In his terribly titled ‘Sushi and Beyond’ – discount New-Age supermarket cookbook title aside, it’s actually a very worthwhile read, and not only for foodies interested in Japanese cuisine – the British food writer Michael Booth devotes a chapter (Okay, it’s two pages long, but still!) to self-imposed pledges regarding writing about Japan.
I hereby pledge never to score cheap points at the expense of the Japanese people’s confusion regarding the pronunciation of the letters ‘r’ and ‘l’.
Neither will I make jokes about their height.
There will be no bemused riffs about the technological complexity of Japanese toilets…
I will not invoke the film Blade Runner when describing Japanese cities by night.
I will not make jokes about the war, kamikaze pilots, sumo wrestlers, the way I ‘admire the Japanese for sticking with chopsticks even after they found about forks’, nor their uniformity of hair types.
It goes on like this. And even though Booth himself casually breaks a fair amount of his own rules over the course of the book, they make for a pretty good blueprint for anyone writing about Japan. To which I could only add: I won’t poke fun at the pathological aversion of the Japanese to touching. Anything, if at all possible. (And possibly a promise to never write anything in kanji, because, for God’s sake why would I?)
So I’ll try not to poke fun exactly, but it’s certainly worth mentioning with regards to finding your way around Japan at all. Given that this article’s our first one, let’s say hello with a nice long bow. At a safe distance. With hands where we can see ‘em, down by your side… Okay then.
It can’t be emphasised enough just how little Japanese people touch each other (We’ll get to the “Women Only” carriages on trains another time…) and, by extension, foreign visitors. Even having lived here for a while, I’ve made this cardinal error once or twice – I’ll never forget the look of absolute terror on a relatively close friend’s face when I went to kiss her on the cheek after a meal. Nothing to do with me – I hope, she’s happily married after all! – but rather the proximity, the surprise, the complete and utter discomfort with the act.
When asking around about this subject, armed with a London Times article describing the cheek-kissing etiquette in France, everyone whom I talked to were uniformly horrified by the supposed barbarism of the French. Japanese people don’t even tend to kiss their mothers on the cheek, let alone colleagues, acquaintances, friends… It’s just not done.
Are there any exceptions? Of course. In the internationalised business world, a solid handshake is just as important as back West, and a clap on the back comes from time to time elsewhere. However, in my experience, be prepared for a tensing of shoulders should you return it – the physical aspect of communication is lacking here, and that’s the system people are used to. If there’s one thing that’s vital to bear in mind, it’s that folk sure do love to know exactly how to behave in any given situation, and that a variable such as physical contact might well throw them out of their comfort zone. (Pro tip: Throwing is for judo, not a tea ceremony.)
No physical contact is easy, it must be said. There’s no groping around a stranger’s face like in France, hurriedly trying to anticipate where this complete stranger will attempt to land a peck on your cheek. Similarly the lack of a bro’ed-to-the-max supercharged handshake routine or a litany of embraces is actually quite refreshing. However, it goes much deeper than a simple aversion to overcomplicated welcomes and farewells.
This aversion to touching – I’m not saying they have to come over all je ne sais quoi about it – extends to many other areas of society here. For example, I thought I’d gotten into an incredibly fancy taxi my first night in Tokyo… man, was I mistaken. From policemen to taxi drivers, delivery men to railway workers, many Japanese wear snow-white gloves during their working day. Why? If you want to delve into history, purity in all affairs is apparently inspired by the ancient deity Izanagi, who upon his return from the Underworld made straight for a bath in order to wash off the grime that lurks there. Or again, the more prosaic answer: it offers that sliver of distance and ceremony to these daily machinations.
As the Japan Times columnist Alice Gordenker writes in her aptly-titled ‘So What The Heck Is That?’ column, ‘White is indeed associated with cleanliness, which is one reason many workers in the package-delivery industry wear white gloves. “Gloves reduce wear and tear on the hands,” one of my local delivery guys told me. “But we also wear white gloves because many of our customers are concerned about dirt and germs. They don’t want their packages to come into contact with anyone’s bare hands.” The association between white gloves and honesty is also why politicians wear white gloves on the campaign trail.’ [http://www.japantimes.co.jp/news/2013/03/19/reference/white-gloves/#.U6WXDbEjKII]
Are the politicians here cleaner and more trustworthy than anywhere else? (According to the Edelman PR firm’s trust surveys – not really.) So, the real reason is more likely to do with that crucial remove that seems to be so important to the Japanese.
Do people here really wear masks as much as you’d think? Probably more so, and I don’t even live in a choked conurbation like Tokyo. It’s perfectly acceptable to have full conversations and go about your entire day clad in one of these ubiquitous cotton squares and nobody bats an eyelid… Even though Japan actually has a relatively low air pollution index. Again it’s another useful barrier between you and the general populace.
Don’t get me wrong, this remove and the cleanliness that comes with it has its high points. I’m not sure I could go back to living in the West where you don’t get a warm moist hand towel to wash your hands before eating in every single restaurant. And people here are a long way short of being unfeeling automatons. One question asked of me by a relative back home was whether Japanese people smiled in photos or only did a goofy V-sign to show that they’re having fun. (Both, naturally.) At times it’s perfectly acceptable to get physical with your fellow denizens, not only when posing for a photo.
Unfortunately, that mostly appears to be when you’re blind drunk. The most common sight of friendly physical contact that I’ve witnessed seems to be the ubiquitous salaryman-on-salaryman bonding, where all social conventions seem to go out the window. That is until it comes time to say goodbye, whereupon these groups will say their goodbyes politely, with plenty of bowing at a crossroads. Back to the real world.