Table Manners

Wooded Canal Germany
Wooded canal just outside Lübeck, northern Germany, 1995.

With winter approaching the chances to meet flights of wanderers along the streets of Tokyo would seem to die out with the passing of the summer birds. Summer holds the tickets to all the comings and goings that we do. And yet this last weekend I ended up with three days of encounters: my Friday night dinner with former students, the day long celebration of eating and peeking on Saturday, and then yesterday, most unusual, a chance meeting with two hikers at an outdoor store. Unusual in that, here in Japan, meeting and talking to strangers usually only occurs when the circumstances dictate such a necessity, for instance when a customer talks to a shop clerk or a passenger asks directions on the train. Otherwise Japanese keep to themselves and it is rare that two people sitting next to each other on the train start up a conversation, even if they sit brushing shoulders for several hours. It is one reason I dislike train travel in Japan, despite its efficiency and speed.

Of the two characters I met in the hiking store, one was British. When I first saw him he looked familiar, but I couldn’t put my finger on where I had met him. Normally in England or the States, we would have smiled and at least nodded when we first made eye contact, but this being Japan, we just sort of grunted and passed one another by.

It was at the store’s self-help coffee corner, where you can sit and watch videos of mountains to travel to and look through outdoor magazines and maps at a big, wooden table that I met the second guy, a Japanese. He saw me fiddling with the coffee machine and stepped up to offer assistance, not realizing that I could speak Japanese and that it was the little sign which read, “Coffee Corner Closed” in Japanese that I was concerned about. He naturally hesitated, as a Japanese would, wanting to be careful not to intrude on my privacy, and I reacted in just as Japanese a way, stuttering slightly as I tried to reassure him, without insulting him , that I appreciated his help, but understood the Japanese.

That would have ended our further talking had it not been for the British fellow. It soon became apparent that these two people were friends; they sat down on one side of the big table and started discussing camping equipment. I listened furtively, wanting to join in the conversation, and finding their talk of lightweight tents and over-accumulation of camping gear quite interesting. Every time one of them looked up at me, I looked down, as did the Japanese guy. I figured that I would sit there, drawing my sketches for an tarp idea, while they talked themselves out and left the store.

I was about to leave, when the British guy suddenly turned around and asked, “Say, where you from?”

So we got to talking. It lasted three hours. About everything from the latest camping gadgets, to the best places to roam in Asia. It was mostly a volley between me and the British fellow, but I was aware of the Japanese man sitting next to the other the whole time. I occasionally turned to him during the conversation just to let him know that I was aware of him and that I also understood how hard it was for him to join the conversation. Eventually the ice broke and he joined in, talking for a spell about temples.

The curious experience of the interaction between the three of us was that I suddenly was put into the position of having to defend both a British sensibility and a Japanese one. The British guy occasionally leaned over and would strongly opine with statements like, “I think the Japanese don’t like foreigners and that’s why they don’t deal with you when you walk into the stores.” His words would stop me short, because, in part, I agreed with him, having had many similar experiences. But at the same time another part of me would ring with the opposite view, that the Japanese truly are a shy and very reserved people, and it is difficult to get them to display themselves. I sat there before these people whose cultures I both understood and had experienced all my life, and for a second or two found myself tongue tied. How to answer? After a moment’s thought I would reply. “Well, you know, you are right. A lot of Japanese really don’t like foreigners and resent having to deal with them, but you have to remember that most Japanese are also keenly aware of social propriety and will bend over backwards to observe the respect due another. Showing someone that you don’t know what they are saying and thereby causing them discomfort or inconvenience is something shameful that needs to be avoided at all costs. Many Japanese turn away simply because they haven’t a clue about what to say and get nervous.

I watched these two people from widely disparate cultures and found my innards shifting first this way then the other, in a seesaw of cultural sloshing that left me a little exhausted while I tried to keep my balance. Maybe because I have been straddling cultures all my life, it always comes as a surprise to see others not being able to bridge the gap and clearly make out the logic of the other side.

In the end I made two new friends. Hope fully we will all have a chance to get out to our beloved mountains, where cultural differences are all washed away by the undeniable wave of nature.

It was just as the two were heading out the door while I stood in line at the casier, that the British fellow and I turned to each other and announced, “Weren’t you the guy on top of Kumotori Mountain a month ago?” Yes, we had met before. On top of a mountain, in a bright early morning sunlight, going opposite directions. “You going all the way down on foot?” “Yeah, all the way down. And you?”

2 Responses

  1. beth

    You’ve written so much good stuff lately. I enjoyed the pictures of the markets, and your description of your day; a counterpoint to the moving post about diabetes. The encounter at the outdoor goods store reminded me of the contrast between where I grew up, only 6 hours from here, and New England, where no one strikes up a casual conversation with strangers. I’ve found England to be quite like that too, although the British are delighted to talk once you break the ice. Sitting next to people in concerts or cafes, I’ve often started a conversation which was initially acknowledged by the words, “Oh, you must be American!”

  2. butuki

    During my 6 month journey across Europe by bicycle one of the things that delighted me about Britain were the encounters in bookstores. I love books and always hunger for suggestions that others might give me for something that I had never read before. Often, in Britain, people would lean over and praise a book I was perusing, often going into detail as to why it was such a good book. That always helped me find books that I would otherwise have never even considered. Even the British guy at the hiking store did so, recommending Hamish Brown, whose book might be the next I will order from Amazon.