‘Shikiru’ with the Japanese mind (I)


*Shikiri (仕切り) is a ritual in sumo fights in which the two wrestlers crouching with their fists on the ground stare intensively at each other’s eyes right before the bout begins in an attempt to demoralize the opponent and win the crowd’s support. Shikiru is the verb form meaning ‘toeing the mark’.

Sendai, Japan (8 min. read).

It’s 10 am.

I’m sitting in the waiting room of place called ハローワーク (“hello work”). Hello Work is a public institution that guides people through the minutiae of job hunting. The waiting room is located in an open space littered with rows of numbered computers and small desks where the job-seekers are called to meet with their assistants. Despite the size of the place, overall, it is incredibly quiet. From where I stand, a slight mumble and a soothing melody is all that can be heard. To my right, a man has fallen asleep in what seems a futile attempt to send an email from one of those old computers. On the other side, sitting right next to me is another man completely immersed in a manga (Japanese comic book) — I wish I could read them too. A kid proudly wearing an Anpanman’s t-shirt is constantly staring at me without setting free his mom’s blouse. As a foreigner, I find it amusing how you always get that bewildered look from kids. Every now and then he turns back to his mom, probably tired of me making silly faces, who is too involved trying to sleep a newborn in a baby carrier to pay her older boy any attention. I have also noticed a police officer walking the floor every five minutes or so. He thoroughly looks through every corner of the room while making quick gestures with his hands; almost like reassuring himself that indeed the spot is cleared.

Every once in a while I stop looking around as a recurring thought flashes through my mind — Japan, what a different country this is.

I’ve been living in northern Japan for almost a year and a half. Throughout this time, a recurrent question arises among friends and family.  A question I always have a particularly hard time answering. It often takes the form of ‘how’s Japan?’, ‘how’s living there?’, or the always puzzled ‘Japan, huh?’. I’d bet though that what some people really want to know is whether the Japanese are as eccentric and bizarre as dictated by their preconceptions of this too often misinterpreted ancient culture. They would like to know whether the Japanese really work until exhaustion, whether they all watch anime and read manga, or whether one can actually buy used underwear from vending machines and enslave a robot to do the laundry.

Aside from stereotypes, which mostly distorts any culture they refer to, the reason it’s hard for me to answer these questions lies in a personal language deficiency. It is not that I find it specially difficult to spot those distinctive characteristics that make Japanese culture unique. But it is in the explanation of the reasons and nuances that make those characteristics so exceptionally defined when I find myself in the lack of the right words.

This time and at my own pace (which usually implies taking way longer than initially anticipated) I’ve decided to make an effort to find a way in which I can describe to others, those who may have never traveled to Japan or those have never had a single interaction with Japanese culture before, what’s being like for me to venture into the land of the rising sun.

As it so often happens, I find myself committing to this new endeavour while reading a fantastic book called “The Japanese Mind: Understanding Contemporary Japanese Culture” by Roger J. Davis and Osamu Ikeno.  In this book students from the University of Ehime put together a list of Japanese words and expressions, explaining not only their meaning but the historical and cultural context in which they were coined and their implications on today’s social landscape. A highly recommended read to anyone that wants to get a grasp of how hard sometimes is to explain and how easy is to misunderstand the implications of certain aspects of Japanese culture.

Following the structure and the idea behind this book, I’ve decided to make use of the Japanese lexicon by selecting a few words and expressions, some of which are part of this book, in an attempt to describe in a short series of blog posts my experience wrestling with the Japanese mindset.

It goes without saying that first, I’m no expert in Japanese culture whatsoever. I’m just a mere observer. And second, it isn’t my intention to label all Japanese people under the same few categories or words. Japanese, just as any other culture, is a complex conglomerate of people of all different types, with likes and dislikes, traditions, manners, and dialects that change from one region to another. My sole intention with this series is to provide a glimpse into what my impressions are of those defining features I find so admirable and representative, and challenging sometimes, of the part of Japanese culture I’ve been faced with for the last 18 months. I apologize in advance if you are Japanese, or someone living in Japan, and you don’t find yourself, or your experience, faithfully represented by what you’re about to read. So, without extending this intro any longer, here it is the first entry of what I’ve dubbed the shikiru series. Enjoy!

Omotenashi  (おもてなし) – the art of giving without expecting anything in return.

Long has been written about omotenashi and its foundations within the roots of Japanese culture and customs. One simply has to google the word to find hundreds upon hundreds of articles describing what in simple terms could be referred to as hospitality, treatment, or service.

Even without knowing the word, omotenashi is one of the first things foreigners notice upon arriving in Japan and often one of the first things they point out when they try to describe their experience through Nippon lands — maybe just right after mentioning the lack of public trash cans, the fact that there is people, lots of people, everywhere, and the Japanese addiction for queuing and pachinko slots (although the number of users seems to have decreased considerably over the last decade).

The truth is that omotenashi has deeper implications in Japanese than that of a cordial and delightful service. Hospitality is an act of generosity that can be found shaped into many different forms all over the world. In Japan, however, the channels through which hospitality is offered are extended well beyond what we would consider to be sufficient. To understand the far-reaching implications of Japanese hospitality, one would only have to look at the well-known saying ‘the customer is always right’, which in Japanese takes the form of the proverb お客様は神様 (“okyakusama wa kamisama”), literally meaning ‘the customer is god’.

Usually people refer to omotenashi in the context of Japan’s extraordinary customer service. Manifestations of this sense of lavish, almost overwhelming hospitality can be experienced from the always smiling faces and constant bowing of hotel employees, the careful treatment and attention to detail of shop assistants, to the fact that they will run to you apologizing even when you were the one spilling tea over the recently restored, hundred-year old tatami mat (…本当にごめんね!).

The people who know me often hear me saying that Japan is one the places where I find it easier to live, which is the way I’ve found to say that Japan has, from my point of view, the highest quality of life of all the places I’ve ever been. The reason I say this is that, as I pointed out before, omotenashi can be found well beyond services and good manners. One will experience it, for instance, in architecture and urbanism, with buildings and public areas specifically designed to favor a more pleasant stay or an effortless passage. Optic centers will dispose of eyeglasses cleaning stations in front of the stores free for anyone to use. Spotless public toilets are always in sight. Vending machines with hot drinks in winter and cold drinks in summer (no underwear that I know of) are found literally everywhere. Bags and umbrella holders are thoughtfully placed in ATMs and bus seats, which you don’t realize you need them until you have them. And the list goes on and on.

For me, however, where omotenashi has really showed up is in personal relationships. It is in my daily encounters with the Japanese when I can feel the profuse generosity I believe the word omotenashi entails. I can think of at least a dozen times where they have gone above and beyond to solve any problem I was having or to just make my lack of problems even more enjoyable. I’m still have to find someone who answers my call for help with ‘今ちょと忙しい…’, “sorry I’m too busy now”. Omotenashi is the main cause of the embarrassment my wife and I feel when we’re incapable of finding ways to give back all the kindness, the warmth, the joy, and the unselfish treatment we always receive when we’re invited to a Japanese house.

Japan is one in a few list of countries where, either due to social obligation or personal morality, other’s well-being is always looked after over one’s own. Omotenashi is definitely one of the things I will always remember about the Japanese and something I will always bear in mind through my interactions with other people.

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