It’S Easy To Insult People When You Don’T Know Their Customs


A while back I mentioned that in 1958 I drove across the country on my way to Japan. I had been overseas before, but just once. That was Iceland, a European nation which shares many customs with us, so I had few problems over there.

But when I got to Japan I found myself in a land where the customs were — to say the least! — different. When I arrived, I went to a short orientation lecture along with other new arrivals, and the Air Force issued us a little handbook to read about a place where I expected to spend my next three years.

But lecture and handbook not withstanding, I soon discovered I had a lot to learn.

Yeah, Johnny! Translate that to read, “I screwed up all over the place.”

I’m sure you’ve heard the old saying, “When in Rome, do as the Romans do.” Good advice!

When you arrive in a new country, you can avoid a lot of problems by keeping your eyes and ears open and doing what everyone else is doing.

Works. Well, most of the time.

One of the first things I learned was that the price tags on things were just discussion points. If you paid what they said you might pay as much as three times what something was actually worth — and earn a reputation as another “crazy Yankee soldier.”

So, although I hated it with a passion, I began bargaining for things. What a pain in the ying-yang! The Japanese acted as if time meant nothing, so I found myself wasting 15 minutes to save 15 cents. I never got used to putting all that time and effort into bargaining. I only did it because it was expected.

Then came the day I went into a little appliance shop in town to buy an electric fan. The shop owner greeted me cheerfully and asked me what I needed.

I told him and he showed me three or four fans at different prices. I saw one I liked, looked at the price tag, and offered him half of it as a starting point for what I expected to be 10 or 15 minutes of negotiation.

I swear! I never saw anyone look so insulted in my life. He just walked off and left me standing there. And try as I would, I could not get him interested in taking care of me anymore, so I left the shop, one very puzzled GI.

A Japanese friend of mine explained. “For traditional merchandise,” he told me, “it is custom to negotiate price. But for modern product it is great insult to offer less than price on tag. Like saying shop owner is big thief.”

And so I had to learn what was “traditional merchandise” and what wasn’t. That took a while.

And then there was the train station thing!

I had learned by reading and observing that the Japanese are the most polite people on the planet. They smile and bow all the doggone time. So whatta ya gonna do? After six or eight months I was right in there with the best of them, bowing and smiling away. By then I knew how it had become such an ingrained custom. It seems that not too many years earlier if you didn’t bow and smile to a superior, he had the option of lopping your head off.

That would convince me.

So I strolled into the train station in Kunitachi one day and found a very crowded platform. I expected to see everyone bow and smile, offer to let the person next to him board first, and so on. Then the train came in, the doors opened, and about 75 Japanese — men, women, and children — ran right over me.

After I got up and dusted the footprints off my back I learned that “after you, please” only applied to things from way back when, and trains were “not part of traditional custom.”

There was little old Japanese lady who ran right ...

Oh well, live and learn. Let’s just say I made it through my time in Japan without starting WWIII. And six years later, when I arrived on Okinawa, a Japanese island, I thought I had it made. I had learned the customs already.

Or so I thought. Turned out there were some differences.

My first run-in with my ignorance came one day when I drove Lolly around the island to do a little shopping at the delightful little open-fronted shops spotted here and there, places Lolly really loved.

We started out early because it takes some serious effort to get in a whole day of spending money. Gotta start early and stay late. Or so Lolly taught me soon after we hit the ground in the States. One of these days I’ll have to tell you what fun it was when she first arrived and began watching TV commercials.

Another time. It’ll be fun. I promise you.

Anyway, it was an hour after dawn as we arrived at the first shop along the road on a nice cool summer Saturday. They were just opening up and carrying things out, so we were the first customers of the day.

Sun streamed down on beautifully carved end tables, coffee tables, bedside tables, dinner tables, occasional tables, tea tables — just about any kind of table you can think of. All deeply hand-carved and costing maybe half a month’s pay.

Lolly looked around for a while and saw some things she really admired, but she smiled at me and said, “Don’t get scared. Nice stuff, but too big, and we don’t need it. Let’s go. I’d like to see a little place down the road that Aki told me about.”

Aki and Randy were our next door neighbors.

“OK,” I said. But try as we would, we could not get out of the place. The suddenly serious-faced owner, and his wife too, seemed unable to let us go.

Every time we turned to leave, they grabbed another table and offered it to us. The prices started going down and down. Almost to where I could afford one.

Then, purely by chance, here came Aki and Randy, also out on a Saturday shopping spree. And then I found out what was going on. The superstition over there — very strongly believed — is that if the first customer of the day doesn’t buy anything, you are in big trouble that day. Might as well close your doors.

So we bought something — a cheap little folding fan.

But, man! If we had needed a deeply carved table ...


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