Not wanting to commit any cultural faux-pax while visiting Japan, I had, beforehand, studied the language, the culture, and even the correct way to bow. I was sure Iíd make a good impression on the Japanese. I was ready. But before I could show off and make all the other Americans jealous, I had to use the bathroom. Had I considered Japanese toilets beforehand, I would have left the thought at functional and clean – like everything in Japan. That is why I found myself staring with wonder and dismay at the less-than-tidy inside of a Tokyo train station toilet.
Minutes passed while I pondered: How do I use this thing? Where do I put my feet? There are only six inches between the door and the toilet. If I step up onto the next level, I will be standing on the seat.
I heard voices outside, which I translated as, "Whatís he doing in there?" and "Is he gonna go or what?"
"Give me a minute please," I squawked nervously and continued cleaning the room for, oh, the better portion of the afternoon before I finally got to business then stumbled out and facetiously thanked everyone for being such a good audience.
Mad at Tokyo toilets, I looked forward to a better experience in Kyoto where I would practice my bowing. Kyoto-ites, I felt, would appreciate that I knew how high or low I should bow based on oneís position in society: Emperor Hirohito, I bow to my waist; a Tokugawa geisha, I bend only slightly; the shogun, I bow to the floor.
I got my chance to shine when I spotted a man in uniform. As he moved close, I bowed. He nodded and quickly passed without a return bow. That was a bit disappointing. A woman walking her dog wouldnít even look at me. Then I saw a group of Buddhist monks gliding towards me. I licked my chops, sure that this would be a veritable buffet of bowing.
As the monks approached, I bowed ever so slightly, and one of them held out a pouch for money. I nodded – perfectly I thought – and gave him a quarter. He said, "thank you," in English and walked off.
I was confused. Why didnít he bow back? Is bowing just a big lie designed to make me look stupid?
Never mind, I thought, my linguistic abilities would be certain to impress. I chose Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum as a likely place to find someone interested in a satisfying conversational exchange.
Everyone around seemed preoccupied, so I cleared my throat to garner some attention from passers-by. Nothing. Okay, time to seize the moment, I thought: Iíll speak to the next person who walks by and offer a simple greeting to break the ice.
Unfortunately, actually getting the words into my mouth proved harder than Iíd anticipated. People walked by. I didnít speak. I began to sweat. I was having an attack of stage fright. I could not speak.
Then a woman stopped to gaze at an exhibit, and in a now-or-never flash of panic, I said: "Oh-ya-suminasai."
She glanced at me as if insulted and moved quickly towards the exit.
Huh? My brain worked feverishly figuring out that instead of "good morning" Iíd said "good night and good sleep." Was it my accent? Had she mistakenly heard "sleep" as in "sleep together" and taken me for some kind of weirdo? I didnít know, but I hastened to correct myself.
It was too late, she was gone, which was just as well because I suddenly realized that the words I had on the tip of my tongue were oh-ya-suminasai. Again!
Bewildered but determined, I finally found the right phrase: ohayou-gozaimasu. (Good morning). Too bad no one was listening.
This brings me to Osaka. I was sitting in a sushi bar when Krista, an American living in Japan, having spotted me for a fellow American, made her way to my table. She ordered a beer while I enthused about Japan: the great temples, the incredible neon displays, the food, and the beer. But, I had to admit, some things bothered me. Krista sipped her beer while I explained.
I mentioned that it would be nice if someone else would clean the toilets for a change so I wouldnít have to. And, I asked, shouldnít a Buddhist monk acknowledge my presence with a bow? And, I said, it would be nice to have a conversation in Japanese for once.
I noticed that a perplexed crease appeared on Kristaís forehead. "You clean the toilets?" she asked.
"Of course I clean the toilets."
"Are you sitting down in the traditional bathrooms?" Her facial expression had changed to disbelief, so I thought my remark needed more explanation.
"Itís just that the rubber pads on each side of the hole are so hard to clean."
At this her eyes and mouth crinkled upward, and she burst into laughter. She looked positively gleeful. "You arenít supposed to sit!" she almost shouted. "You stand on the rubber pads and squat over the hole. You donít sit! Ewww!"
After she quit laughing at my expense, she went on to say that the Japanese donít often perform bowing rituals with foreigners. They prefer to shake hands.
As for conversing, "Try it in English," she said. "They like to practice English."
She capped off her know-it-all comments with, "You sound like one of those Japan-heads."
"No, you are a Japan-head, not me," I retaliated, thinking that whatever "Japan-head" meant, it wasnít flattering.
A Japan-head, Krista explained, is any American who arrogantly assumes that Japan is better off simply because of his or her presence.
That hurt. But then I figured, why worry. Even if the joke was on me, what is travel if not a chance to live and learn. Iíd just learned how not to be a Japan-head.