Getting to know you
If there’s one thing you should be ready for when you come to Japan, it’s the Getting to Know You conversation – the one where you’re the only foreigner at a social gathering, or you’re simply accosted in the street.
First things first. Let’s be absolutely clear on this – the Getting to Know You conversation is NOT about getting to know you. While newly-arrived foreigners, still a bit green, might fall into the trap of thinking that they themselves are the point of interest, that’s not the case at all.
If ever there was a nation of navel-gazers, it’s the Japanese. (Your word for today is omphaloskepsis.) Some say it’s arrogance, self-obsession. Those more charitable but equally damning call it paranoia, insecurity, a desperate desire to be well thought of. Whichever, if you’re a foreigner in Japan, the Japanese want to know what you think of Japan and the Japanese.
Except they don’t. Actually.
This is no time for home truths. No time for honest answers to straight questions, because these are not straight questions. The Conversation is in fact a subtle test – a test of how you’re going to fit in, a test of your social graces. Sounds complicated? It is. That’s why I’ve compiled this little guide to surviving the test and passing with flying colours. So strap on your tatemae and let’s go.
Question 1 then…
Where are you from?
…is what normal people would ask. You will of course be asked…
Are you from America?
The assumption that anyone not obviously Japanese must therefore be American shows quite a lack of imagination, but don’t let that rile you. Just smile and give an honest answer. This will be the last time you’ll be required to do so.
Why did you come to Japan?
This is a fun question. Most people will use 何で (nan de) to say “Why…?” Which can also mean “How / By what means?”
– The Green Gaijin will give an honest answer – “I came for work / chicks / travel / anime / whatever.” Bad luck, you messed up. Your interrogator will maintain a polite demeanour, but rest assured, they’re bored of you now.
– The Correct (points-scoring) Answer is “Japan is a fascinating country and I wanted to see it for myself.” 10 points.
– The answer you’ll want to give at your hundredth identical interrogation and beyond is “飛行機で。” (“I came by plane.”) On no account give this answer, you’ll confuse and alienate everyone.
Can you use chopsticks?
– GG answer “Er… yes, of course.”
– Correct answer “I can, but yes, chopsticks are difficult for foreigners aren’t they!”
– Jaded answers “Can you use a fork?” / “I’ve only been doing it for 30 years.” / “I’m a foreigner – I only eat burgers.”
Can you eat Japanese food?
– GG answer “Yes, it’s very nice.” (Because you’re catching on by now, aren’t you. Or so you think.)
– Correct answer “Yes, it’s DELICIOUS!” (Remember to adopt a pained expression – If you’re not saying that Japanese food is so good it hurts, then you’re paying no compliment at all.)
– Jaded answer “I can just about gag some down before I go out and look for something with a flavour.”
“Do you like Japanese girls?”
– GG answer “Er… yes. They’re beautiful!” (Nice generalisation, buster. Warming up nicely. Without the hesitation, this would be the Correct Answer.)
– Jaded answer “You bloody fool, my wife is sitting right next to me! I want to hurt you…”
Married gents, this question is a shit sandwich. If your wife is Japanese, you’re pretty much in trouble whatever you answer. If your wife isn’t Japanese, you may as well cut them off yourself and slam them down on the table. In a world with justice the person asking this question would be taken outside and beaten to a pulp.
“Does your country have 4 seasons?”
Unless you’re from the tropics, this will seem like a bizarre non sequitur.
– GG answer “Mm? Yyyyes…”
– Correct answer “It does, but they’re not as distinct or as beautiful as they are in Japan!”
– Jaded answer “Yes, yes, we have 4 seasons. Unlike Japan’s 5.”
On no account should you point out Japan’s secret 5th season, no matter how obvious you think it is. The Japanese have built an enormous mythology around their “4 seasons”. Pointing out that tsuyu (the rainy season, which is clearly not the same as summer) makes 5 is like tramping the toilet slippers through a tatami room.
So you can see that every question is a like a hand grenade with the pin pulled out. With a bit of deft manoeuvring, you can escape with your life and your good name. It may seem unfair to expect you to be primed when you’re fresh off the plane, jetlagged, but you’ll get used to these questions.
Oh BOY you’ll get used to them.