In my junior year of college, I discovered that in Japan, "yes" doesn't always mean "yes," and "no" doesn't always mean "no."
I was living in the breathtaking city of Kyoto, one of the most elegant cities you will ever visit in the world. Hands down, no question. Poise and class are what the city prides itself on after all, as the former imperial capital of Japan. Elegance is not a choice. Tact is everyone's middle name there.
There I made a friend—one of my best friends today—an elegant girl of 20 or 21 at the time, with porcelain skin and strong opinions. She was always aware of her distance with others. Whether she was interacting with a friend, professor, boy of interest or boss, she seemed to me, always poised and perfectly prepared. Prepared to say yes—even when she really meant no.
Many Westerners may not understand the concept, and I studied said concept carefully but still cannot pull it off. When I say yes when I really mean no, people know I'm lying. But when a true Japanese person interacts in this manner, she is not being untruthful or manipulative, she is being smart. Meaning, she's prepared to exit a situation gracefully, never blatantly hurting anybody's feelings.
Back to my friend. A boy would ask her on a date, for example, and she would say no without saying no, and somehow, the boy would leave feeling as though he had not just been rejected.
Photo credit: KiKi
How did she just...? I thought to myself. Somehow my relationships in the States involved phones thrown at the wall, taxi doors and apartment doors and various other doors slamming, accompanied by an unhealthy dose of regret, anger, and not understanding why things never worked out for me.
As you might imagine, I had several run-ins in Japan. As a teacher, I was too direct in giving opinions to students. As a director, too demanding. As a twenty-something girl in Japanese society, too vocal and "unaware of my position in life." I was in a constant state of bewilderment, frustration, and disorientation.
And because I looked Japanese, I was expected to "know these things." I was expected to have layers and layers of conversation with a simple yes or no. It drove me mad.
With one foot on the next flight back to Los Angeles for years, I kicked and screamed in private, only cried sometimes in public, and with much humiliation and embarrassment in social and professional situations, began to slowly, occasionally meet humility at the door.
This was when I first started to get it.
Even in Japan, when a relationship deepens, there comes a point where politeness makes way for directness, and honesty. What I didn't know was how difficult it is to earn the honesty of a Japanese person.
The more polite they are, the farther you have to travel for them to trust you. They need to feel safe with you, as they are a people who have, throughout history, been on guard. Protective of the little land they have. Vulnerable because of how small their country is and close their neighbors (and enemies) are. Thus, they take great care to be prepared. With over 127 million people in a country slightly smaller than the state of California (population 37 million), your neighbors are very, very close. Add to that being completely surrounded by ocean, and there's clearly no easy getaway when human relationships go awry. It's worthwhile then, to try to get along with those you meet, as you're likely to meet them over and over again.
But then one wonders...if people are forced to get along out of circumstance, how much of the niceness is authentic, and how much a façade?
Only the trained eye can tell.
Even after ten years of daily contact with the Japanese on their turf, I still held frequent Q&As in my head I wouldn't dare voicing for fear of appearing uncultured: Do you mean "yes," or do you mean "no?" Why don't you just say "no?" Because you said "yes," but you mean "no." And now I just don't "no," I mean, "know!"
As a tactful American (cue laugh), I was brought up to believe what I see is what I get, all bright colors and excessive production. We were brought up to react to everything as we see it, when we see it, exactly how we see it, brushing up pretty close to overreaction at every turn. From tears streaming down audience members' faces when Oprah announces her Favorite Things, to explosive fights on ego reality television, to lovestruck declarations of "the one!" we react without thinking.
I grew up in that camp too, but it all changed when I moved to Japan. A few years into my life there, I began to sense a peculiar resemblance between me—American girl in Japan—and a raging bull in a china shop.
No, Japanese people are not shy. There's just a thick layer of uncertainty and trepidation from everyone being too polite, all the time. To get to that trust—to what they're really feeling—is to know the Japanese for the first time.
I took several years, but I earned that trust. The people I was interacting with began showing their emotions, crying, getting angry, being openly vulnerable with me.
Ironically enough, I had done it the American way.
Next week: Getting to the truth: my body image from the US to Japan.
People to Watch
People to Watch
People to Watch