Thursday, April 19, 2012

Sumimasen, gomen nasai, wakarimasen

Is it unreasonable to suggest that the Japanese and the English are similar? I rather think they are in certain ways, and I suspect that this is borne of both being island nations. Both cultures developed independently on relatively small, crowded islands, and this resulted in cultures that are desperate not to offend. Kate Fox, anthropologist, in her book Watching the English, noted the frankly bizarre way in which English people will immediately apologise after being bumped into. Most other cultures would respond with some variant on a theme of “Oi! Watch your step, buddy!” but not the English. Nor the Japanese. “Gomen nasai,” (“I am so sorry…”) is very common in Japan.

It’s a consequence of living on a small and overcrowded island. To fail to defuse tensions after offending someone is a great way for fights to break out. The Japanese were rather better at that, with an entire level of society devoted to wielding murderously sharp swords at anyone who wasn’t sufficiently apologetic.

The other ‘Englishness” of the Japanese is the resistance to learning foreign languages. English language is pretty widespread, but it was extremely easy to encounter people who had no English, or French, or German. My absolute inability with the writing system didn’t help either. I can now identify “Tokyo”, “Ladies”, “Gents”, “Kyoto”, “Fire”, “Forest”, and “Forbidden”. And that’s about my lot. How useful, provided I only want to write a note about how smoking in forests in Tokyo is not allowed. We were able to get by, through a mixture of very broken Japanese, apologising, sign language, bowing, and apologising.

Ah, the bowing. Everybody bows. I greeted the chambermaid as we checked out of one of the hotels, bowed, and she returned by almost prostrating herself, much to my embarrassment.

Left-handed chopsticks actually do exist
In other respects, I found Japan and the Japanese extremely foreign unto the point of being almost alien.

Beloved Wife was in Japan a year or so ago, and she’d reported to me that in Tokyo's Electricity Street there was a multi-storey adult store. Now returned with her lawfully-wedded husband, we could explore all the floors. Basement and ground were merely videos and books, with selected movies shown on small screens to tempt the purchaser. Presumably, the purchased product would not feature pixelated images. Higher floors got progressively kinkier. Marital aids were followed by costumes, and then the S and M stuff. I spotted these, that might provide an amusing diversion on St George’s Day.

Fun and games on St George's Day
Muggins was blundering around this small but rather crowded emporium wearing a backpack. And being a bit of a lardarse, I kept blundering into the shelves and sending stock asunder. I can confirm that I was nearly thrown out of a sex shop for being too big. "Gomen nasai..."

Back outside, and  another Tokyo delight is the vending machines. Almost anything can be and is dispensed by a vending machine, including change so there’s no worry about not having the right money. Hot and cold drinks, chocolate bars, and crisps are easy. Rail tickets similarly. Used undergarments are now a memory following government efforts to clean up the industry. But what about the coin-op restaurant? That’s just beyond weird. 

And now we get on to the main point of this blog post: the food.

A proper restaurant. Order food and drink by referring to
the useful labels hanging around
In a normal restaurant, you enter and sit, and the waitress takes your order. You eat; you pay; you leave. Sometimes it was a culinary mystery tour of wondering what we’d just ordered. Al least “Birru” sounds like “Beer”, so that’s easy to remember, and I like “Sake”. In MuckDonalds (where I never eat), you order; you pay; you eat.

Cooked to order
In a coin-op, you make your selection from a vending machine. It takes your dosh, spits out a ticket, and you hand this over the counter and receive food from an actual person. Except that each of the fifty or so buttons on the machine only has a Japanese character (no, not Ponyo nor a Power Ranger).

Comprehensive choice of, erm, food

Vending machine in the corner, and food cooked to order
Time to accost a restaurant patron: “Sumimasen, gomen nasai, erm…breaded pork cutlet?” (Bow, apologise some more, etc). The only really important thing was to avoid seafood. Beloved Wife even set her husband up with a traditional Japanese breakfast one morning. A big rectangular room with tatami mats, low tables, and a whole selection of pickles, tofu, soup, vegetables, and fruit. The raw fish fillet was easy to identify and avoid. “Fish are friends; not food.”

Street food. Steamed, stuffed buns offer something that is
not entirely unlike steak and kidney pudding
Not that any of this put us off eating the local food. I recall the only really non-Japanese meal we ate was on the last day. We were waiting for our train to the airport, and a German-style restaurant was offering Bavarian lager and a big pile of assorted sausages.

Okonomiyaki. Anything you want here,
provided it's this one thing
My final Parthian shot was to buy a box of wacky Japanese sweeties to treat my colleagues back in Doha. When I got back, I was reliably informed that mochigashi are easily available from trendy shops in Doha.



James O'Hearn said...

Vending machine in the corner, food made to order...

You were in Matsuya, my friend!

My favoritest place to eat when I lived in Japan. Cheap, workingman's food. I always got the "butadon", which is marinated pork with onions, on top of rice. You'd get a miso soup to go with it, and it would fill you up nice.

Living in Dubai is nice, but there are so many things I miss about living in Japan.

Gerry said...

just curious--why were you avoiding seafood?

Anonymous said...

Dear GRumpy, when tmil was a youngster, there was a long established place in New York City called the Automat (it took tmil several minutes to retrieve this name from her declining little grey brain cells). At any rate, the Automat was a wonderful place for tourists and natives alike. There were little cubby holes with windows showing a hot or cold dish. One put the assigned cost in coins in the slot and opened the door. Voila! The food seemed fresh and appropriate hot or cold and it was so much fun to put coins in the slot! And that, was in the 1950s. Also, your observations of the English and Japanese similarities was quite interesting and insightful.

Grumpy Goat said...

Gerry: Both Beloved Wife and I are allergic to most types of seafood. It's safer to avoid it all.

Mme Cyn said...

@ Gerry -- it made Beloved Wife's 3.5 years in Japan a bit of a trial, but I did learn all the best non-seafood dishes!


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