“The Japanese can be quite condescending.” That’s what my friend said when I asked her how she was handling the Japanese dining scene. She had been living in Japan as an exchange student for a year. Between the required chopstick etiquette and table manners, I wonder if foreigners who visit or live in Japan get overwhelmed. Well, I’m overwhelmed even to this day and I think Japanese table manners are the most complicated among the Asian countries.
My grandmother was my enthusiastic coach when it came to manners and etiquette. I don’t know how many times I argued with her crying out, “Let me just eat without worrying about how to eat!” She never let me have my way and before I knew it I gave up arguing with her.
I couldn’t enjoy conversing while eating at home. Looking back, I admit that I was a difficult child and I wish I had listened to her without arguing and giving her so much attitude. After all she was a good grandmother who tried to pass on to her granddaughter her best knowledge of Japanese standard manners.
I recently came across a situation that made me understand how manners and etiquette are perceived and processed by the Japanese. I’ll recap a conversation that took place at my tea ceremony lesson.
Ms. A: Ms.S seems to have omitted this process (at last month’s special tea ceremony). Don’t we usually do it this way?
Ms. B: Correct. She might have just forgotten. But it’s not our place to point out.
Ms. C: Right, if we point it out, Ms. S might get embarrassed. We should never do that in public. And that’s why we are gathering here to learn from each other. At our lesson, don’t hesitate to ask questions.
Last year I tried to commit to learning Sado, the Japanese tea ceremony, again and attended lessons 2-3 times a month. As I got to know the teacher and all the participants, who are all Japanese living in LA, they started giving me more detailed advice. They are like a study group, sincerely learning this complex multi-layered Japanese art form. However, they will not tell you when you’ve made a mistake or point out your bad manners unless you’re in the group. Instead, they will notice it and point it out later on.
This type of Japanese attitude can be observed among many different social groups regardless of age and gender. Witnessing this unique sense of Japanese group mentality in LA made me aware that my grandmother was teaching me this so that I wouldn’t make mistakes that got noticed and talked about after a party was over.
She actually mentioned it millions of times. I just didn’t believe it or want to be bothered. Maybe I’ve grown up enough and started caring what other people are saying about me… In any case, I’ve finally resolved and relinquished any grudges I was still holding against my grandmother.