How to piss off a Japanese

March 9, 2012

Control your gestures. Keep your hands at your sides. The Japanese find big arm movements threatening. Speak slowly. Keep your voice calm and even… It may be difficult to do. The Japanese can be irritating. You’ll probably find them irritating tonight. Handle it as best you can. But whatever happens, don’t lose your temper… That’s extremely bad form.
– Rising Sun, Michael Crichton

The blood from my knuckles was almost indistinguishable from the chips of red paint, a recent gift from the mailbox just outside my branch school. My fury was not directed at the postal system, but rather myself at failing to understand how my Japanese coworkers could remain so stone-faced going over everything I had done wrong in a children’s class. Raging, almost at the point of bubbling over, I excused myself for the day and pounded the first thing in my path.

Working in Japan definitely had its highs and lows. On the one hand, I was learning a new language, lifting the veil off all the misinformation The Karate Kid and Nintendo had taught me, and losing weight quickly with a healthy diet of chicken, fish, and rice. However, there were some days when I would have given anything to get a straight answer out of my AEON coworkers. In Japan, there is a term for the face one shows to the public: tatemae. Calm, collected, always in control, sometimes jubilant (genki). Honne describes one’s true feelings, never to be revealed (except maybe to close friends and family) for the sake of group harmony.

I had certainly encountered many faces exhibiting tatemae my first few months in Japan. My manager never appeared angry when I had made an egregious error in class due to my own ignorance of Japanese culture, but I can imagine she must have been livid. Yet, it’s very unusual to see a Japanese react to stress in the same way as my reaction to the mailbox, causing one to become so infuriated he would abandon cultural norms and disregard group harmony to act on inner feelings.

If you’re ever in the land of the rising sun and find yourself wanting a different kind of reaction from your Japanese friends, these methods might be good starting points.

Challenge the Japanese Identity

Despite the growing number of gaikokujin (foreigners) in Japan and its supposed “internationalization”, many Japanese, even younger ones, remain very nationalistic, concerned with bloodlines. The descendents of burakumin, a lower class in feudal Japan, are still often treated as such. For foreigners, the reaction can be a bit mixed:

Me: One time I told my girlfriend she looks kind of Chinese and she almost started crying…
Friend: Eeeeee! Never Chinese! Japanese people do not think Chinese are attractive.
Me: What? So if the staff person had said my student looked a little Chinese then…
Friend: Ohhhhh No! They never say that! Everybody knows it’s rude to say Chinese!
Me: Everybody?
Friend: All Japanese know!
Me: Why?
Friend: Muzukashii kore (this is difficult)

I learned early on in my time in Japan that a good way to get under a Japanese person’s skin (if you were so inclined) is to suggest that they looked like, behaved like, or reminded you of anyone Chinese.
Hi! My Name is Loco and I am a Racist by Loco in Yokohama


In the same fashion as “accusing” a Japanese person of having Chinese blood, there are a lot of Japanese who choose not to associate with foreign cultures, and may react strongly when someone calls them on it. One of the challenges I faced teaching English in Japan was that many of my students, even those well beyond their university years and attending class of their own volition, chose not to improve. Telling a Japanese he speaks English well can be received as a compliment, but to some, it can be construed as an attack on his identity: “You speak English well, so you must not be very ‘Japanese.’” Even with a growing number of western trends in Japan, from food to fashion, there is a certain resistance to completely embrace what foreign cultures have to offer. The Japanese want to have their imported cake, but not eat it.

God Bless You

As far as I know, there’s no equivalent to “God bless you” in the Japanese language. People sneeze, and it goes without response. Though one may be sick in public (with face masks) and make all kinds of sniffing sounds, blowing one’s nose is considered downright rude.

Eating and Drinking in Public

Just like during Ramadan in the United Arab Emirates, eating and drinking in public is somewhat of a social taboo in Japan. The country has few public wastebaskets outside of train stations and convenience stores, which is why patrons tend to consume onigiri just outside the doors. Of course, this is hardly a rule; businessmen do take sake and beer to the park during the cherry blossom season, and many urban people have to squeeze in a quick bite on their morning commutes. Nevertheless, some Japanese might frown upon foreigners wolfing down a sandwich while walking.

Be Different

There is a proverb used far too often as a cliché by expats in Japan: “The nail that sticks out will be hammered down.” Although it’s used by gaijin as an excuse to not bother to learn Japanese or fit in at all, simply because we can’t fit in, there is definitely some truth behind it, for Japanese and foreigners alike.

Bullying, better known as いじめ, is still a huge problem in Japanese schools. Critics to those critics of the Japanese school system like to dismiss claims of bullying being unique to Japan. It’s not, but I believe it is definitely more pronounced. If you’re a slightly overweight or nerdy high schooler, you may very well be more prone to taunting by those in your age group in Canada, the US, Europe, Australia, and across the globe. But in Japan, it comes back to your cultural identity (exaggerated for effect):

“You’re fat? You must not belong here. Everyone around you is thin and athletic.”

“You can speak English well? Well, why don’t you go live in America? I don’t speak English well at all… I am Japanese!”

As white, black, and a multitude of non-Japanese faces start filling Japan’s borders, we’re faced with the ultimate dilemma: we will never fit in; we will never be Japanese; we will always be that nail to be hammered down. The same is true of Japanese who don’t fit the mold of what their society expects of them; if you’re an unmarried woman over the age of 25, don’t be surprised if you hear whispers of “Christmas cake” (a derogatory expression; a woman decreases in value after her 25th, in much the same way a Christmas cake would after December 25th); if you’re a man fresh out of university, you should be preparing for your life as a salaryman in a large corporation, working long hours, going to mandatory social outings, and sleeping less than five hours a night.

If you’re not part of what society says you should be in Japan, then your actions or mere presence can almost be interpreted as a slap in the face to those around you. Granted, once Japanese matriculate they have a bit more perspective, but being on the outs of social groups isn’t someplace you can stay huddled alone in a corner; you’re challenging the identity of those around you, and they don’t always take kindly to it.

Basic Manners

Be mindful when using chopsticks; passing food from one set to another is considered rather uncouth, nor does one leave them sticking out of the rice bowl.

Many homes, businesses, and bathrooms have special slippers for public use. Wearing them outside these areas can be an affront to the host, especially if one forgets to take off the bathroom slippers and walks around the restaurant or house.

Lie to the People

This is a fairly cross-cultural theme, which I only mention because I’ve never seen people in Japan so angry over misinformation from their government. Usually, one simply shrugs and mutters ”shoganai” (it can’t be helped). In this case, Fukushima residents forced out of their homes due to the radiation scare seemed ready to throttle the president of Tepco.

dogeza dogeza by heiseighore
(Credit to Japan Probe)

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