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Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Japan: A Guide to Traditional Customs and Etiquette - A Book Review

This is the best book I have ever read about Japan and the Japanese.

The. Best.

Japan: A Guide to Traditional Customs and Etiquette by Boye Lafayette De Mente (revised by Geoff Botting) and published by Tuttle Publishing is quite simply THE book anyone—and this case I mean non-Japanese—living in Japan right now, or contemplating going to Japan for work or vacation—must read.

My only gripe against the book is that I wish it had been around when I was in Japan back in 1990-1993.

It was first published in 2013, revised in 2017.

As the book says hidden away at the very top of the front cover, “Kata as the key to understanding the Japanese” is what the book is all about.

Kata is the form and order of things…. all the things that the Japanese say, and do, and act upon in their daily life… all the things that often confound the casual gaijin (outsider/foreigner) and create a profound awe of.

I can not even begin to tell you the number of times I was in Japan and simply wondered, “Why do they do that? Why don’t they do things “this” way because it’s easier?”

I had no idea that it was because of kata.

If I had read this book before I went to Japan (or even a few months into my stay in Japan on the JET ( Japan Exchange & Teaching) Programme, I might have had an even more enjoyable time.

Yeah, yeah… I had a fun time in Japan regardless, but it might have helped me adjust my way of thinking about the Japanese and their culture so that I could have taken greater advantage of my situation.

I’m not saying it would enable me to get the upper hand on the Japanese—I’m not some competitive bastard who needs to win.

Rather I’m talking about simply getting a better handle on just what sort of a mindset I was encountering on a daily basis.

I had known that the Japanese have ways of doing everything… but I was, until now, just being flippant in using the word “everything”.

But the book Japan: A Guide to Traditional Customs and Etiquette, has shown me that my flippancy was ill-advised, that the Japanese do have a way to do everything.

The kata-zation of Japan. Why didn’t I know about this?

Still… some 25 years after leaving Japan… and nine years after writing over 3,900 essays on Japan… I think I’ve got it. After reading this book, of course.

No… the book Japan: A Guide to Traditional Customs and Etiquette will not help you become Japanese, rather it helps us all non-Japanese understand why the Japanese are so effing Japanese.

When I arrived in Japan on the JET Programme, and was separated by prefecture (province) into a bus and sent to the capital city of Utsunomiya-shi (Utsunomiya City) in Tochigi-ken (Tochigi Prefecture), we were quickly taught to say our name and a little Japanese saying (essentially that I am humbly in our care), followed by a bow.

Right there… we were shown the kata of how the Japanese introduce themselves.

Right there… we were taught how to bow.

But because we were all stupid gaijin, we didn’t realize the sheer importance of getting both things correct, because we were too worried about the words.

The words were important, of course, but so too was that bow. It was a bow of reverence… not merely respect for the older members of the Tochigi-ken prefectural board of education, but rather RESPECT to the people who were in such a high position as members of the Tochigi-ken prefectural board of education.

Hells… I don’t even know how long my bow was, or now if I even had my hands to the side… I think I did okay, but learning to bow is an integral part of being Japanese, and so I’m sure that after two minutes of instruction every single one of us newcomers meeting the bosses simply got it wrong.

You can’t just learn perfection. It takes a lifetime of being Japanese to be Japanese.

I was taught how to hold chopsticks by my Ohtawara-shi boss, Hanazaki-san, but because I found the correct Japanese way of doing so mildly inconvenient to my gaijin fingers and hand, I manipulated the chopsticks my own way.

For me, I was able to eat my food via chopsticks in a faster way, that enabled me to pick up round objects with ease… but stupid me… I failed to learn the proper kata of using Japanese chopsticks. I could never be Japanese with that sort of an attitude.

There’s a way to drink beer, drink ceremonial tea, to serve ceremonial tea, a way to entertain guests, a way to go to the toilet, there are slippers to wear in the toilet, slippers to wear in the home, a way to take care of your futon, a way to hang your laundry and take it in every day.

I recall asking one of my teachers at Ohtawara Chu Gakko (Ohtawara Junior High School) why the Japanese did things “this way”—because it seemed wrong in my mind—and he simply said, he didn’t know, just that that’s the way they did things. And rather than say that my way was better, and that the Japanese way was wrong, he worded his thoughts to me in such a manner that he made me feel okay about the situation without actually taking my side.

After reading Japan: A Guide to Traditional Customs and Etiquette from Tuttle Publishing, I now realize that the Japanese did things that way because that was the way they have been brought up to do things—in the Japanese way.

And then I learned that his way of acquiescing without acquiescing is also a Japanese kata… he didn’t want to disappoint me and lose face in front of me… so he kata-ed me.

There’s a way of letting people down without letting people down.

I can recall the numerous times I asked a Japanese person for something, and because they weren’t sure if they could do it (or maybe a boss needed to be consulted), I would receive multiple answers of tabun.

It means “maybe”. Or maybe it means “probably”. Or even possibly “perhaps.”

There would also be the sucking of air in through the teeth while it was said. It’s a kata.

I think now, that if you ask someone a question and they suck air in through their teeth while answering, you should no that they are trying to let you down gently.

There are kata for samurai (it was called bushido - the way of the warrior), a defense style now seen and practiced in the martial art of kendo.

There’s kata in kyudo—Japanese archery. I used to think just how easy it would be to pick up my bow and arrow, pull back the string and fire the damn thing at my target. I know I could hit the target if I could do things my way. Yes, I did kyudo. But I wasn’t allowed to do things my way, because there was a kata about how to shoot a Japanese bow and arrow.

Hitting the target was actually secondary until I was able to perform the kyudo kata first. I swear I practiced the kata for over a year before I even came close to hitting a target.

Page 31 of Japan: A Guide to Traditional Customs and Etiquette has a passage that exactly sums of the Japanese way of thinking:

Westerners are fond of saying, “I don’t care how you do it, just get it done.”
Japanese tend to say, “Don’t do it unless you can do it right (the right way).”

That. Just Blew. My. Frickin’. Mind.

Even in my day job as a writer I try to do things the right way, but because everybody wants something done ASAP, I’m told, literally, “I don’t care how you do it, just get it done.”

It’s wrong, isn’t it? The Japanese have got it 100 percent correct.

“Don’t do it unless you can do it right.”

Despite the title, which sounds like it’s going to be a dull book, Japan: A Guide to Traditional Customs and Etiquette is actually an easy-to-read book. And it's not dull, either! Win-win!

It’s written in a way that I would like to write a book.

It assumes you know nothing without pointing it out, and educates you with clear and simple words.

I can’t even begin to tell you how many books I have read on Japan where the author gets preachy, or uses big words to show that they know more than you—but Japan: A Guide to Traditional Customs and Etiquette… well… its written as though the author is talking to you.

Does that sound familiar?

Yes… it’s how I try and write my blogs.

Keep it entertaining—which happens in this book—and keep it communicative in a two-way-street manner.

It seems weird, but it’s what I try and do.

I try and have a conversation with the reader, and that’s exactly what author Boye Lafayette De Mente appears to be doing in his absolutely fascinating book.

I was going to give it away to a friend of mine, but sorry… this appears to be a book that I can use and use again for however long I am able to continue writing my Japan—It’s A Wonderful Rife blog.

And so… containing 224 pages (which includes three pages of Index, a Forwards and Contents page et al, for a mere US$12.99 you, too, can learn just what it is for the Japanese to be so Japanese.

It really is a great book book, and I am very thankful to Tuttle Publishing for allowing me the opportunity to review it.

Yeah, there’s a few spots of editing (duplicate words, or a comma coming after a space, rather than the actual word), but whatever… Tuttle can get that next time. I will edit for you,  

In the mean time, Japan: A Guide to Traditional Customs and Etiquette is a book anyone interested in Japan and the Japanese should read.

You can find it at or perhaps wherever finer books on Asia congregate at your local book store.

Andrew Joseph

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