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Saturday, May 1, 2009
A nation of outstanding debts
By AMY CHAVEZ
Japan is a nation of favors. Thus the custom that when you see someone, you thank them for the last nice thing they did for you. "Thanks for taking me to the bank yesterday," or "Thanks for dinner the other night."
Such things are covered in the very vague, but appropriate phrase: "Senjitsu osewa ni narimashita" (literally, "the other day I was taken care of by you.") This handy phrase can even double as a greeting.
Since all favors should be repaid in Japanese society, consider your mere arrival in the country as significant enough an event to plunge you into eternal debt. People will do a myriad of favors for you and if you're like most people, you'll be left wondering which people you can just say "Thank you" to and which people you also owe a return favor to. And how much.
Acknowledging favors is key to Japanese culture and is often the catalyst for another cultural anomaly — gift-giving. This is when a special electronic calculator for foreigners would be handy — one that already has in it the values for every activity, task and gesture of kindness known to man as well as an appropriate suggestion on how the favor should be repaid.
So widespread is the custom of doing favors and repaying them that I believe that part of the elementary-school curriculum is a type of mathematics, such as geometry, but called "gifts and favors," where students count favors and put values on them according to the "gifts and favors value sheet."
Among good friends, the custom is to take someone out to dinner or lunch in return for a favor. They will not necessarily say that's why they are taking you out, it's just understood. If it's a smaller favor, such as if your next-door neighbor helped you move a heavy piece of furniture in your house, just a beer or a can of soft drink will do. Small acknowledgments of kindness go far in Japan.
All favors should be returned as soon as possible, if not right on the spot. If you promise to do something in return, such as give them tickets to Disneyland, follow up immediately. Next week will definitely be too late. Not only that, but being a foreigner, you'll probably have forgotten all about it by then — a horror too cruel to imagine.
For the small favors that do slip through the time gap for whatever reason, don't expect to be absolved from returning them. Many a time I walk into a bar or restaurant and see someone I know only to have them buy me a beer while saying "Thanks for that time you gave me a ride on your boat." Huh? That was two years ago!
On occasion, people will return a favor before you've even done it. I call this "reverse favoring." For example, if a university professor needs an English abstract proofread, he might bring you a gift before asking the favor. Cakes, jellies or a piece of pottery are common gifts.
Bigger favors deserve bigger rewards. Very seldom is a monetary reward necessary but the exception is when you ask people to go out of their way for you because you need something or are in a tight spot.
I heard some Japanese friends talking the other day about such a situation. One of their friends became ill and went into the hospital.
After a few weeks, his health became worse and he was transferred to a hospital 10 hours away so he could be closer to his parents in his hometown. His wife stayed behind to take care of things and planned to join him in Nagoya the next week.
My Japanese friends volunteered to drive her and her belongings to Nagoya in their car. They had surmised that, after consulting the gifts and favors value sheet, that they would receive approximately ¥100,000 for their troubles.
A few hours into the trip to Nagoya, however, the woman suddenly exclaimed "Oh no, I forgot my wallet in the apartment!" Imagine how the drivers felt as they realized she no longer had a wallet to give them any money in return for their great favor.
The two drove back from Nagoya the next day and drank great quantities of rice wine to drown their sorrows. Of course protocol would demand that she still repay them, somehow.
There are times when much bigger monetary payments are required in exchange for huge favors, but such cases are commonly know as pork-barreling.