Japan Lesson: Going Overboard with Idle Comments

September 7, 2017

The Texan in me that still understands small talk is slowly dying, but there are still remnants that surface from time to time. A few weeks ago, when I was killing time with a coworker during a work event, I casually mentioned that I was disappointed I had missed the fireworks display in a neighboring town, and wondered when the next one would be.

To me, this just seemed like a simple remark. Maybe she could have responded with a few festivals she knew of in the area, or started packing in information about how the fireworks had been in that town in previous years. That didn’t happen. Almost immediately, she flagged down a coworker – though he looked bored – and sent him into the back to look up fireworks displays in the area and come up with a list. A few minutes later, that’s exactly what I got handed to me.

Now, there could be a number of reasons for this, and I’ll probably never know the answer without prying into my coworker’s reasoning. She could feel responsible for me as I’m one of the few foreign workers at the school, and might do the same for anyone her junior. Cynically, there’s a part of me that knows some Japanese people believe foreign residents are incapable of doing simple tasks, and though my coworker hasn’t been prone to this behavior, it’s not impossible…

For better or worse, and having heard this story from other foreigners in Japan, I choose to believe that this is one aspect of Japanese culture reflected in behavior. It’s nothing new; Alan Booth was writing about his experience walking the length of Japan back in the 1970s, and had to repeatedly dissuade others from offering him rides despite explaining his trip.

To newbies, this is one part of visiting Japan that makes it seem so appealing: everyone tries to be so accommodating to guests, whether it’s in their power or part of their knowledge base, or not. I haven’t experienced too many examples of this as most of my travels in Japan were solo, but I have heard stories; tourists who are looking for something obscure ask a random Japanese person on the street, and instead of simply saying “I don’t know”, he or she would stop others and ask, often not stopping until the information was obtained.

I once hitchhiked from Kagoshima to Nagasaki and back again within 36 hours for a half marathon with little money. A little outside of Nagasaki, I caught a ride with someone only going about 50 km down the highway before he was planning to turn north to Fukuoka. Rather than drop me off at the fork, he took me about 30 km farther south to the next town where it was much easier to get another ride.

After another ride dropped me off in Kumamoto close to 11 PM, a couple picked me up and asked where I was going. Not only did they take me to Kumamoto Station in time to catch the limited express to Kagoshima Chuo, but provided me with the fare, money I didn’t have (payday was in a few days). Above and beyond anything you would expect; I didn’t ask for money or tell them I was broke, just explained I was heading to Kagoshima and would take whatever ride I got.

As an American and a Texan, I can appreciate wanting to treat guests with respect and even at times going above and beyond to help when the situation calls for it. However, it seems the latter is the rule in Japan rather than the exception; it makes me pause whenever engaging someone new in conversation, because I’m concerned I’ll mention that I like tea and suddenly find a meticulously planned trip to Shizuoka sitting on my desk.

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