A Japanese Heart


Zak, I am happy that you can attend my wedding as the best man. As we discussed the other day, it is very important that you behave appropriately with my bride’s family and her guests. People will judge you based on your behavior, and their judgment of you will affect their evaluation of me as the groom. So please be very careful with what you do at the wedding.

Here I write the ways in which you should behave in different situations at the wedding, and especially with the bride’s family. Remember to follow my instructions carefully and precisely. Any mistake can be a source of trouble and it won’t be funny even if you are an American.

Let’s start with a greeting. You will meet the bride’s family at a hotel lobby on the day of the wedding.

1. Upon the entrance to the hotel lobby, you will recognize the bride’s family. Even from a distance, you should bow a little. It doesn’t have to be a full bow, just from your neck. Make an apologetic smile when you bow. And walk at the maximum speed to them noiselessly. A successful execution of this procedure makes an impression of you as a sincere and polite man. No hand-waving or calling their names out or even smiling openly. Any of these actions will make the bride’s family think of you as a disruptor of public harmony. Remember, when you are judged troublesome, I too am judged troublesome for having a troublesome friend. Do not be troublesome.

araiba 12. When you approach the bride’s family, keep this bowing-from-a-neck posture. Walk as if you are a peasant appearing in front of a mighty lord. Japanese culture is about showing how inferior you are to your opponent. This does not mean that when you do so, the opponent will judge you as inferior. It’s quite the opposite. Your opponent will judge you as having a respectable heart. This is because the opponent will also act as an inferior to you. If you don’t act the same way, you will make fool of your opponent and that would be offensive. Don’t offend the bride’s family at any cost.

3. When you meet the bride’s family, keep yourself two or three steps away from them. That way they think of you as a sensible man. Do not attempt to make physical contact or eye contact, as is the American custom. Only the elders can make direct eye contact or physical contact with the youths. You do not want to make them think that you are a kind of man who disrespects seniority. If you don’t know where to look, you can look at their noses or chins. Look at their chins.

4. It is important that you bow before they do. As a rule, an inferior will bow before a superior does. As you can imagine, they will try to bow to you before you do. So be competitive about being inferior. Bow by bending your entire upper body to the point that your hair becomes vertical to the ground by the power of gravity. Keep this posture until the bride’s family members finish bowing to you. Do not raise your head before they do. Remember, this is a competition. If you win, they will judge you as a genuine person who possesses a Japanese heart. If you lose I will be judged. You must win.

5. Only after the family members raise their heads back, will you bring your head up. But don’t straighten your back right away. That is, keep your head a bit below its original position. This may hurt your neck for the first time, but by doing so, you can avoid the impression of being arrogant. Especially because Japanese are short, even when you are just standing straight, you are looking down on them and that is considered arrogant. When you are judged arrogant, I am judged arrogant, too. And arrogance is not an appreciative trait in Japanese society. Gradually return your head to its original position as you engage in conversation.

6. A relatively easy part of Japanese culture is its conversation (believe it or not). Japanese conversation has no place for spontaneity or originality. People follow the exact same patterns of verbal exchange at every occasion. Especially when you meet a person for the first time, the conversation occurs as in the script. Here is how it goes: The one who loses the bowing competition (that is, the one who takes the superior position, and, in our case, this has to be the bride’s father) initiates the conversation. The bride’s father will say, “Hajime mashite.” You will return by saying, “Hajime mashite. Watashi no namae wa Zak Kaplan desu.” Here, you have to introduce yourself before the opponent does since the inferior introduces himself first. The bride’s father will say his name, then you will say, “Yoroshiku onegai shimasu.” Then, he will say the same and introduce his family members. As he calls his family members one by one, you will say “Yoroshiku onegai shimasu” to each of them, and they will say the same to you. No need to find out what these phrases mean in English. It’s just a part of the script that everyone shares. Just memorize them.

Now, you must be thinking that I am no longer the same person you met at that small community college in Rockland, NY some ten years ago. At the time, you were a dreamer of Japanese culture from the books of Kawabata and Murakami, whereas I was a runaway, despising all aspects of Japanese culture. For you, Japanese culture was a deep and exotic mystery, whereas I thought my culture was an empty façade. I still remember as a child I disliked my father changing his voice to a “polite” tone whenever he picked up a phone call. He would raise the pitch of his voice and bow to a phone on the wall. He would never talk like that to his family or me. Only when he talked in public would he change his voice. It was embarrassing to me. I thought it was fake. I thought he was lying to himself. And my culture was full of such double standards. They celebrated Christmas, Valentine’s Day, and Halloween, and decorated their cities like devoted believers without knowing what these events were actually about. The worst thing of all was that the society called the participants of these events the sensible ones, and those who failed to participate were called difficult ones, problematic ones. And I sure was a difficult kid.

araiba 2When I was in high school, I got my first job at Uniqlo, a large clothing store in Japan. There, I was told to greet customers upon entrance even if I could not see them walking in. How would you do it? The bell rings when the door opens, so just scream Irasshaimase from wherever you are. I asked my manager what was the point of a greeting if I was not actually seeing the customer. If I just greeted out loud every time I heard a bell, I was just a dog that salivates to the sound of the metronome. I couldn’t tolerate myself being a dog. No wonder my first job lasted only a few months.

When we first met at the community college in New York, I was still a native pursuer of the American dream. I was a young and selfish man who believed that I was better than other Japanese students because I had a dream of becoming a film director. I misunderstood honesty as being critical and accused these Japanese students for not having dreams or not coming out of their small Japanese community. Since you have known me from that time, you might say that I gave up listening to my heart and began listening to my culture. You might throw away this letter and say that you will follow your American heart at my wedding. As a friend, I really appreciate your American heart. Your vibrant personality and loud laughter always cheered me up. You might feel as though I’m asking you to be a completely different person. You may want to do what you think is the best for me in your own way. You might say, “Yes, some of my actions and comments might offend your bride’s family and they might think that my manners are rude and disrespectful. But they will eventually understand that I have no intention to offend them. We can understand each other at the bottom of our heart.”

7. Do not act like an American at my wedding. If you follow your American heart and demand the bride’s family’s understanding of your intention, you are only judged troublesome, disruptive. Only if you try to follow Japanese manners will you be judged honest and sincere. Honesty in Japanese culture is precisely the opposite of yours. Honesty in Japan does not begin with an individual’s heart. It begins with following the rules. Please do not ever follow your heart at the wedding. I really want you to be there.

As you might have guessed, it was my wife-to-be who changed me. After we graduated our community college and went our separate paths, I met her. She was unlike other Japanese students. She told me that she wanted to be a social entrepreneur. I was excited to meet her and share my feelings about how difficult it was to live in Japan for honest people like us. But she didn’t agree with me. She said she liked Japan and had many good friends there. Instead, she pointed out how narrow-minded I was. She said I was just running away from reality and acting like a child.

I remember saying to her, “If killing my heart is what it’s to be a grown-up, then I would never wanna grow up.”

She replied, “No one expects you to be an adult. They just expect you to act like an adult.”

She was right. My mother often scolded me for not acting like an adult, but never told me to become an adult. I remember my mother cried when I refused to wear a suit for the Coming of Age Day, which was to celebrate the entering to the adult world at the age of twenty. She cried not because her son’s mental age did not reach maturity on the day, but because her son did not wear an appropriate uniform for a mature man (I showed up in jeans and sneakers).

Acting is lying, you might still say and accuse me of asking you to repress your heart at my wedding. But think this way: acting is lying only when there is off-stage. From birth to marriage to funeral, Japanese are always on stage. The scripts are prepared for each and every situation of Japanese life. You follow the scripts and people see you as honest and sincere, a respectable member of a society. If you don’t, they will judge you as arrogant and lacking a Japanese heart. Japanese people love to talk about the heart, but truly what they are looking at is how well you can comply with the scripts. Don’t you think it’s strange that Japanese people judge your heart when they see your behavior, but never the other way around? Japanese don’t have a heart: they have scripts.

Life is like an encyclopedia in Japan. It’s a collection of unrelated events. These events seem contradictory to each other as a whole in the mind of someone who possesses a heart. But when there is no heart behind them, there is no wholeness either. There are only sets of scripts to attain harmony at each situation. There is nothing underneath. There is no depth. How else could you put Buddha, Jesus, and Shinto gods together in one place? And now I, acting as an adult man, see Japanese culture as fascinating. Because, for the first time in my life, I can forget about my heart. Don’t feel overwhelmed by the thickness of the scripts. I am learning them too.

8. The bride’s father will lead everyone to find a place to settle down. We will take a table at a café in the hotel. When you take a seat, don’t sit down right away. Observe the social order of our group by looking at the order of their seating. As you can imagine, the superior sits down first and the inferiors follow. In our case, the bride’s father is the first, the groom’s father the second, then the mothers, male family members, female family members, the guests, and finally the bride and the groom. I will give you a cue, so don’t lose sight of me.

araiba 39. After taking seats, the bride’s father will again initiate the conversation by mentioning the weather. Your job is to nod and say, “Hai” at the right moments. The timing of saying Hai is when the bride’s father looks at you or his speech pauses. Don’t say anything else. Don’t talk about how you think of the weather. Don’t give a funny joke about the weather. Don’t change the topic from the weather. And most importantly, don’t smile. There are several reasons for this. First, in Japanese culture a quiet person is the most respectful one. Second, a serious, almost-nervous facial expression shows that you respect the social order. When you are too nervous to make a smile, the bride’s father will see you as a humble man (a sweaty face is a definite plus!). Third, you are considered earnest when you listen to your elders talk. It shows you are eager to learn the wisdom of Senpai. This may be the most difficult task for you, since you, as an American man, will get anxious with silence. But don’t worry about it. Japanese conversation is written in stone and that includes silence. If you follow the script, people will judge you as having a genuine Japanese heart.

10. I will write you another letter with more instructions. Till then, practice these.


Rumpus original art by Max Winter.

Sho Araiba grew up in Tokyo and came to New York for college education. He just earned a Ph.D in psychology and lives and works in New York. His story received an Honorable Mention in Glimmer Train's August 2015 Short Story Award for New Writers. More from this author →