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Saturday, April 10, 2004


How to be polite when you're really not

Japanese people are renowned for being polite. But I think "polite" is a misplaced word because in Western culture, whether someone is polite or not is completely optional. Some people are polite and others are not. The meaning of "polite" in Japanese culture is deeper, and perhaps a more proper English word to describe Japanese people is "respectful" of others. More than just being polite, being respectful implies an attempt to acknowledge other people's culture and ideas and an effort to not hurt people's feelings.

I think most Westerners leave Japan being a little more polite than we came, and maybe even more respectful of others. This comes through some rather rigorous training, however.

For example, when foreigners first come to Japan, we are met with a variety of unknown, unrecognizable food that most of us will at least try out of politeness. Even if we don't like the food, we may say we like it, out of politeness.

The real test comes when that unknown, unrecognizable food becomes known, recognized and loathed. Must we still eat it out of politeness? No. Must we still eat it out of respectfulness? Maybe. If my host says, "Amy-san, we have prepared this bright red-orange, previously bristling sea anemone just for you on this joyous occasion of your birthday!" I cannot politely refuse. I cannot respectfully refuse. I must eat it.

Over the years, I have developed strategies to being respectful.

Strategy No. 1: Pretend it's tequila.

One time I went over to someone's house for tempura. As you may know, tempura should only be served fresh and piping hot. This means the wife usually stands in the kitchen cooking and delivers each trayful of tempura as it is finished, to the waiting guests at the table. There are two ways to eat tempura: one is to dip it in sauce and eat it and the other is to squeeze lemon on it, then dip it in salt and eat it.

But when the tempura was brought out of the kitchen, it was not the vegetable tempura I am used to eating, but octopus tempura instead. And very chewy. The solution? Eat it in shots, like tequila. Squeeze the lemon onto the tentacle, dip the end in the salt, and swallow.

Strategy No. 2: Always have a beer chaser.

The key to eating Japanese food you don't like is always having a beer chaser handy. Beer is almost always on the table, perhaps for this very reason. Before you start eating Japanese food, understand that there will be mistakes. There will be disappointments.

But almost anything is palatable with the help of a beer to wash it down. Even if you don't like beer, you may still find it preferable to that bright red-orange, previously bristling sea anemone. My motto is: If you don't like it, drown it! (Which shouldn't be all that hard if the food is already dead. If it's not, and the fish struggles, just close the throat muscles and swallow harder).

Strategy No. 3: Leave it to the large intestine.

If you find something so repulsive you can't even bear to taste it, let alone chew, then simply swallow it and leave the work to the large intestine.

Oh, and no matter which strategy you choose, don't forget to exclaim, "Oishii!"

There is one more strategy that I use for emergencies only. One day in an "izakaya," Maebaru, a type of fish was put on a platter, doused in sake, then passed around the table while each person took a drink of sake straight from the plate. As people got drunk, one man lost control and sneezed right onto the plate. When my turn came around to drink the sake, I used my last, emergency-only strategy No. 4: Change tables!

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