Out of Japan: An Occidental comedy of errors in the Orient

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The Independent Online
TOKYO - At a party during the festive season attended mostly by foreigners living in Tokyo, a friend asked a leading question: 'What is the most embarrassing situation you have been in during your stay in Japan?'

Fortified with hot cider and a Texan chilli that had dulled most of the human sensory apparatus, the jolly group related several choice faux pas of Westerners in their unending struggle to come to terms with Japan's unique ways.

The discussion was a welcome relief from the deadly earnest debates over Japan's invisible trade barriers, discrimination against outsiders and all the other perennial complaints of those who would like to make Japan 'more like us'.

Much can be overcome with a sense of humour. And so, in such a spirit of light-hearted humility, I offer two of my most embarrassing experiences in Japan: an I-wish-I- could-hide-in-my-shoes moment in a Japanese restaurant; and an unforgivable breach of etiquette in front of an eminent member of the Imperial Family.

The restaurant incident occurred on my first visit to Tokyo five years ago, before I spoke a word of Japanese or knew anything about the country's eating customs. A friend in Bangkok, where I was living at the time, advised me during my stay to try tempura, a favourite Japanese dish of deep-fried fish and vegetables that are dipped into a light soy sauce to mitigate the slightly oily batter.

The receptionist at my hotel described how to get to a tempura restaurant close by, but as soon as I entered I experienced the utter helplessness of a foreigner in Japan for the first time. None of the staff spoke a word of English, nor were there any menus I could read. Attempting familiarity, I boldly sat at the counter behind which the chefs were preparing the food, and pointed to what the customer next to me was eating, indicating I would have the same.

A variety of small side dishes and plates were put in front of me, and soon the first deep-fried prawns were served up on a little rack. I took one, dutifully dipped it into the light brown soy sauce, and bit into the pink flesh. Suddenly I noticed my neighbour was staring at me. Clearly he had never seen a foreigner before, I thought, and continued my dipping and eating.

But gradually the other customers stopped eating and started watching me. A few comments were made, but otherwise all conversation stopped. A waitress watched me from the other side of the room with an agonised look on her face.

Adrenalin started pumping as I tried to work out the reason for becoming the centre of attention. Was I eating the wrong food? Had my trousers split? Had I started to sprout horns?

Finally, the chef leant over the counter and, with a smile, pointed to the soy sauce I was dipping the food into. 'Tea,' he said quietly, and lifted the lid off the small bowl next to it, which contained the real soy sauce.

My brush with royalty occurred last year during a gala performance of Mozart's Don Giovanni in Tokyo, put on by a touring group from the Royal Opera at Covent Garden. The organisers had kindly given me a complimentary ticket for the performance, at which Crown Prince Naruhito, the emperor-to-be, was to be the guest of honour.

I was held up that evening at the office and by the time I arrived at the opera hall, the curtain had already been raised. I dashed up the stairs, found the entrance door indicated on my ticket, and plunged into the darkened auditorium.

The Japanese are too polite to 'tut-tut' a latecomer to the theatre, but several disapproving faces turned in the direction of the barbarian who had not yet learnt to read his watch. A man standing at the door moved to stop me but when I showed him my ticket, he pointed out my seat - placed excruciatingly right in the middle of a row.

I drew a deep breath, and began the tortuous process of levering myself over people's legs, muttering apologies and feeling very self- conscious. Out of the gloom I recognised a friend sitting next to my as-yet-unoccupied seat but, as I tried to manoeuvre past him and sink into invisible safety, he grabbed my jacket. Flustered as I was, and thinking he was merely trying to prolong my ordeal in the line of fire, I automatically uttered an expletive under my breath, which came out rather louder than I intended. More heads turned.

Finally, I squirmed into my seat, and turned to remonstrate with my friend, only to find him looking at me in abject horror. He pointed despondently in front of him. Several rows ahead, surrounded by ambassadors and other notables and within easy hearing distance, was Crown Prince Naruhito - a fluent English speaker who was educated at Oxford.

The tug on my jacket had been intended to warn me that the complimentary ticket was for admission to the Royal Box. Fortunately, the Crown Prince - showing far better breeding than my own - did not deign to react to the profanity uttered in his presence.