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Sunday, March 10, 2002

WHEN EAST MARRIES WEST

Hey, thank you for the delicious feast, baby


"If I should meet thee, After long years, How should I greet thee?"

Now that is a question that a Japanese Lord Byron would never have asked. He would have simply roared "Ohisashiburi desu!" like everyone else.

This is because the pat nihongo phrase for "It's been a while" is programmed deep into the language software of all Japanese everywhere.

As are scads of other set expressions. While all languages have their own established phrasing, the "greeting" portion of the Japanese idiom seems power-bolted to the brainstem.

Aisatsu -- as they are called -- are sprinkled in the language here the way cyclones are "sprinkled" in the tropics. A person cannot successfully learn Japanese without memorizing such expressions by the gobs.

Without such mastery, daily life will trip along awkwardly. Or, as in my case, fall flat on its nose.

"Ne," whispered my wife about 20 years ago. "I have an idea."

At the time we were newlyweds. I gazed into her eyes and wondered if her idea could be the same as mine.

It wasn't.

"Let's promise," she said, "to use greetings always."

"Uh . . . all right." It seemed a tame enough request. "You mean like, 'Yo, sweety! Let's pucker!' "

Wrong again. She instead meant an entire dictionary of phrases designed to cover situations such as: "I'm eating"; "I'm home"; "I'm done eating"; "Thank you for your work"; "Thank you for taking care of me"; "Excuse me for being rude"; "Excuse me for being late" . . . and more. Not to mention everyday niceties like "Good morning," "Good night" and so on.

My second thought (my first thought, you see, was still some place else) was that my easygoing home life had just been militarized. I felt like snapping to and saluting -- except I knew better than to make fun of my commanding officer.

These days I also know such greetings are essential grease for maintaining smooth relationships. Almost every Japanese office, school or club I have associated with has made giving proper greetings rule No. 1, the way a football coach might stress fundamental form in tackling.

In fact, just as when the team goes bad and the coach makes players get back to basics, I'll bet floundering Japanese companies all place huge emphasis on greetings -- as if such rudiments were a key to curing their balance sheets.

Yet, 20 years ago I did not know this and did not see our nuptial life as a place needing grease. I mostly forgot when to offer what greeting, and my bride mostly forgave me. Then we visited her home for an extended holiday.

"Why," she sniffled, "can't you give a decent greeting? How can you be so insensitive?"

It seems my in-laws were confused by my silence. I ate, drank and breathed. I gave all outward signs of being human. Why then didn't I give aisatsu? What sort of lout was I?

To be precise, I was a stupid lout. But one whom, in the face of hot tears and icy stares, learned fast. I was soon squirting aisatsu like melon seeds.

Too bad they were not always correct. Such sayings seemed to have all been assigned to one cramped chamber in my brain. When the need arose, my brain just twitched and fired. Who knew what would fly out?

"I'm leaving now!" I shouted.

To see my in-laws gawk as I dove into my meal.

"What a stupid lout you are," said a foreign friend. "All you have to do is lower your face and mumble. The Japanese are all automated. They're going to think you said the right thing no matter what."

So I mumbled how rude that was and he gave me an automatic gesture in return.

Unlike that gesture, many Japanese aisatsu do not cross cultures. Sometimes it is hard to convince Japanese this is so.

"You gotta tell me how to say 'itadakimasu' in English!" asked a Japanese acquaintance. "I'll be staying at an American home for two weeks and I've just got to say it!"

I said we had no expression for "I'm eating." But the man begged and begged me to find something.

"OK . . . Before you dig in, turn to your host mother, smile and say, 'Yo, sweety! Let's pucker!' "

The fellow almost ripped off my hand with gratitude, then flew to America. Odd, but I never heard from him again.

Another aisatsu that Japanese often want translated is yoroshiku onegai shimasu. Which sometimes means "please" and other times means . . . Um . . . Um . . . What does it mean?

I admit that after more than two decades here, I am not quite sure. I also admit that I can't get by without it.

For life without yoroshiku is like a sandwich without bread. It doesn't hold together so well.

If I don't drop a yoroshiku on someone I've just met or leave a yoroshiku at the cleaners along with my linen or clip a yoroshiku on to my post office request to mail a package, then the whole exchange seems sadly incomplete.

"That's a sure sign you've been here too long," says an old friend.

"You think so?"

"Definitely. You need to thin your blood of aisatsu. Get away for a while. Or better yet, have me call you now and then. The extra English will do you good."

It's an offer I decide to accept. After all, aisatsu are convenient, but they can't cover everything.

Or can they?

"OK," I tell my friend. "You're on."

We sit then through an uncomfortable silence . . . before I spurt the line that we all saw coming.

"Yoroshiku onegai shimasu."



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