LOST IN OVER TRANSLATION
“Knowing others is wisdom,
knowing yourself is enlightenment.”
- Lao Tzu
You know the spring blossoms have come to fill the air when people start to wear pink, purple, light blue, yellow and brightly-colored attires, stepping away from the winter black, grey and brown. In supermarkets, food displays start to glisten with sakura design packaging, and even artificial sakura hanging around the shelves. Department stores and boutiques clog aisles with gift boxes of scarves, handkerchiefs, perfume, chocolates and other “White Day” choice selection, marking that mind-boggling custom on March 14 when men “return” the Valentine gesture women gave them on February 14. What commercial publicity!
When you get the hang of all these “formatted” rituals in Japan, you know you have lived here for so long the customs no longer feel foreign. Oops…is that a good sign? Maybe, on one side; on the other, you become so embedded in the local habits, lifestyle, behavior and language that you forget your true self. What were you before you came to Japan?
You know the typical scene of a young mother and father in smartly dressed navy blue suit ensembles, tagging along their little child in a likewise, suit ensemble (or often, navy blue one-piece dress for girls), walking towards a school for the school entrance interview. You know those cute kindergarten girls and boys walking in a line, in their often blue apron-like uniforms and yellow caps and yellow bags (yes, everywhere in Japan!), being guided by a young teacher in his/her 20s, holding a banner on a stick and waving it in the air like a tour guide. You know the elementary school kids walking in pairs or groups, with their heavy leather red and black (and now, multi-colored) “randoseru” knapsacks, the traditional primary schoolbag borrowed from the Dutch. You know the high school teenagers that flock cafés and game centers, in their again, navy blue blazers or sailor-style blouses and checkered skirts—the ones that are pulled so high up the knee like mini-skirts just because…and the boys in either same navy blue or grey blazers and striped neckties, or the military style black “gakuran,” complete with matching black or brown leather shoes and leather bags. You know the newly hired company recruits who rush to train stations in their black suit ensembles and crisp, white shirts nervously carrying portfolios as if…You know those department store elevator girls fake their high-pitched voices because it’s considered charming in Japan (oh yeah…). You know the haggard-looking salary man and his leather or nylon portfolio with his face so red, and fuming with alcohol disgust, either seated in the train, sleeping with his mouth open, or sleeping while standing, swaying left and right to the movement of the train. You know that some of them who get retrenched from work jump off the building, bridge or train, or just quickly shoot themselves because life is shameful and unworthy (so they say). You know the rich housewives who take pleasure out of their poor hardworking husbands’ funds, chatting in cafés and shopping like crazy, or attending ikebana, cooking or sewing classes just because…
You know the small traditional Japanese dolls they display during Hina Matsuri (Girls Festival) on March 3, and if you do not display them or store them away by the next day, your daughter will never marry. You know those beautiful, huge nylon carps “koi nobori” hung outside windows during Boys Festival on May 5. You know what food they eat during summer (watermelon, corn, ice cream…), winter (“oden” boiled processed fish cakes, radish, konyaku…, “nabe” meat or fish casseroles…), spring (sakura mochi, “chirashizushi” raw fish, eggs and other toppings on rice…), and autumn (mushroom, chestnut, sweet potato…). You know how the Japanese fluster over “o-chugen” summer gifts and “o-seibo” end-of-the-year gifts to please their bosses or those they owe their life to for eternity (really!?). You know how they “must” print out “nengajo” New Year cards because if they don’t, they appear deviant J. You know when to bow, how to bow, how many seconds to bow; when and how to sit in “seiza” (squatting with feet under the buttocks); how to hold the teacup; and when to say “itadakimasu” (expression to say before meals or when receiving something). You know how Japanese love to start a conversation with a weather topic, “Kyou wa atsui desu ne!” (Isn’t it hot today?), and how they don’t want to say anything when someone died. You know how they fancy asking your blood type or your age like it’s a matter of life or death because it makes it easier for them not just to gauge who or what you are, but how they should present themselves to you. Likewise, you know you can’t do business in Japan without a business card because it’s the first thing they present to you in self-introduction in place of “I’m pleased to meet you.” Yes, you know all these and do some of these.
Does the list stop here? Do you realize that from childhood to adult age, Japanese are eternally groomed in a dictated way on how they should dress or appear in public, how to say yes and no, how to answer a phone call, how to talk to their superiors, how to eat, or how to behave in any sort of situation? Maybe you live through one or all of these examples, and you no longer realize they didn’t come with your luggage when you arrived in Japan, because they have become so much a part of your daily routine that you breathe them, eat them, sleep with them, think of them, either admire them or loathe them! Then, there will be a time, maybe in ten, fifteen or so number of years, you suddenly find yourself in a daze, outside your shell looking in—and that old feeling of who you really are before Japan “groomed” you to be like that little nursery kid in a yellow cap comes back to you like a retrospective, nostalgic film. The thoughts overwhelm you, haunt you: Did you give too much of yourself to adapt to their ways? Did you make them expect too much from you? Did you want to be accepted and fit in so badly? Did you sacrifice your true self for all these? Or, do you simply delight in being and living the “new” you?
As the great writer Paulo Coelho said, “Don’t try to be useful. Try to be yourself: That is enough, and that makes all the difference.”