Today I found myself the regrettable but most certainly deserving recipient of most noxious and withering look, the kind of which stops all life related activity dead in its tracks- I call it the Melter. So named because of the lava like creeping, burning, melting sensation starting in the throat and continuing to the bowels when the Melter is cast. In Japan, the Melter appears to be the preferred communication form of castigation for anyone caught or engaging in an act deemed rude, disruptive, disgusting or otherwise socially unacceptable as it is against social norm in this culture to directly confront the perpetrator with a reprimand. The Melter, however, shouts with the eyes in a piercing voice disdain for the actions of the deserving yet sinful sod who committed the infraction. In this case, me. My mother has her own version of the Melter which we call the Thin Lips which may be in part why I’m particularly prone to this method of communication.
It all started out so innocently. I started the morning with a stop at my Fed Ex to FAX tax documents to the US. All of the computer terminals were occupied with “salary men”- Japanese businessmen- diligently working on Excel spreadsheets which seemed odd. Shouldn’t these gentlemen crunch numbers at their office instead of mine? My Fed Ex employees, usually competing with me to flex their English-speaking muscles while I exercised my Japanese ones, were actually bustling back and forth from behind the counter, running in silence to help the salary men complete the crises that brought them to Fed Ex. Unlike an American FedEx, this hive of activity operated in dead silence, everyone cognizant of the work environment of one’s neighbor. Until I called Andretti-san on the cell phone to inquire as to the correct pronunciation of “I’ll wait.” To the quiet cogs in the corporate wheel at FedEx, the auditory assault of my phone call on the zen environment slashed through the air with the speed of a samurai sword. Not only were my 10 attempts to repeat “I’ll wait” in Japanese bothersome, but increasing the volume of each endeavor did not improve my pronunciation. By the time my conversation with Andretti-san concluded, the FedEx employees were all hiding having seen what I had not- one of the salary men had turned in his chair to give me the Melter. GI distress descended upon my gut- for this was my second turn to receive the Melter- and I knew when I met his gaze, pain like no other would be inflicted upon my soul. All was still – everyone in the room knew without looking that the Melter was in use for they too could feel its powerful wrath. They knew I deserved it. I forced myself to meet his eyes. The deliverer dropped his eyes from mine to the phone in my hand. He had communicated my error without speaking. I had been rude. Speaking on the phone in a quiet place, disturbing others by being inconsiderate. I dropped my gaze to the floor in acknowledgment. He turned back to the computer. All activity resumed. DANG IT. Like a relieved child, I drew a breath. The hive returned to normal.
So what happened. In Japan, cell phones are not to be used on trains, in restaurants, or any other quiet place. Generally, if one needs to use a cell phone, it should be used outside as talking on it is considered using “your outside voice.” NEVER use a cell phone on a train- and the ringer should be turned off. Conversations on cell phones in public should be limited to less than one minute. The Japanese value quiet-lapses in conversation are used to reflect on what has been said and hurried attempts at filling are avoided. Anything that disturbs the serenity and peace of others is impolite.
Second, culturally, direct confrontation isn’t a communication tool for the Japanese- unless it is with immediate family members. Instead, behaviors are ignored, excused or in extreme circumstances, the person becomes an “outsider” and is no longer a member of the group. In my case, the man did me a favor by indicating with body language that in this culture, my actions were not acceptable. It was a good day- thanks to the Melter- I learned to see this situation through a Japanese lens today. One step closer to assimilation.