Photo: tiffgraphic/Shutterstock

On the Embarassment of the English and the Coolness of Japan

by Steve McCabe Jan 16, 2015

I MOVED to Japan at the age of 23; I had never really lived as an adult before then. I hadn’t worked a real job in England, and I hadn’t lived away from my parents. In many ways, then, I did a lot of my growing-up in Japan.

Don’t get me wrong — I’m English. I’m very, very English. I have the skin — the pale, pasty skin that burns if someone in the next room starts talking about the sun — and the eyes and the accent and the passport. Meet me and you’ll know in moments that I’m English; if you’re also English, then you’ll know in as many moments that I’m from the north of England, from Manchester, because these things matter enormously to the English — we’re quite tribal like that.

But while I am unmistakably English, I am also, with a duality that would make a quantum mechanic’s head spin, also, in a very real sense, more than a little Japanese. And this — again, firmly in quantum mechanics territory, it would appear; perhaps this is why I became a physics teacher — is quite the paradox: among one of the most exclusionary, and frequently out-and-out xenophobic peoples in the world, I feel like I belong. There is much about the Japanese way that feels right, feels comfortable, that just works for me.

I find enormous comfort in the ritual and formality of the Japanese. When I was learning to speak the language, this ritual, this structure, helped endlessly — the kimari-monku, the set phrases that punctuate so many exchanges gave me an assurance that, in all likelihood, I was probably saying the right thing. Starting a meal? Itadakimasu. Visiting someone’s house? Gomen kudasai before they open the door, ojama shimasu as you step up. Never a need, then, to wonder what the right thing to say might be — there’s a script, a routine, already established.

And behaviour in general is often tightly scripted, too; little is left to chance. Here in New Zealand, the country I now have the great good fortune to call home, some people like you to take your shoes off when you enter their home, and some don’t. And for an Englishman — a man whose entire life is built around fear of doing the wrong thing, of saying the wrong words, of, as Douglas Adams famously remarked, asking “How’s the wife?” and being told “Oh, she died last week,” — this is just one example of the minefield we spend our entire lives tiptoeing through. But in Japan, there’s no question, no doubt, no worrying if it’s the right thing to do — shoes off, every time. Even, I’m told, burglars remove their shoes. Stealing someone’s stuff is criminal, but walking through their house in shoes? That would just be wrong.

This does, I realise, make me sound just a little obsessive, a little type-A. But I’m not. I simply found the order and the routine of Japanese life to be very comfortable. It was a way of being, a way of doing, that suited me. A young — a very, very young, if we’re being brutally frank, which isn’t something that always comes effortlessly to the English — 23-year-old, I slotted quite easily into this world.

My Japanese-ness, such as it is, stood out most clearly when I left Japan and moved to the United States. In many ways, Japan is much closer, culturally, to the UK than to the US. The British and the Japanese value appearance, conformity, the group as well as the individual. Both place great emphasis on deference, courtesy, politeness. I left a country where individuality and uniqueness are more threatening than valued, where fitting in is the ultimate virtue, where everyone is part of, well, something, and moved to one where nothing, it seems, is more precious than the freedom to be yourself. And the Englishman in me screamed in terror.

Do I shake hands just the first time I meet someone, or the second, and third, and fourth? What about when I leave? Bowing was so much simpler — if in doubt, the head goes down, nobody is ever offended by one more bow, and if I bow and you don’t, I’m not left hanging. The security of ritual and routine was gone; all that was left was the potential for awkwardness. And awkwardness is something that an Englishman can find in any situation, anywhere, at any time. Standing at the bus stop, we will feel self-conscious — we can’t stand waiting for a bus for more than a couple of minutes without looking at our watches, then checking the timetable fastened to the signpost, just to make sure that we don’t look like we’re simply loitering, probably with the most nefarious of purposes. Accidentally making eye contact with a stranger is the most mortifying experience possible — with one important exception.

The possibility of forgetting the name of someone you’ve met before will lead to the most crushing, the most toe-curling, the most debilitating and incapacitating fear. Admitting you’ve forgotten someone’s name is simply intolerable; getting their name wrong is so unconscionable that the only decent thing to do afterwards is to step outside with your great-grandfather’s service revolver. But in Japan, you don’t address people by name, but rather by title. So if I couldn’t remember my boss’s surname — it happened; I met him maybe once a month at faculty meetings — I could simply call him gakubucho, Dean. In fact, to address him by name — and no, I don’t remember his name — would have seemed a little brusque, a little inappropriately familiar.

Oh, the relief — a culture that not only, it seemed, understood the potential for embarrassment that is an Englishman’s constant companion, but had developed the most elaborate avoidance strategies, felt like home. This was a culture that made sense to me. This was a place where I felt at home, even if they didn’t really want me (and that is a whole other story in itself).

The fear of the awkward silence, the overwhelming self-consciousness, the acute embarrassment at just being me — these are all occupational hazards of being English. We can’t help it. It’s who and what we are, just as much as the irresistibly cool and sexy accents. The English are world leaders at embarrassment; the Japanese have mastered the art of avoiding it.

Discover Matador

Save Bookmark

We use cookies for analytics tracking and advertising from our partners.

For more information read our privacy policy.