Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Japanese-Style Politesse

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Japanese-Style Politesse

Article excerpt

A SPECIAL feature of the Japanese national personality - amusing and puzzling, too - may have been revealed by something that happened to me while playing soccer with fellow high-school students when I was an exchange student in Kyushu.

Class Match Day is one of the most-looked-forward-to events of the Japanese school year. Homeroom classes of 50 students have worked together as a group the whole year, unlike in the United States, where each student follows a separate schedule. These closely knit academic classes compete against each other at the close of the year on Class Match Day in four sports: girls play basketball or volleyball, and boys play softball or soccer. I played soccer.

First, the many classes in each grade level lined up on a parade field to do the school exercise, a predefined set of perfectly sequenced stretches and calisthenics to warm everyone up. Since this was my first exposure to this drill - I had only been there a month - everyone watched to see how easily I caught on.

To my chagrin, as soon as I caught on to one maneuver, the exercise changed. The drill finished up with a teacher's exhortation to try hard and participate energetically with our teams.

We broke into our kumis (groups) and donned headbands and socks of our kumi color. Mine was purple. As we trotted out to the field, "Tommy" (my friends liked to be called by the English names I thought up for them) asked if I was any good at soccer. I responded truthfully that I was very poor at it. To Tommy and the others, my answer meant that I must be very good, and properly modest too. So naturally they put me in the main position: forward center, they called it.

I talked to my classmates in broken English sentences with some of the words replaced with the few Japanese words I had been able to pick up. I was generally understood (by "generally" I mean "more often than not"), but I was always in some doubt about this. My one-month's attempt to learn Japanese had been slow and difficult. In contrast, the high school offered only one foreign language - English - and the students in my junior class had taken it for four and five years.

If I was not understood, Tommy, "Jimmy," or "Heather" would nod or smile vaguely and pretend to understand. This, of course, led to more confusion.

On Class Match Day we were to play four games. We had played three and done well, losing only one. I felt satisfied, which meant I hadn't tripped over my own shoes or the ball, or walked into the goal post. Everyone said I was great. I wasn't, but they said this so profoundly it made me suspicious: If my saying I was bad told them I was good, what did it mean to be complimented?

It was at this point during Class Match that the Incredible Incident occurred.

There were many kumi colors - red, orange, black, and so on - but there were so many classes in the school that, unknown to me, there was more than one purple kumi. …

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