist I had been watching. After he finished, I went to pay him but he refused, stating I was a guest in Japan and he could not take my money. I reasoned with him and told him this was for charity. His English, while not great, was better than my Japanese. He made me promise I would come to his house for dinner. I did not get to pay!

You have to picture Japan in the early 60s. Americans were still not welcome in many sections of Tokyo. Ikebukero, as an example, had been leveled by the bombing and though I always went with my Japanese friends, I was not allowed to enter any of the establishments, until my friends and I had tried 4-5 times. Finally, I was welcomed. For my future wife's father to invite me to dinner, at his home, was unheard of.

I told him I would have to wait several weeks, as I was preparing a speech for a meeting in Manila and had to do research, prepare and attend the meeting. I told him upon my return I would come to dinner, but I forgot all about it. My future father-in-law's pen name was similar to one of my Japanese friend's name. Upon my return from the Philippines, my house boy (yes, officers in the BOQ had house boys) told me someone had called and left a message for me to call back. I did so and my future wife answered the phone. I was so surprised and if her father or brothers had answered, I am sure I would of thought it was my friend's home. I ended up going for dinner almost every weekend. My future mother-in-law was an excellent cook and made me Japanese dishes, Chinese dishes, Western-style other words with little in the way of a kitchen she was a gourmet cook.

After our marriage and return to California, we had two children. My mother-in-law came to live with us for one year. My father-in-law, who I had grown very close to, refused to fly on a plane and would not come to visit. One of my brother-in-laws graduated from veterinary college and came to live with us for one year. Two of my friends were veterinarians and invited him to watch and learn American techniques at their office.

The moral to this story, don't look for what you want and you might just get it!

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Japanese/English Skype Classes

If you live in the U.S. most of those who show an interest in language exchange for Japanese/English have a problem with the time difference, if they live in Japan. But it can work especially on weekends where both might be off from work.

I finally found a "class" hosted by an "English teacher" living in Korea. He spoke both Korean and Japanese, or so he claimed, fluently. His English was not perfect, from my observations in writing to him on both Skype and Lang-8. The times were still difficult for me, but the earlier class (he had 2/week on Sunday, Japan time) was possible. I went online several minutes before the class and let the "teacher" know I would wait for the class to begin. Several minutes after the starting time I had no reply back to me, so I did some of my other chores on the computer. After one hour, I saw a message from the "teacher" that there were no students and he (the "teacher") was one hour late. Duh, no wonder there were no students!

Again, I have to state that finding a person who truly wants to exchange language skills on Skype is almost impossible to find. I am sure others have had luck, but usually just in using text, instead of speech. I want to learn conversational Japanese and I am willing teach English conversation.

I am almost read to give up.