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Kimono-clad women stroll past Kinkakuji Temple in Kyoto, Japan. (Photograph by Javier Larrea, Alamy)

Learning to Speak Japanese

I recently returned from the National Geographic Expeditions journey “Inside Japan,” which ran from Kyoto to Hiroshima via Mount Koya, Shikoku, and Naoshima. In my role as one of the resident experts on the trip, I was to prepare several lectures to deliver to my fellow travelers. The idea of encapsulating everything I know and love about Japan into discrete talks was daunting.

But throughout our travels, reality brought home just how important these kinds of discussions can be.

One of my morning lectures was called “Keys to Becoming Comfortable With Japanese Culture.” Among the topics I addressed was the complicated Japanese reverence for nature, the focus (necessary in a crowded island nation) on small things, the refined aesthetic sensitivity, and the underlying and fundamental importance of interdependence and harmony.

Concerning the last point, I talked about how in America we grow up being taught, explicitly and implicitly, the value of independence, of “thinking for ourselves” and “doing things our own way.” Standing out is rewarded; “outstanding” is an accolade.

But in Japan, I quickly realized when I landed there as an innocent, ignorant teacher 37 autumns ago that standing out is generally not prized. In fact, it’s discouraged. The Japanese have a popular saying: “The nail that sticks up gets beaten down.” Harmony is all in Japan, and people go to extraordinary efforts to preserve the social equilibrium.

That night was a dine-on-your-own night, and one of the couples and I decided to eat at a highly recommended tempura bar in one of the many high-rise restaurant wonderlands that dot Hiroshima. After consulting the directory, we finally found the floor we were looking for, but when we exited the elevator, all we could see was a French restaurant and empty hallways. I popped my head into the restaurant to ask if anyone on the staff knew where the tempura bar was located. The white-toqued chef heard my question and said, “Ah, follow me. I’ll show you.”

He then proceeded to lead us on a winding trail through empty corridors to another area of the building, where there were dozens of restaurants, and then past those to still another area with a half-dozen more eateries. Here he stopped outside the tempura bar we were looking for and ushered us in with a bow and a wide smile before hustling back to his own establishment.

The appreciative couple could hardly hide their astonishment. “Let me get this straight,” the husband said. “This chef just left his own restaurant and walked all the way to the other side of the building to bring us to a competitor’s restaurant, and then left us with a bow and a smile.”

He shook his head and looked at his wife. “Harmony,” she said, and we all grinned.

In my lecture I’d recounted one experience I had at the very beginning of the trip after checking into our hotel in Kyoto. I was in the lobby elevator, headed for my room on the ninth floor, when two beautiful kimono-clad Japanese women entered and pressed the button for the fifth floor. As the elevator rose, we exchanged pleasantries in Japanese. When it stopped on their floor and the door opened, they both bowed to me and one said, “O saki ni, shitsurei shimasu”—essentially, “Excuse me for leaving the elevator before you.”

My unspoken reaction at the time had been, “Well, since your room is on the fifth floor and mine is on the ninth, you really don’t need to apologize for getting out before me.” But of course, that was beside the point. We were sharing the experience of being in the elevator together, and they were breaking that happy harmony by departing before I did. And so in consideration of that, it was only proper to apologize.

In a Hiroshima lobby, an even more astonishing example of this complicated characteristic exhibited itself. One of the travelers in our group was looking for a water fountain. We searched all around and couldn’t find one, so I accompanied her to the front desk and asked one of the young, cheery clerks in Japanese, “Is there a water fountain here?”

This is a pretty easy question. There either is or there isn’t. But as I had said in my talk, in 37 years of intimate connections with Japan, I have hardly ever heard the word “no” spoken. It just seems such a slap in the face, so rudely final, so inflexible.

The desk clerk’s lovely face darkened, her mouth tightened, and she cocked her head to one side. She looked at us, brow furrowed in intense concentration, and seemed on the verge of bursting into tears. After an interminable, uncomfortable silence, she finally drew in her breath and said, “In Japan, there are not many water fountains….”

This could have been a puzzling interaction for my traveling friend, but instead it became a little light bulb of illumination. She looked at me triumphantly and said, “I get it!” Then she turned to the discomfited desk clerk with a big smile and said, as if she’d just been given a prize, “Thank you!”

And then she walked off to the lobby restaurant to request a glass of water.

Don George is an editor at large at Traveler and the author of Lonely Planet’s Guide to Travel WritingHe has also edited several award-winning travel writing anthologies, including Better Than Fiction. Follow Don on Twitter @don_george.

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