Even the departing editor of the Economist isn’t above chopstick praise

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.

Random Picture (NOT Emmott)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)

6 thoughts on “Even the departing editor of the Economist isn’t above chopstick praise”

  1. I don’t think you’re being oversensitive, though I do think you’re falling pray to some extent to the Japanese-created aura of being particularly insensitive to foreigners. Don’t get me wrong: Japanese culture is pretty unwelcoming to someone who is not willing to fully assimilate (even to Japanese), but I’m not sure anymore how much that makes Japan an outlier in the world.

    The soy sauce thing is interesting: some of us have no problem putting soy sauce on our rice, but prefer not to; it’s not about being polite (which is what’s implied by the faux pas comment) but about taste….

  2. Oh, I am under no delusions as far as insensitivity toward foreigners is concerned. I’ve engendered enough impatient looks from foreign students in Washington to figure out that I’m not exactly Mr. Urbane American myself. But I’ve been told that as Americans go I’m actually somewhat better than most in terms of being “international.”

    But things like this have become an issue among Westerners in Japan, probably because people like me get all bent out of shape about it. Of course, if this is the worst of your problems then things really can’t be all that bad, can they?

    About the soy sauce on rice thing: it is the custom not to do it in Japan. The rule of thumb is not to put soy sauce directly on the rice but to pour it on your katsu or sashimi and eat the rice with that.

    I agree: I don’t like soy sauce with rice but it’s got nothing to do with manners. Japanese food is a little like wine – it tastes better if it’s in the right container and consumed properly.

    This might be because I’ve been stateside for so long, but it seems kind of silly to worry too much about Japanese manners as a foreigner. I mean I’ll do what I can to avoid making my eating habits a topic of conversation (there are usually more interesting things to talk about), but not every meal needs to be the freaking tea ceremony. I can’t kneel, don’t like shiso, and occasionally like to drink soda with a meal – deal with it.

  3. Thinking about that quote you highlighted, the bit that offends me is the “common gaijin faux pas” phrase. It has already been established that he is a Japan expert and presumably long-time resident; it would be like if it was the other way round at a Western restaurant pointing out that the Japanese person didn’t drink the finger bowls thinking it to be sake, or something.

    Also, the “common gaijin faux pas” is really “error by person fresh off the boat at his first meal in Japan”. It’s like the standing your chopsticks up in rice – does anyone really do it with sufficient frequency to merit a prominent mention in almost every etiquette guide?

    Holding the chawan, though, is something that I didn’t do for a good few years until wifey beat good manners into me!

  4. Regardless of whether you’re being overly sensitive or not (and I don’t think you are), banalities regarding chopstick proficiency are hardly befitting of a professional journalist, not to mention her use of “gaijin.” And if she’s under the assumption that all Japanese use chopsticks correctly and don’t pour soy sauce or other condiments on rice, she really needs to get out more. You might say that Terazono makes the classic ‘hojin’ faux pas of making sweeping statements about her own culture.

    Great blog by the way.

  5. Let’s see if it makes sense if we switch cultures:

    “Mr. Tanaka held his spoon perfectly, and didn’t commit the common Japanese faux pas of picking up his soup bowl and slurping from it.”

    Nope, didn’t think so.

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