Dave Barry does Japan
Date: Mon, 26 Oct 92 13:30:29 PST
Subject: Dave Barry does Japan
From: email@example.com (Rich Schaefer)
From: jww (JWW)
[This article, while cute and funny, is amazingly accurate (i.e. it coincides
with my experiences visiting a long-time Japan-resident family member). -psl]
From "Dave Barry Does Japan"
I wrote my book "Dave Barry Does Japan" to try, in some small way, to make
this world a better place for people everywhere, and for the generations
I'm lying, of course! I wrote the book because I thought a trip to Japan
might be pretty funny, especially since Random House had generously agreed
to pay for the whole thing. This was a major factor, because I had heard
that prices were pretty high in Japan. People who'd been there were
always telling me horror stories.
"Oh yes," they'd say, "In Tokyo, Frank ordered two eggs over medium and
the bill came to $16,500, plus $312 for the parsley sprig, and he wound
up having to sell both of his corneas."
So in the summer of 1991 I filled several large suitcases with traveler's
checks and went to Japan with my wife, Beth, and my 10-year-old son,
Robert. We spent three weeks bumbling around in a disoriented,
uncomprehending manner, The Three Cultural Stooges, because it turns out
that Japan is an *extremely* foreign country, where you can never be sure
whether the sign on the door you're about to open says:
ENTER HERE FOR EXPRESS VASECTOMY SERVICE
My book is an account of that trip. Please don't misunderstand me: I
don't claim to have become an expert on Japan in three weeks. The
Japanese culture is thousands of years old; to truly grasp its incredible
complexity and infinite subtle nuance, you'd need at least a month.
Ha ha! Just Kidding. I don't know if an outsider can ever really
understand Japan, but I know I never came close. When I arrived there,
my major objectives immediately changed from things like "try to determine
attitude of average salaried worker toward government industrial policy"
to things like "try to find food without suckers on it."
So this is not authoritative. If you want authoritative, go buy a real
book. This is just a highly subjective account of our trip, with a lot
of personal impressions, some of which may well have been influenced by
beer, which by the way is another thing they do better than we do. In
fact they do quite a few things better than we do, and I'm not just
talking about cars and radios. But it also turns out that we are *way*
ahead of them in some important areas, such as pizza.
My most important finding, however, does not involve the differences
between us and Japan; it involves the similarities. Because despite the
gulf, physical and cultural, between the United States and Japan, both
societies are, in the end, made up of people, and people everywhere - when
you strip away their superficial differences - are crazy.
I attempted to learn Japanese by reading a book called "Japanese at a
Glance" in the plane from San Francisco to Tokyo. This is not the method
recommended by experts. The method recommended by experts is to be born
as a Japanese baby and raised by a Japanese family, in Japan.
The result of my language-training program was that I arrived in Tokyo
speaking Japanese at essentially the same fluency as cement. I never did
get much better while I was there. The only word I got really good at
saying was "beer," which is pronounced "bee-roo," unless you want a big
beer, in which case it is pronounced "BIG bee-roo."
Many Japanese people know a little English. But it's often *very* little.
Japan is not like, for example, Germany, where everybody seems to speak
English better than the average U.S. congressperson. In Japan, you will
often find yourself in situations where nobody speaks any English. And
the weird thing is, English pops up *everywhere* in Japan. You constantly
see signs and advertisements with English words in them, and you
constantly hear American rock music being played in stores and
restaurants. But to the Japanese, the English doesn't seem to *mean*
anything. It's there purely for decorative purposes, like a hood
ornament, or a SPEED LIMIT 55 sign.
This can be frustrating. I remember being in a Kentucky Fried Chicken
restaurant (see footnote No. 1) in a small town called Beppu, trying to
communicate the concept of "ketchup" to the young man behind the counter,
who, like virtually every other Japanese person we met, was extremely
polite and diligent. He was trying hard to understand me, frowning with
intense concentration as I used the Official United Nations International
Gesture for "ketchup," which is to pound the bottom of an upside-down
imaginary ketchup bottle while saying Ketch-up? Ketch-up? Ketch-up? like
a person with a hiccups-related nerve disorder. But I wasn't getting
through, so the young man called two young women over, and all three of
them solemnly watched me repeat Ketch-up? Ketch-up? Ketch-up? for a while
longer, none of them saying a word, and all the while the store's music
system was playing:
*There she was, just a walkin' down the street*
*Singin' do-wah diddy diddy dum diddy-do*
And I wanted to scream, HOW CAN YOU NOT UNDERSTAND ENGLISH WHEN ALL DAY
LONG YOU LISTEN TO DO-WAH DIDDY DIDDY DUM DIDDY-DO??
The important lesson for the English-speaking visitor to learn from all
this is that in Japan, English words do not necessarily mean anything.
Adding to the confusion is the fact that, even when English words DO mean
something, it may not be what you think. The Japanese are not big on
saying things directly. Another way of putting this is, compared to the
Japanese, the average American displays all the subtlety of Harpo hitting
Zeppo with a dead chicken. The Japanese tend to communicate via nuance
and euphemism often leaving important things unsaid; whereas most
Americans tend to think they're being subtle when they refrain from
grabbing the listener by the shirt.
This difference in approach often leads to misunderstandings between the
two cultures. One of the biggest problems - all the guidebooks warn you
about this - is that the Japanese are extremely reluctant to come right
out and say "no," a word they generally regard as impolite.
To the best of my knowledge, in the three weeks we traveled around Japan,
nobody ever told us we couldn't do anything, although it turned out that
there were numerous things we couldn't do. Life became easier for us once
we learned to interpret certain key phrases, which I'll summarize in this
English Statement Made By / Actual Meaning In American
A Japanese Person /
I See. / No.
Ah. / No.
Ah-hah. / No.
Yes. / No.
That is difficult. / That is completely impossible.
That is very interesting. / That is the stupidest thing I ever heard.
We will study your proposal. / We will feed your proposal to a goat.
But subtlety and protocol are not the the strong suits of Americans, which
is one reason why the Japanese tend to view us as large, loud water
buffalo, lumbering around without a clue, tromping and pooping all over
their carefully arranged, exquisitely tended garden of a society.
1. Of *course* they have Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurants. Don't be an
*From the coming book "Dave Barry Does Japan" by Dave Barry, 1992 by Dave
Barry. Reprinted with the permission of Random House Inc. Distributed by
Tribune Media Services Inc.*
© 1992 Peter Langston