by Joe Shea
American Reporter Correspondent
March 10, 2009
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AOMORI, Japan -- In an attempt to learn more about the Japanese culture, I have been talking to people who are Japanese as well as foreigners that have lived here for a five or more years. Arriving in this country, I fell under the spell of the famous Japanese custom of extreme politeness to visitors. I found myself falling in love with a tidy, friendly, fascinating country that seemed at first, like a well-organized paradise. Now I am having the opportunity to see some stressful aspects of Japanese life.
I have been preparing for a visit with a young woman named Yuko, who lived with me over 17 years ago. I recently reread her letters. In them, she spoke of the contrasts between the U.S and her home of Japan. In her thank you letter, she discussed her love and appreciation of the freedom ("Students have a lot of liberty") and the "bigness" of California living. ("I thought American is very big. Houses are big. Americans are big. Everything is big!").
What impressed her most about the American people was their open-mindedness. She enjoyed the fact that we looked her in the eye. ("American's smile at me when I see their eyes and they see my eyes too. But Japanese doesn't do it."). She felt having contact with us helped her "broaden her vision". While she lived with us, she struck me as a curious, hard working, courageous 17 year-old. She did her senior year in high school in English! Yuko sacrificed graduating with her class in Japan for the opportunity to improve her English and learn more about the Western culture of America.
Once she returned, to Japan she was required to repeat her senior year to be sure she hadn't missed anything and that she would be reacquainted with the Japanese way of doing things.
We encountered several misunderstandings between us over the year she lived in our home. It may have been that she was afraid to talk directly to me about her needs. Yuko explained: "Japanese doesn't like to speak frankly. But American like to do it." It also might have been the fact that we did almost everything in a different way from what she was used to.
This time, I will be staying in the home she shares with her Korean husband and first grade daughter. I want to be prepared to communicate with and understand her better than I did in the past. This weekend I was lucky to gain information that will make my visit to Yuko's family a little easier.
I visited Hachinoche City and saw its museum, fish market, sake factory, organic restaurant and shopping mall. A group of us from work, left early in the morning to be sure we would have plenty of time to enjoy all of the sites. Along the way, I had the opportunity to talk with several people who have lived here many years. I asked a lot of questions about this culture.
I was glad to be with "locals" who new their way around. I would have become lost. There are no road names nor do the numbers on the buildings seem to be in any understandable system. We passed several small villages with only narrow gaps between buildings and rice being grown in the dark soil wherever there was open space.
The buildings had a nondescript quality about them because of shutters that were still in place from the night before. These barriers made all the establishments look very plain and uniform. One gentleman in our group, Mike, has had over 20 years experience in Japan. He considers Japanese to be a superior people. He reminded us of their success in turning their resource poor islands into a great economic power after WWII.
Mike had many theories about what made the Japanese unique and sometimes difficult to understand. His ideas instigated lively discussion among the group.
He taught us about the Japanese concept of kata, which means form and order. Kata refers to the way things must be done to keep harmony in the society. Mike believes that the Japanese idea of doing things the right way is often more important to them than doing things right!
There are katas for just about everything in Japanese life; including how to eat, arrange food on a tray, perform Judo, bow, fold and store clothing, create calligraphy, serve tea, bathe, practice Zen meditation, wrap a gift, write poetry, dress, use chop sticks and make sake. These kata make up an intricate web of rules and forms that are conditioned in every person in the culture. The goal is to create social order, beauty and build strength of character. The down \side of kata is that if people are unsure of what to do in new or unusual situations, they often delay decision-making or do nothing at all. Mike told us because kata is so pervasive, Japanese people tend to be perfectionists and very discriminating, often to the point of being quick to pass judgment.
Mike explained that it is important for us to become familiar with the kata etiquette system to avoid creating ill will. Because we are considered visitors, or Gaijin (foreigner) the people of Japan cut us some slack, but they do appreciate when we make the effort to obey their customs. He recommended an excellent book that I was able to get at the library.
During our trip to Hachinoche, we were able to learn the kata of making Sake, of eating organic buffet and of purchasing fish. I enjoyed the kata of drinking Momokawa sake! The Brewery was established in the Edo Period (1846). According to our tour leader, sake contains mineral substances that reinforce the activity of so-called N.K. cells (Natural Killer cells, which destroy cancer cells) and prevents the formation of senility, obesity and diabetes. I liked it because it reduced the stiffness in my neck, hands and shoulders.
As I was purchasing a bottle of Ginjo Junmai sake, the cashier told me that sake is the chief of all medicine! He recommended a shot a day just before bedtime.
I tried it and slept the best I have since I've been in Japan. I dreamed of the kata of raku pottery and the tea ceremony after reading a book entitled, "Kata: The key to Understanding and Dealing with the Japanese!" by Pye Lafayette De Mente.