*to Hanlon's razor: Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity.

Monday, 22 November 2010

How not to come off like an @$$ in Japan.

Get something straight. All the compliments about your Japanese, your skill with chopsticks, how much you understand the culture, your resemblance to Brad Pitt, and your prowess on the mat (futon or dojo): get over it. You're getting compliments not because you are a young god, but because compliments are a form of social lubrication in Japan. Pay attention, because they do it to each other, and they do it when they are nervous. You make them nervous, your Japanese is indecipherable, you hold chopsticks like a palsied child, you don't know $#!+, you look like Steve Buscemi, and you can no more defend yourself than please a woman. Instead of misunderstanding the intention of the compliments, thank, deny, and return the compliments. Try something believable, like the clarity of their accent; if that's hopeless, the accuracy of their grammar. Be as circumspect about physical compliments as you should be at home, unless everyone's drunk: you can say nice things about her tatas.

Study the language. No matter how little you know, do not use English intonation, men, unless you like people to be confused about your gender. Do not speak with the intonation or vocabulary of your female friends, unless you are female, because you will sound female. Men, listen to and mimic some Japanese men, and mumble more: that should do it. Do not learn your Japanese from Kurosawa movies. It's not as cool as you think. Use the little you know, because it will be more appreciated by Japanese than most nationalities appreciate the effort, and we Anglophones are @$$es for not learning a second-language. Sure the Japanese study English for years, but how good is your school French or Spanish? No, it's not even as good as you think.

And shut up! My Japanese father-in-law accepted me because I could shut-up, gave him the floor, or share whiskey with him in silence. Westerners talk far too much, even for other westerners. We feel a right to our idiotic opinions. Nobody cares about your opinion back home, right? Your new Japanese friends are nodding and assenting during your diatribes, and laughing at your jokes? They are embarrassed for you. Japanese people laugh when they are embarrassed more often than amused: learn the difference. Westerners ramble-on when embarrassed, and we are embarrassed by silence. They aren't. 'Don't speak unless you can improve upon silence.' 'Better to be thought a fool than to open your mouth and remove all doubt.' Oh yeah, the Japanese love proverbs, learn a few of the local ones - in Japanese. I only remember ones which piss-off 'She, who...': 'bijin-wa ichinichi-ni akiru, busu-wa mika-ni nareru', 'tsutta-sakana-ni esa-o yaranai', and 'kekon-wa jinsei-no hakaba'. If more young men shut-up and got a woman to talk, they'd get more of what they wanted sooner, and cheaper. God, I wish I'd known.

Speaking of cheap: don't date down. Well, not too far down. If you are going to gratify yourself cheaply, don't get in too deep, as it were. I've seen too many 'international marriages' flounder, not because of the national differences, but because of class differences. You subconsciously peg everyone from home by their speech, or the way they dress. You know exactly where they have come from. Going to take you a while to figure that out in Japan, especially if aren't learning any Japanese. One thing to note, if your lover's English uses a lot of slang successfully, you aren't the first Gaijin. Decide how much you care. As for picking up partners at a club, think of how the quality is at a club back home. Sure, you might meet a nice boy or girl once in a while, but the odds don't look good. If you do hit the ball out of the park, and end up with someone out of your league, enjoy yourself but stay in Japan. She is going to figure it out among your compatriots if you take her home. She may not in Japan, because the quality of we foreign men is so poor.

You have to drink, and you have to eat everything. If you have alcoholism in your past, or your family's, I respect your determination to stay on the wagon, but Japanese society has no understanding of this. Most social occasion includes drunken behaviour, not least because it is one of the few times that Japanese are sincere with each other. If you cannot join in this, you might want to live in another country. I do not have better advice, and you have my sympathy. If you are a vegetarian, you bore me. But who cares what I think? Good luck explaining this to Japanese without coming off as another difficult foreigner (you are), and good luck getting food that suits your poor understanding of our place in the 'food-web'. Nearly all Japanese food includes concentrated fish-stock. You might notice that unusually delicious flavour. It's called 'umami', and it is the amino-acids you're starving your body of. Unless you have found a place in a Buddhist temple you can't live off Shojin Ryori (to apostatize is really not going to solve your issues). Eat the natto, the shiokara, the raw-fish and the fugu. Most of it is very good, despite the Japanese taste for goo (get your mind out of the gutter!). You are allowed to have an opinion once you have tried these things, and once you have tried these things you are allowed to refuse them, politely. If you have a refusal list with more than three items on it you're a tool. Go home. My two are shiokara and hoya. Try them once! Natto is no worse than blue-cheese, if you think straight, though I won't kiss 'She, who...' after she gorges on it. Both smell of feet. On second thought, blue cheese does not look fecal. 'Batta' was kind of good.

Date-rape is not prosecuted here, but you're an SOB if you entertain the idea. The young staff-member who ends up at your door, liquored up after the company party? If he's a guy you might sleep with him, because young men generally do want to sleep with anyone at any time. If she's a young woman: she's probably disturbed if she chose a random Gaijin teacher for a booty call, Japanese 'office-lady' porn are not documentaries, and everyone is going to know about it. Happened to a friend of mine. He did the right thing and put her on a couch, unmolested, under a blanket. Not ten minutes later the other staff somehow know where to locate her, and got her to her home unviolated - one presumes. Good thing my friend had a brain. And as for the next day at work, nothing will be said whichever decision you make, but she may never be found in the same room as you again. If you do pull off a consensual consummation with a co-worker, try to do the consummation somewhere discrete. It may not inconvenience you, but your partner needs to live here. It is a romantically maudlin culture, and yet ruthlessly practical: your ‘other woman’ is either going to cling to you desperately and destroy your marriage, or have several other foreign men on the side.

If you are both over thirty, you both know what you are up to, or deserve each other. This brings me to extra-curricular affairs. You'll never get away with it. Put aside the moral arguments (boring). Japan may have 'love hotels' which give you opportunity, and thinner neonatal citizens which give you motive, and far more discretion, but 'if it looks too good to be true, it is'. Anyone cheating, or the lover of a cheater, has some issues of their own, so bring another person into the mess! Cheaters always sabotage themselves, or they don't. The latter are called 'sociopaths'. If you have any issues in your relationship, you will cheat in Japan. No, not just the male. The foreign woman has plenty of opportunity here, if only among her randy compatriots, and the general atmosphere is more louche than at home, both because of increased opportunity and liquor. There are even some foreign men who partake of the unpoliced sexual services widely available (I live between two soaplands), but they clearly have little understanding of micro-biology. If you both stay faithful in Japan, congratulations! Your relationship is a rock (or you both don't like sex).

This is a highly mannered society. The list or rules is long, tedious, and broken by the locals. You can't learn them all, and since the Japanese think of us as children with 'special needs', they tend to be patient with our lapses. It is clear if you have no care at all. They know that means you have no manners in your own home. So learn where to use what footwear, and how to use the bath, but most of all pay attention to the people around you: mimic your own gender, and ask questions. Most people will be patient with that and be flattered that you care. Never let Japanese think you know very much, because then your gaffes are taken more seriously, and your successes given less credit. Don't teach us other Gaijin what you know, please. We know more than you do, or we don't care, or we're hung-over.


  1. Very funny, and very accurate.

  2. So true, so true.

  3. This is deserving of a literary award. Bravo!

  4. "Westerners talk far too much, even for other westerners."

    Yes. This.

  5. Hmm, okay, or maybe I'll just continue my Western ways, which after living in Japan for a while, are clearly superior, even considering cultural bias and orientalist though-patterns.