It was in the year 1986 I made my first trip to Japan. In preparation for the trip I’d read several books. I needed a cultural crash course hoping to avoid the kind of stupid mistakes expatriates customarily make when they discover a new country to visit and carry their own cultural mores with them as they travel.
I’ve learned over the years no matter how a foreigner tries to immerse in a host culture they can never fully make that transition. Skin color, accent and the shape of one’s face will always brand you as a foreigner, and walls are in place at that first meeting until the locals have had a chance to size you up and put you into either the friend or enemy basket.
I make it a habit to read a selection of historical and cultural books on any country listed on my itinerary, and if I’m really lucky meet with a kind citizen of that country to check list the “don’t do’s” and memorize them. I’d like to underscore the word “kind” citizen. It’s a national sport in every country to teach the intending foreign visitor phrases which they are urged to use in greeting in order to break down cultural barriers. Quite often you’ll find phrases you practice so diligently in good faith either send the locals into fits of laughter because you’ve said something really stupid, or raise hackles because well intended remarks are highly insulting in local language. So look for a kind mentor before accepting language advice, or stick to the travel book phrases.
I’d done my homework and looked forward to my visit with both eager anticipation and apprehension in equal parts. Pictures of Japan are so beautiful and history so rich and interesting I could hardly wait to see places of historical interest, shrines and bustling activities of a vibrant economy. But had I done my homework well enough, and would I be successful in penetrating that cultural wall standing so effectively between us? Those were my thoughts as I switched cultural orientation from Korea to Japan on landing at Narita.
I was traveling in the company of an expatriate who was also making his first trip to Japan. He was overcome with the excitement of his first visit and loudly voiced his admiration of everything he saw in the hope this would make a favorable impression. Our Japanese hosts gathered at the airport to meet us bowed politely and with very little communication whisked us through immigration and customs formalities and made occasional polite conversation as we fought our way through thick traffic on the freeway to Yokohama where we were deposited at corporate guest apartments. We were told to rest, and they’d be back to pick us up in the evening for our first visit to a genuine Japanese restaurant.
For those who are traveling to Japan on corporate business for the first time you need to know Japanese are just as diligent at research as I am with culture. However they go further, building dossiers of the person they’re going to do business with well in advance of the visit. They’ll discreetly research your history, know about your family situation and be well informed about educational and professional achievements. They’re very thorough, so don’t attempt to bluff them as you present your bona fides. They’re keen students of psychology as well, and you’ll be under the microscope from first meeting to departure. Then you can expect to be the centre of group discussion and a consensus will be reached as to whether you’re worth their time or not. I say this in admiration. Add to those admirable qualities promptness.
So our Japanese hosts were at the door bowing politely at the exact time they’d scheduled to pick us up for evening entertainment. Once again my expatriate friend expressed his appreciation and was thoughtfully examined.
The restaurant was one of those delightful establishments only imperfectly imitated in the West. You have to actually be in Japan for the atmosphere to work. Deeply bowing women murmuring their welcome at the entrance in kimonos urged us in bent position to a private cubicle where shoeless feet slid into a heated well under the table in the centre of a raised platform.
Women hovered over us pouring tea and urging delicacies on us as we awaited the first dishes of the evening to arrive. The whole thing was a marvelous performance, masterfully orchestrated under the watching gaze of owners who dropped by to welcome us and see our needs were being met. My expatriate friend expressed his loud approval.
As mentioned Western establishments are largely a pathetic attempt at compromise between the exotic East and Western taste. With that we were familiar, but this was the genuine thing, and I realized with alarm I hadn’t given much thought to the study of eating etiquette in Japan. I watched carefully to take a lead from our Japanese hosts and followed each movement carefully. My friend followed and we were doing quite nicely until my friend became curious about the small bowl of green liquid to the left of each setting.
“Is it soup?” he whispered.
As I didn’t know I decided to avoid it until our hosts clarified this point for us as they partook.
But here my friend let down his guard. Grasping the little bowl of green liquid with both hands as delicately as he was able he put it to his lips and sipped.
Our Japanese hosts averted their eyes and made polite conversation to each other as my friend gasped for breath and tried vainly to talk. He reached for his glass of water trying desperately not to be noticed. He’d discovered the horseradish dish used to dip tempura and other culinary delights, but under no circumstances would this be something Japanese drink in such quantity. After several minutes making strange sounds, my friend regained a weak voice.
“This is good!” he said without conviction.
Our hosts looked up in surprise and disapproval. He’d failed their sincerity test!
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