Monday, June 30, 2008

The humble nature of the Japanese

Yesterday, one of my friendly co-workers (the same one who gave me the umeshu kit) noticed that I'd started studying kanji (Chinese symbols used in Japanese writing). I'd drawn a grid on a piece of paper and made a bunch of copies, and I was sitting at my desk writing kanji over and over and over in an attempt to sear them into my memory.

Today, I showed up and found a couple of notebooks and a little post-it note on my desk. I looked inside the notebooks and was delighted to find that the pages were pre-printed with a grid made just for practicing kanji. I didn't know these existed, but of course they're perfect! There was a large notebook and a small notebook.

The note the teacher left said "Good morning. These notebooks are for you!! I don't know why I bought two similar notebooks. Maybe this is because I am old..... For my daughter, I look like an ill-natured person to give such notebooks to you."

I went over and thanked her profusely. She seemed happy to have helped.

The note struck me as so odd, but I know it's just the Japanese way.

In America, in a case like this someone would just give you the notebooks and say, "Hey, I saw these and thought they looked like just what you need, so I picked up a couple for you. I hope they help."

But the Japanese teacher's approach in presenting the gift — "I'm so silly, I must be a bad person for giving you this" — is just an example of the way the Japanese operate. The Japanese are constantly apologizing. It's part of their culture.

I suppose presenting the gift in this way was my teacher's attempt at making me feel good about getting the gift, rather than feel indebted to her because she did something nice that she didn't have to do. Or perhaps it's an attempt at minimizing any silliness I might have felt for not realizing I could buy a notebook like this.

Either way, her response was very Japanese. I've gotten used to hearing the Japanese around me apologize all the time. Every time I hear one of my co-workers on the phone, the conversation inevitably turns into a long stream of "Sumimasen"s (Excuse me/Sorry) before they hang up.

And every time a student enters the teachers' office to talk to a teacher (which happens all the time), he stands in the doorway and calls out "Shitsureshimasu!" which translates roughly to, "I'm sorry I'm being rude" or "Excuse me for disturbing you." They repeat it again before leaving: Shitsureshimashita! (I'm sorry I was rude.) It's customary for all teachers to say this as well before they leave the office for the day.

I remember reading a dialogue in my Japanese course book a while back about a person going to dinner at a Japanese couple's house. The visitor arrives and the husband greets him with an apology for his wife's poor cooking. Obviously, if a husband said such a thing in America, he'd get whacked up side the head with a frying pan, and the guests would wonder why they were invited over to eat a bunch of slop. Here, it's seen as a humble gesture. You are low, everyone else is high.

I haven't quite reconciled how I feel about this. On one hand, this approach is kind of refreshing compared to the American attitude of do-no-wrong. Often Americans tend to avoid apologizing at all costs because apologizing means acknowledging weakness and admitting you fell short. Here, the tendency is to accept all responsibility and avoid blaming others. Apologizing constantly helps to maintain harmony and avoid conflict.

On the other hand, there are times it annoys me because I feel the Japanese are being insincere. The husband doesn't really believe his wife's cooking sucks. The teacher at my school didn't really buy me two similar notebooks because she's old — quite the opposite in fact. It was quite thoughtful of her to buy both sizes in case I liked one size better than the other. I want to shake the teacher and tell her its OK to feel good about helping me.

1 comment:

Natalie said...

Not sure if you have found them yet, but they sell those books at the 100 yen store. That was super nice of your teacher