Friday, January 7, 2011

Hokkaido seems so different from the Tokyo area. It was really amazing to see all that snow and SPACE! The landscape is open and mountainous with huge tracts of snowy forests- a winter wonderland. Culturally things seemed a bit different too. There were few visitors to the ski resort- the first few days there was minimal snow so the resort was very accommodating and willing to change rules and do things to our convenience. I am American so I will ask for what I want, but basically in Japan my experience is that you will get only what everyone else gets- there are no exceptions. Asking and asking in Japan doesn't result in a direct "No" but more in a "so sorry." Unexpectedly, this was not the case on this trip. The airport restaurant when asked to leave some items off of the food, did. The ski shop when asked if I could rent the skis for four days but keep them for five, said yes (we had a trip planned). I was starting to enjoy this vein of flexibility which I do not see in my home confines of Kamakura.

"So sorry" means "no." There is no getting around it- I once attempted to defy Japanese beauracracy with a Vehicle Parking issue- ha! The Japanese wore me down and never said no, just "so sorry." I learned my language lesson. The Japanese always politely inquire toward my aim, but basically it is not an option. Never, until Hokkaido. I started asking for more exceptions- can I have this without that and this with that, etc. I kept getting yes answers so I kept it up, thrilled! Traveling with youngsters who randomly decide today I need to seize control of some moment of the day happens in my life. Traveling is fun, but can be hard on kids- off their routine, different foods, hurry up here, carry this there, wake up at 4:30 am so we can do this, yeah, so if they ask for potatoes without corn on a trip, I ask. Day 4 of our trip this very request came about at the lunch counter. My son wanted a baked potato without corn- he likes baked potato with butter as I am sure most of my American friends can appreciate. (We keep telling our kids that they won't let them live in Ohio if they don't eat corn, but they can't quite embrace the Japanese love of corn- corn chowder for breakfast or in a soda machine, corn on your pizza, corn on your baked potato, etc.) The clerk turned to the other clerk who looked up at me and said, "No" in a forceable manner. I was actually taken aback. In over three years of living in Japan no Japanese person has ever said this to me. Without thinking I said, "You are not Japanese" in an equally forceful manner. This caught both of the counter clerks' attention. They indeed were not Japanese but Korean and had no idea of what the Japanese would say in English to a customer such as myself. We had a giggle and I happily instructed them in the term "so sorry." We still got the corn which Dada ate off of the offending potato.

During the holidays I thought again about the way we use "no" in America and in Japan. I watch young (under age 7) Japanese children demand food or attention from their parents, who without blinking an eye very kindly do what the young children ask. I am a bit horrified by this. To me, this teaches children to be rude and demanding. Sometimes you don't get what you want or sometimes things just are a bad idea- too much soda is too much. But still as the kids get older, you see they accept a lot of things that strike me as unpleasant- they eat what they are served, they go to school on Saturdays- seems like every Saturday, they have extremely long hours- high schoolers getting off trains at 10 pm, lots of tests. How do they go from having parents that never say no to accepting a lot of unpleasant stuff as they mature is of interest to me. I think it has something to do with accepting the group norm but there may be more.

I like how polite Japanese culture is after the hustle of Washington, DC. We live down a "goat track" one way road which is shared by cars, bikes, motorcycles, and pedestrians going both directions. My husband and I marvel that it works- people politely wait their turn, turn down their headlights in deference to the oncoming driver, toot their horn in thanks, flash lights to encourage you to go ahead while they wait, and generally avoid the all out melee we observed in approaching an exit at rush hour on 495 back in DC. We are quite sure Americans with roads this small (without the benefit of the Japanese culture to teach us) would result in at minimum a throw down.

So how does the demanding child turn into the cooperative adolescent? Why does cheerfully giving into young children work? It is contrary to my way of thinking. I don't want my kids to accept so much pain so I would not want them to go this route, but it just interests me because of the results. I want my kids to ask for what they want, learn to accept no, and sometimes figure out that well I really want this so I am going to ask again or another way. I find it annoying when someone says "no" but later renigs. It whittles the meaning and power of the word "no." "So sorry" in Japan is a powerful phrase, it is an ending phrase because there is no exception around it. My husband grumps that Americans will demand to talk to the doctor when the front desk tells them there are no appointments as if he the doctor can conjure them up. He finds it frustrating that someone won't take no for an answer. I point out that usually the problem in America is that when confronted by a demanding person, someone caves and thus teaches the lesson that "no, doesn't mean no." We could learn something from the "so sorry" even if it does sound more polite.

Recently, the Captain of the USS Enterprise, was sacked for the content of video clips he made as the "XO" or executive officer four years prior. He made videos with the ship's AV department that were aired on the ship's communication channels as morale boosters. However, four years later the videos were decreed offensive first in the media and then resulted in his dismissal by the Navy.

It bothers me that a system (Navy) lets another system (Media) attack their individual pawn (Captain) when the system (Navy) is as much a part of the problem as the pawn (Captain)- how else did the videos get made, aired, and accepted? This guy was sacked for videos he made with the ship's crew, aired on the ship's AV system, and despite being promoted to CAPTAIN OF THE USS ENTERPRISE which means he was reviewed to death by some admin process, four years later the Navy finds it offensive? If the Navy was so offended, where was the case four years before? This is a system or cultural issue as much as a personal lack of taste. It was enough in the norm at the time that it was seen as a way to boost morale to address the "3 minute showers," the existence of masturbation, and the use of movie clips that were widely watched by ship's company. The Navy didn't say no to the media so the sharks will be back.

I watched a few of the video clips on youtube to see for myself. I have been around some form of US Navy community most of my life. So I have been exposed to sailor talk (sexual exploits real & imagined, cursing, etc.) drunken pilots & more drunken student pilots, crazy pranks, and generally a high need to diffuse stress and bond with a fairly constant flow of new faces. My acceptance of boorish behavior is set low- if it makes you happy, I am happy to ignore it. Really, some one pretending to masturbate for a laugh is not hurting me in any way (one of the offensive videos). Say that is high school, probably middle school too. Come on, you know on a ship of 5000 people, someone has walked in on someone really masturbating so seeing the XO make fun of this struck me as ballsy and well right on.

I can't imagine any one else will make any attempts to add humor to life onboard ships. Just say, "no fun" that ought to keep 'em joining up.


  1. Hi Kim loved your comments. But I have to say as recovering friend of someone (not you) who constantly asks for substitutions that her order takes 10x longer to deliver - it makes me cringe. I feel she should stay home and make her own meal if she really wants it her way. I always get the sausage with the eggs and quietly place it in a napkin and am happy to have the eggs. I think we Americans are too spoiled by choices. I recently delivered a lesson to my 7th graders on Capitalism vs. Communism and the extent of the ignorance about wants vs. needs is appalling. Of course I know I'm speaking of 7th graders but I think they would go into a self induced neurotic coma if you took away their cell phone (which they all agreed was a need not a want). Anyways I am challenged and I am going to start saying I'm sorry instead of no from now on and see how it makes me feel. I'll let you know how it goes....

  2. Much food for thought in this one, Kim. I think most Americans are unable to pull off a credible "I'm sorry" because they simply are not the least bit sorry to disappoint a customer. The way Japanese children are raised fascinates me as well and my Japanese friends have offered all sorts of interesting explanations, but it strikes me this might be just a phase and that child-rearing theories and practices in Japan probably go in and out of vogue as frequently as they do in other countries. My mother used to get a lot of mileage out of "Because I said so" but that one never worked for me.


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