When I first arrived in Japan, a fellow expat whom I had just met invited me to dinner. Of my many bewildered, culture-shocked questions, one was “are there any real consequences to breaking social etiquette rules in Japan? Like, will I lose my job or be barred from teaching some classes?”
She said no, as long as I’m following the terms of my contract.
“Then why should I care?” was my follow-up question.
She laughed. “And that attitude is what makes you an American” (She’s half British, half Trinidad and Tobegan).
As I stumble about, trying to make positive and healthy relationships with the people around me, I find myself wondering: is it more important to me that I am accepted by a people whose culture I, as a foreigner, will never be able to fully understand or to be my own person regardless of how I’m viewed by my host country?
Yesterday, when attending my schools Opening Ceremony for the school year, one teacher turned to me and clucked her disapproval of one man on stage for having his blazer jacket unbuttoned. He was wearing a matching vest underneath his jacket, so I actually couldn’t tell from first glance that it was unbuttoned.
Many Japanese people whom I’ve met are very kind, helpful, generous, and polite (though, of course, this is a culturally-biased and loaded term). I’m thankful for this; they’ve made my stay in Japan overall very comfortable. However, there are more aspects about Japanese etiquette than I can keep track of. Try as I might, I’m often paranoid that I am breaking unwritten social rule after unwritten social rule. I try to follow social cues as best as I can read them.
I always bow when bowed to, though I’m not even sure if I’m even bowing correctly. I try to have good table manners, though I’m often at odds as to where to put my chopsticks. I try to dress appropriately and speak in as polite and respectful Japanese as I know how. Is it enough?
Coworkers sometimes gossip to me about another coworker who is not properly following Japanese etiquette or is “breaking the social atmosphere”. Their opinions of these teachers are made very obvious to me.
During these gossip session, I often have to keep myself from exploding, “WHO CARES?!”. Who cares if a teacher slipped and said “maybe” in his answer to a student rather than being unmovingly certain in his answer. Who cares if a teacher’s blazer button is unbuttoned. Who cares if a teacher is wearing a gray suit and a purple tie instead of a black suit, white shirt, and black tie.
I try my best to fit into Japanese culture because I want to be generally liked, I want to have friends, and I want to have good relationships at work, but it can be exhausting. In Japan, they have a a proverb that goes: deru kugi wa uteraru. Literally: “the nail that sticks out gets hammered down”.
Sometimes I wonder who I really am on the inside when I’m being as rigidly polite to friends as I must be to strangers and superiors and when I dress in mute colors, plaid skirts, and panty hose so that I can be respected and not looked down upon. Sometimes I worry that I’ll lose the part of myself that is stubborn when I passionately believe in something (like social justice issues) or that seeks better solutions to areas that need improvement (instead of following set systems for the sake of tradition).
I admit--there are a few rules that I knowingly break on a daily basis. I actually keep all of my piercings in at work (two cartilage piercings, five lobe piercings, a nose piercing, and the occasional ear cuff). My hair has a few bleached streaks. More often than not, I don’t bother to cover my tattoo at onsen (hot springs where you bathe publicly in the full nude) even though tattoos are extremely taboo.
These acts of rebellion may seem small, but they feel really big because it’s a loud message to others upon our first meeting and during every interaction that I am not Japanese (nor do I want to be). When Japanese people meet me, perhaps they thing “this girl is rude”, “this girl would be rude for a Japanese person, but she’s not Japanese”, or maybe they think nothing at all. I don’t know.
Should I care?
And then of course, there are all the social rules that I probably break on a daily basis without my knowing. I don’t know what I’m doing wrong until someone points it out to me. Just to make things a little more complicated, I sometimes go on for months committing some social wrong without being corrected because 1) in Japanese culture, one must remain non-confrontational and 2) when you’re “in the smoke” of your own culture, it’s difficult to discern when someone is committing some social faux pas naïvely or if that person really is thoughtless and rude.
A few social rules that I have learned include: no talking on your phone on the bus, no talking above a whisper on the train, no public displays of affection with your significant other, no eating while walking about in the streets, do not rub your chopsticks together to get rid of splinters, do not take a sip of your drink before the toast, lower your gaze to the ground when bowing to another person…
Overall, I find Japanese culture to be fascinating for its stark difference from what I’m accustomed to. My life here has been both comfortable and adventurous. I’m outside of my comfort zone every day as soon as I step over the threshold of my apartment. I’m constantly under the microscope but, more often than not, locked outside of society due to my lack of fluency in both the language and the culture.
Such is the nitty gritty of traveling. It’s not always flashy lights, beaches, and delicious foreign food. It’s having to figure out how to get along people of all kinds, too.