04 April 2011

Ten Tidbits About Japanese Manners and Aesthetics

My heart goes out to the ongoing crisis in Japan and to the estimated 16,000 still missing after the tsunami and earthquake. 

This is normally the time of year when people in various countries gather at local cherry blossom festivals, sakura no matsuri. But the celebrations have been hushed in Japan due to the recent catastrophes.

This post is a tribute to their cause. How many of these Japanese customs and traditions are you familiar with?

1. Beauty in Death
Come fall, trees shed their leaves, which have died and withered well before they fall to the ground. But the cherry blossoms of the sakura trees found all over the islands of Japan follow a reverse order: they don't start to wither until after they've died and fallen. Part of their appeal has to do with

The Japanese have appreciated this phenomenon of remaining beautiful even after dying; it was the historical basis for samurai choosing death over cowardice and dishonor. Currently, it's the month of April, and sakura trees are forecasted to blossom throughout Honshuu, Japan's mainland, within the week.

2. No Eye Contact During Conversation
Cordial chatter between strangers in Japan is often made with no eye contact; in Japanese culture, unlike in America, it is seen as too aggressive.

3. "Anyone in the bathroom?"
In Japanese houses, bathroom doors are kept closed when not in use.

4. Put Out That Cigarette
In America, if someone were too noisy, you might ask them, "Excuse me, do you mind toning it down a bit?" Direct and to the point, but still not rude. Many Japanese, however, try to be indirect when asking favors of obnoxious strangers, at least at first.

For example, Person A is smoking in a public area. Next to him is Person B. Flustered, Person B asks him, "Anou, sumimasenga, tabako ha chotto. . ." This statement translates roughly into, "Um, excuse me, but your smoking is a little. . ." You get the point, and so would Person A, 9 times out of 10. The point is to only hint at the favor you're asking of the stranger without identifying the issue outright. Only guys who are truly dense would need to be helped along a bit more.

5. I Wish My Wife Cooked Better
When the man of the house has coworkers or other guests over for a meal, they will typically compliment his wife's cooking. But the husband will routinely deny his wife's kitchen prowess. It's an embedded attitude that is in no way meant to demean the man's wife. It's just meant to show humility.

6. Table Etiquette
As they receive their food, the Japanese say, "Itadakimasu," which roughly means, "I humbly receive." Once they finish their meal, they say, "Gochisousamadeshita," which roughly means, "It was a feast!"

7. The Beauty of Sadness
Mono no aware, simply put, is an appreciation for the inherent sadness in all things (not in the emo sense). The awareness that something will eventually pass away is meant to increase people's admiration for it. It's sort of related to wabi-sabi.

8. A Simple Palate
Wabi-sabi refers to the beauty in the impermanence, imperfection, and incompleteness of things, like a fragmented pot. It's probably the most evident Japanese aesthetic today.

9. Bowing
The gesture of bowing is done between many different parties. If someone is bowing to a senior, how deep that person should bow depends on the other person's degree of seniority.

10. "I'm about to do something rude."
The statement in Japanese is, "Shitsurei shimasu," and it's commonly said before exiting a room, as exiting a room is considered rude. Students will say this to their teacher before leaving the classroom because, well, it's rude.

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