Five Ways To Become a Social Outcast in Japan

Have I mentioned that I'm married to the Emily Post of Japan? Ask my husband questions about wagashi or Buddhist shrines and you'll get a bored shrug; stab your chopsticks into a bowl of food * (the most effective way, in my opinion, of keeping the blasted things from rolling gleefully to the floor for the umpteenth time) however, and my dear hubby's posture will grow so rigid, you'd think you'd stuck your chopsticks up some place else entirely. He will then proceed to berate you to such a degree, the need to strap on a corset and balance a book atop your head will become fairly overwhelming (but don't, because then he'll think you're mocking him).

The Japanese are so nice and polite, you'll never know you ever committed a faux pas in their presence. But people will know. And according to my husband, that would simply be unacceptable (sharp, matronly sniff). As well as mortifying--to him (indignant little quiver).

Being a rather bungling sort of creature, I'm quite guilty of having committed--in some cases repeatedly and allegedly without compunction--almost all of what in my husband's book are the major no-nos. For those desiring not to appear gauche and ignorant during a visit to Japan, take careful note:

  1. Never pass food between two pairs of chopsticks - Sometimes, during a funeral, the bones of the deceased are passed with chopsticks from one family member to another **. Just remember: human bones okay, food no-no

  2. Never rest your chopsticks horizontally on top of your plate or bowl - The plate forms a circle, which is pronounced "en," which can also mean "relationship," and so symbolically crossing out the "relationship" with your chopsticks is an offense to your dining partner

  3. When using chopsticks, only the top chopstick is supposed to move - and don't hold your chopsticks too close to the tip, or you're liable to find yourself being mocked by some little kid.

  4. Hold your bowl and tea cup like this - But according to my dear Mr. Post, the fingers should be held more neatly together, and pointed more to the side. I'll get a picture.

  5. Always wear clean, matching socks - People are constantly taking off their shoes in Japan: in homes, restaurants, offices, clinics, toilets. If you're expected to remove your shoes, slippers will often be provided. But this doesn't mean there won't be many moments for people to catch a glimpse of your socks and whatever state they might be in--gasp! I must say, if the sheer popularity and variety of socks is anything to go by (really, it almost needs its own post), nice foot undies do seem de rigeur.

*Sticking one's chopsticks into a bowl of rice is a surefire way to draw a collective mental gasp from every Japanese--and probably Chinese--brain in the room; something to do with how that's only done when offering food to a dead person. What is it with chopsticks and death?
**I found an extremely interesting and detailed description of a Japanese funeral, which also covers the subject of handling bones with chopsticks.

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Oh my goodness, I just know I'd be outcast immediately, so many little details to remember I'd probably be so worried about the five rules that I'd end up spilling my food all over someones lap, tipping over my chair in horror, and then running out in tears...or is that ok? 

from Jaime

5/12/2005 10:10:00 PM  

Lots of rules was one of the reasons I was glad to leave Portugal behind (I am from the African colonies and we did not have crazy rules there). I don't think I would fare well in Japan 

from Ana

5/13/2005 05:39:00 AM  

I will never have problem with #1 for the lack of dexterity when handling chopsticks. BTW, I hold chopsticks like a little kid, which I am sure is secretly scorned by every Japanese person I ever dined with.


from Lynn

5/13/2005 06:57:00 AM  

so funny but when i was living there i just got the "we expect nothing less from the gaijin" shrug. in fact, when i behaved properly it seemed like people were disappointed. that is except for the japanese half of family. all of whom pretended not to know who i was... 

from rae

5/13/2005 12:41:00 PM  

Jaime, not to worry, you could make 5,000 mistakes and no one would ever let on--it helps that your blondness clearly states your foreigness, while I have to speak very loudly and badly so that everyone realizes.

Hey Ana, yeah, there are *a lot* of rules in this country. But there's not a whole lot of pressure from anyone, except my own husband--grin. So, you're from Portugal? My husband lived there when he was a boy and loved it.

Don't worry, Lynn, I hold my chopsticks the way I hold a pencil, which according to Akito, is also completely wrong. I guess it would explain why my handwriting is so atrocious and I can't pick up little grains of rice or really big dango.

Rae, are you half Japanese? And why did your family pretend they didn't know you? I sense an interesting story here.  

from Rachel

5/13/2005 02:35:00 PM  

This entry made me laugh out loud, Rachel. I am with Jaime (and luckily equally blond)... I might be able to learn the language eventually, but I bet I would continue to make enormous social blunders forever. :-) 

from Jessica

5/13/2005 09:03:00 PM  

Jessica, I was as usual being melodramatic when I came up with the title. I don't think anyone would be overly horrified if you committed any of my husband's five main offenses.  

from Rachel

5/15/2005 01:13:00 AM  

Hello there. When I read your blog, I felt a cold shiver runnin down my spine about the hashi stickin in the rice. Cos I have done it, see. But maybe not infront of a Nihonjin maybe...hmm so maybe that's OK?

Indeed one needs to be well informed about all these customs!!!  

from jules now living in Japan

12/28/2005 04:41:00 PM  

Hi Jules! I'm sorry I missed your comment until now. I don't know how it escaped me.

Well, I think you're safe, since you didn't commit the offense in front of any Japanese. Phew!  

from Rachel

1/24/2006 01:13:00 AM  

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