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Monday, Feb. 17, 2003


The art of making excuses

Part of growing up in Japan is about naturally acquiring shoseijutsu -- phrases and expressions that get you through difficulties and make good impressions.

To the Western mind, a lot of shoseijutsu phrases may seem meaningless or hypocritical; to the Japanese, their simple utterance will make doors swing open or guarantee instant closure.

Most prominent among shoseijutsu are various (excuses) that go down with everyone as "teisai ga ii (looking good in the eyes of society)."

My personal favorite standby is "I have to attend a hoji (Buddhist commemoration ceremony)," used during the times when I'm desperate for a brief holiday. Hoji are held on the anniversary of the death of an important family member, and every Japanese over the age of 7 is familiar with them. We all know the hoji as a long, monotonous day in which shinseki (relatives) gather, listen to a monk chanting for hours and eat cold shojinryori (Buddhist vegetarian cuisine) with bad sake. All this is followed by inevitable family bickering in the drafty zashiki (large tatami mat room) of the temple.

No adult can get out of a hoji, which makes it the perfect excuse to wrangle a few days off. Bosses and colleagues will respectfully lower their voices to say "gokurosama (we appreciate your reverent suffering)." They might even urge you to take an extra day off before coming back to work, since everyone knows how draining a hoji can be. Of course, things could get tricky if you have a real hoji on the heels of a false one, but the art of shoseijutsu is about making sure such mistakes don't happen.

When nursing a hangover and planning to take the morning off, it's best to trot out the old line of "ima byoin ni imasu (I'm at the hospital now)." Somehow, the Japanese like to imagine people sitting on a hard bench in the labyrinthine corridors of an influenza ward, preferably in an odorous and antiquated daigaku byoin (university hospital) where the total average wait time for shinsatsu (diagnosis), kusuri o morau (dispensing of medication) and shiharai (payment) can approach 3 1/2 hours.

On the other hand, the image of you in bed sipping weakly from a chic bottle of French mineral water won't give much pleasure to anyone. If you're going to pamper yourself, it's only polite to lie and pretend to suffer as much as everyone else on a weekday morning after a drinking party.

The key word of course, is kuro (pain and suffering). The Japanese will forgive most things if they think it entails hardship and frayed nerves. I remember my mom making excuses to her mother-in-law before taking us kids on a beach holiday to southern Japan.

"My niece is about to have a baby and I must go and help out," she said with an exaggerated sigh. "I hate to take off like this, but the situation can't be helped."

It was true that my cousin was pregnant, but the baby wasn't due for another month. And Grandma wasn't the type to grudge us some fun. In fact, she probably saw through my mom's iiwake in 0.2 seconds. But the phrases osan (childbirth) and tetsudai (helping out) gave the whole thing a seal of approval that made it much more convenient for the two women. My mother was exonerated from guilt and my grandma was liberated from having to pressure the yome (the son's wife) into feeling guilty.

All this reveals how Japan, in spite of its high-tech trappings, has retained the nomin (peasant) psyche, a frame of mind formulated over many centuries that holds that anything that's not hard work, sweat on the brow and general unpleasantness, is sinful. This is why colleagues who don't particularly like each other go out for drinks after work and men get up at 4 in the morning to catch the first train to go golfing with clients. This is their way of saying, "You see? No one's having fun. We're all suffering. And the only reason we're doing it is because it's shigoto (work)" -- which in Japan is the greatest, mightiest, most effective iiwake of all.


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