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Saturday, Oct. 15, 2011
When favors throw you into a vicious circle
By AMY CHAVEZ
The Japanese countryside is a place where the people are so nice, it's well, ridiculous. Actions that wouldn't even register in my mind as "thankable" are commonly thanked for here.
"Thank you for having my husband over for drinks the other day," said my neighbor, referring to how we spontaneously invited him over for a beer while he was walking past our house. But people in Japan thank you for the smallest things and soon, it sounds like you've done all these people grand favors.
Sometimes I feel like if I stood outside in front of my house all day, someone would come up to me and say, "Amy, thank you so much for standing outside your house like that all day." There are no limits on the praise these people give.
To make it worse, the Japanese have an expression, "Senjitsu-wa, arigatou gozaimashita," which means, "Thank you for what you did for me the other day." Like I can even remember what I did the other day, let alone what I did with, or for, someone else. I think this expression is vague on purpose. That way you can say it to everyone you meet just to make sure you haven't forgotten to thank someone for something.
I never knew these particular neighbors very well until recently, when the husband temporarily retired from his job as a commercial fisherman due to an injured back. Before, he was just another fisherman who passed our house in the late afternoons at 5 p.m. to go out fishing, and again at 3 a.m. when coming home after a night out fishing. He still passes our house in the late afternoons, but only to go to the fishermen's wharf to see the others off. On his way back home, we often call him over for a drink on our porch.
Another time when he passed house, we invited him to join us in our BBQ.
Early the next morning, we found half a bucket of fresh prawns on our doorstep. Yep, he had returned the favor, measured in shrimp.
Feeling that perhaps we were leaving the wife out of the fuzzy neighborliness, we invited the fisherman, his wife and their two young kids over for pizza. We taught the kids how to make pizza dough and they each baked their own pizzas. This was followed by a fuller bucket of shrimp on the doorstep the next morning.
Because we know these neighbors a little better now, whenever we have extra fruit we take some over to them. And the husband still drops by the porch for a beer now and then. As a result, the poor wife has been put into "thank you" overdrive.
In the U.S., fruit is not as highly prized. But in Japan, fruit is so luxurious, they probably even pay off the mafia with fruit, maybe even offer protection fruit.
The other day, the fisherman's wife came to our house to thank us for a fresh pineapple we had given them. "No problem. Wouldn't you like another?" I said, handing her another fresh pineapple. That's when I realized that now, in her mind, she had to thank me all over again. Or maybe, horror of all horrors, I had committed a double favor!
Without realizing it at the time, I had put this woman two pineapples in debt! How will she sleep at night? My God, I had become a fruit bully!
I hate to admit it, but that double favor filled me with a sense of power. This is the first time in all my years in Japan I've ever been able to put someone else into fruit debt. Before, it was me who could never return all the fruit people gave me. But the difference between me and the Japanese is that I don't worry about returning favors as much. I stopped trying to be Japanese a long time ago. Yet here I was, little ol' me, giving the world fruit!
It was a climactic fruit moment. Suddenly everything became clear, including all those fancy boxes of overpriced peaches and the ¥5,000 cantaloupes on the Japanese grocery store shelves that make you think, "Who would ever buy those!?" Well, I'll tell you who buys them: People who are at a loss as to how to return all the daily niceties in Japanese life. So they do it with expensive fruit. After all, it's the financial thought that counts.
And as soon as you give fruit to someone, many of them probably turn around and give it to someone else to pay off a previous fruit debt. It's a vicious fruit circle!
(This fruit scoring system used among neighbors is not to be confused with the vegetable scoring system, which works on the same principle but is far inferior. The numbers of vegetables exchanged are greater because vegetables are worth less than fruit. Vegetables, no matter how much they try, will just never have the clout fruit has in Japan.)
So, knowing what it was like to be in such debt to others, why did I let myself become a fruit bully? Because I knew I could! I wanted someone else to know how it feels to be incapable of returning so many favors. I didn't want anything in return. Instead, I wanted them to feel so low, so inadequate, that they would file for fruit bankruptcy!
And it gets worse. My ego took over. I felt such power that I couldn't stop giving. When I took a fresh baked carrot cake out of the oven, my husband knew something was up. "You never make carrot cake!" he said. "I thought I'd give it to the neighbors," I said.
"Stop!" said my husband, but I was already out the door. I ran over to the neighbor's house, shoved the carrot cake into the mother's hands and said, "Just for you!"
I looked at her confused face. I'm sure she was thinking: already two pineapples in debt and now this! She was calculating the value of all the ingredients needed to make carrot cake just so she could return the favor with enough shrimp. Half a bucket? Three quarters? You can probably even buy special buckets in Japan that have measurements printed on them not in liters, but in favors. A BBQ, for future reference, is worth half a bucket.
But now I am filled with shame. I realize I was not giving for the right reasons. I am embarrassed to say that my efforts were entirely fruitless.