The Financial Times’ Emiko Terazono recently interviewed Bill Emmott, the soon-to-be-departing editor of The Economist (OOPS! The FT took it down but you can still read the interview here). The interview was conducted at a Japanese restaurant in London over lunch (scroll down to the bottom to see what they ate and how much it cost). In the article, Terazono describes Emmott‘s truly enviable career as a journalist and noted Japan expert, and toward the end makes the following observation:
He holds his chopsticks perfectly, and lifts his rice bowl when eating from it – as the Japanese do. He also does not make the common gaijin faux pas of pouring soy sauce on his rice.
I did a little (very little) digging to make sure Terazono is not simply an adopted Briton who kept her Japanese name (a la Kazuo Ishiguro, the author of The Remains of the Day). Turns out, according to this interview, Ms. Terazono was born in Japan 40 years ago, spent her junior high and high school years in Canada, went to a Japanese college, worked at a bank, hated it, and then got work at the FT Tokyo Bureau, where she fought hard for six years to get out before getting assigned to the London headquarters. So that confirms that she is writing from the perspective of a member of Japanese society, not that of a gaijin herself.
IMO, the observation works well to drive home the point that not only is Mr. Emmott a well-received author on Japan (whom I have not read, unfortunately), he actually took the time to get the little things “right” about Japanese culture and thereby truly understands it. Don’t you get that impression?
But wait a minute – do his table manners really matter? I mean, would a journalist in India, for example, earn the respect of the locals by eating with his/her fingers and refusing to carry around toilet paper? Would his analysis ring untrue if he didn’t?
I don’t mean to harp on Terazono for her observation – as I said, it works in the context of the article and hey — I am curious to know whether Emmott and other purported experts on Japan hold their chawan. Her comments simply got me thinking about a typical strain of compliments poured on Western visitors to Japan (or even just a Japanese restaurant). Aside from table manners, a visitor may find him or her self earning such insincere-sounding praise as “Your Japanese is so good” at the mere utterance of a single phrase (even “domo arigato Mr. Roboto” seems to work), or a positive rating of intelligence if the Japanese host learns that the visitor speaks other languages than English.
My instinctive reaction to such apparent phoniness is “slightly annoyed shuddering.” But the practice can also be defended as a) A “very Japanese” way to find common ground with someone from a different culture, or b) Simply a natural, passive-aggressive reaction to what is seen as pure boasting (a foreigner acting Japanese) in a culture that frowns upon such self-congratulation, or even c) Sincere praise.
I’m somewhat ambivalent. Finding some common ground is a very good way to break the ice in an often awkward cross-cultural meeting, and the emphasis in Japanese society of pleasant conversation can be very comforting. Also, in situations where I have been hosted by people who don’t speak English and my Japanese was (still is) broken, I was grateful that they were patient enough to talk to me even if I chafed a little at the facile compliments. At the same time, I sometimes wish they’d be a little more creative!
And of course, please note that this is not an across-the-board, one size fits all assessment. The people I’ve met in Japan have reacted to me in a number of ways, ranging from intensive questioning about the conditions in my home country or insistence on speaking English when Japanese would be much more efficient, to quiet contempt or open hostility. I’ve also had countless interesting conversations and fulfilling relationships with people who have felt the need to comment on my chopstick abilities (Mrs. Adamu comes to mind 😀 ). The compliments I described above, however, are as common as they remain virtually identical and unchanged over time.
Dear readers: What do you think? Am I being too sensitive? For those who have experienced what I am talking about, how did you react? Are there any typical compliments/reactions to foreigners that I left out? Your comments are, as always, most welcome.
(Pictures, as usual, are random and do not depict anyone mentioned in the post)