As a translator, the term monozukuri always causes me problems. It literally means “the making of things” but it encompasses aspects of craftsmanship, meticulousness, pride in the production process and an affinity for the creation of goods that are carefully considered and of the highest possible quality. Monozukuri also contains a sense of pride in a job well done and an affinity for vocation akin to a calling. It’s not just folks making things for a pay check. It’s people engaging in work that gives their working lives meaning.
"I am freakin' out. It is one week before departure. Quick! Write more articles so I can feel ready" That was the Facebook message I got from Bob, a friend and former student who is moving to Japan this week to start a teaching job. Bob knows some things about Japan in an academic way. He studied the language for a few years and took a culture class. He plays lots of video games. He has enough familiarity with Japan to know that he is getting himself into something vastly different from the life he currently knows. And now, with one week until take off, he is feeling a little anxious. So Bob, this one's for you.
Even if you grew up in an expressive environment, if you have spent a lot of time in Japan and worked to acclimate yourself to the culture, your greeting instincts become scrambled and reset. You learn that hugging Japanese friends and family makes them uncomfortable and then you become unsure of what to do when you see your foreign friends who also live there. Do you hug only if you haven’t seen them in a long time? You forget if you hug friends every time you see them or if there is some other algorithm involved. It starts to strike you as odd when you are home and you hear your friends and family ending every phone call with “Love you!”
“Shall I scrub your back?” offered the elderly woman sitting at the neighboring stool. “Yes, Thank you,” I replied as I nodded my head in a bow and then angled myself so this lady, whose name I never did learn, could soap and scrub my back with a wash cloth. This wasn’t at a spa where I was paying for a body scrub, it was the neighborhood hot spring I had been frequenting for a couple of years. This simple gesture by one of the regulars let me know I was now considered one of them.
Names are important. In the very first poem of the Man-yôshû, Japan’s first poetry anthology dating from the late 8th century, the emperor-poet Yûryaku implores a young woman picking herbs on a hillside “Tell me your name!” Whether it’s an ancient emperor, The Zombies, Lynyrd Skynrd or Jesse McCartney, getting someone’s name is the way you start to make a connection. One of the first sentences you’re likely to hear in Japanese is “Onamae wa?, meaning “Your name is...?” It seems like the answer would be simple enough, right?
All of this taking off and putting on of shoes makes you rethink your shoe choices. If you know you will be going in and out of homes or visiting a restaurant with the type of seating that requires you to take off your shoes, you learn pretty quickly that wearing Converse All Stars or boots with lots of lacing means you’ll be tugging your shoes on frantically while everyone stands around and waits for you before the group can move.
SLG wants to answer your tough travel questions... whether you actually dont want to try those bamboo worms (and that's ok) or if you just want to understand how to make amends after committing a major cultural faux pas we are here for you. Are you planning a trip and need to know what to expect, or are you wondering how to be culturally sensitive? Meeting the extended international family for the first time? We have tips for you. Ask the Globe-Trotter is a column featuring our travelers in the field answering your toughest cultural questions from at home and abroad. Got a question for our pool of Globe Trotters? Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org