Life in the Land of the Rising Sun

Saturday, June 02, 2007

The Japanese Smile

We had a concert at Ye Olde Academy today, the first of three Saturday Afternoon Concerts for the 2007-2008 school year. It was enjoyable as always, but it showed that there was definitely room for improvement. After that was the first general meeting of the Music Club Parents' Association (very peaceful-sounding fanfare), which thankfully went quickly without any bumps.

Anyway, once all that was done and I was on my way home, I passed a tiny little fire station on a back road just as the (miniature) fire engine came rushing out, sirens blaring. I quickly pulled off to the side of the road to let the fire engine pass. I then continued on my way, but after only another three hundred meters or so I found a whole herd of fire engines parked on both sides of the narrow road, obviously the destination of the truck which had passed me (though its home station was clearly the closest! Go figure...). Both professional firemen in full gear and volunteer firemen in jeans and T-shirts were hustling about with their hoses and things, attacking a fire that was blazing in a nearby field. The latter was bordered closely by a few houses and a shrine, but none of them appeared to have been affected yet. Considering I drive by that field on that narrow road twice every day on which I go to work at Ye Olde Academy, it was a bit of a surprise seeing that fire and all that activity.

A typical local fire truck in Japan. This image was taken from the website of Yokosuka City, but the one that passed me was very similar.

However, what really surprised me was all the rubberneckers (i.e. people coming to watch). Even on that remote, little back road out in the middle of the sticks, there was quite a crowd gathering. Now, that's not particularly unusual, but I couldn't help noticing that many if not most if not all of the people gathering to observe the spectacle were smiling.

A fire in one's neighborhood isn't usually cause to smile. However, you have to remember that this is Japan, and in Japan a smile can have a totally different meaning. It brings to mind the time back in the late 90s when a new installment of the Japanese TV drama "Oregon Kara Ai" ("From Oregon With Love") was being filmed, and the Japanese TV company decided to use American directors to make it more authentic. They ran into some trouble when they were doing a scene in which a middle-aged Japanese woman opened her wallet to pay for some groceries (at an Oregonian shop) and realized she had no money. The Japanese actress expressed embarrassment as most middle-aged Japanese women naturally would: she smiled. That sent the American director into a tizzy, as he'd naturally expected something more along the lines of bugged-out eyes and a wide-open mouth. The Japanese interpreter saved the day by explaining the cultural difference to the director, who then decided to allow the actress to give her natural, Japanese response (even though he still didn't get it).

It is often said that the Japanese smile is like a mask to hide behind. It is something to flash when one is feeling troubled. You see it here when someone is frightened, stressed out, or angry. On his wife's or girlfriend's face, it is a sign that a man is in deep trouble. It is the first response I get whenever I call on a student to answer a question. Perhaps it is an extension of the Japanese concept of wa (harmony), hiding negative emotions behind a pleasant face. After all, I'm sure the people in that neighborhood were feeling shocked, worried, maybe even frightened. There were lots of unpleasant feelings in response to an unpleasant situation. Therefore, it was only natural that they were dealing with it in the customary way, by hiding it all behind a pleasant smile.

Either that or it was schadenfreude on a massive scale.

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  • I'm grinning from ear to ear

    By Blogger Pa've, at 3:53 AM  

  • I think if i remember correctly that a smile is a primitive fear response. Monkeys bare their teeth in what looks like a smile when faced with a threat.

    By Blogger Olivia, at 5:18 AM  

  • This comment has been removed by the author.

    By Blogger Momo the Wonder Dog, at 8:26 AM  

  • Response time from volunteer units will vary, whereas the regular stations are always ready to roll at a moments notice.

    I had a childhood friend who used to laugh when anyone got hurt. Very annoying when it was me who got hurt, but I finally figured out that was just way he handled fear and stress.

    By Blogger Pandabonium, at 8:27 AM  

  • Pa've
    You're always grinning from ear to ear!

    Yeah, that's why there's a sign at the chimpanzee enclosure at the Portland Zoo asking guests no to smile at the chimps. It makes them violent.

    But wait a minute...are you implying that Japanese are more ape-like than us Westerners? :-O

    Yes, and some volunteer fire units are probably more motivated than others (or more UNmotivated).

    I had a friend like that, too. He would start giggling feverishly whenever anything happened, including our team losing during a competition. It could really drive us nuts. Lucky for him it's hard to hit a guy who's laughing even if you're using a large, blunt object.

    By Blogger The Moody Minstrel, at 11:58 AM  

  • I always had trouble with that particular area of the Japanese/Australian cultural difference.

    I always remember my Tiawanese friend who threw chopsticks at a Japanese waitress! hahahaha..... Ordering curry rice should not be that stressful!

    By Blogger Australian David, at 12:27 PM  

  • Aussie Dave
    Hello again!

    What is it about foreign visitors harassing waitresses here? I had a Canadian friend here (since returned to Toronto) who always gave the waitresses a really hard time whenever we had dinner at a restaurant. Back in 1991 I took a whole group of newbies to a pub/restaurant, and they soon had the waitress in tears with their constant complaints and insults.

    And they wonder why some restaurants don't allow foreigners?

    What made your friend throw the chopsticks? Was the waitress smiling too much?

    By Blogger The Moody Minstrel, at 12:50 PM  

  • If memory serves me correctly it was actualy in a small Japanese restaurant here on the Gold Coast. I think he got angry because the waitress did not speak english..... But that is why is he back in Taipei! lol.... Don't worry, my mother had many emotional moments in Dennys and Saizariya! Italians always seem to have something to say hahahaha.

    By Blogger Australian David, at 9:52 PM  

  • Every culture has its own weirdnesses and eccentricities,

    Like how certain towns (even in Oregon) are known as "Sundown" towns.

    That means if you are black (especially), sometimes if you are hispanic or a hippie or whatever; you better get the "heck" out of town by sundown.

    Lil' ol' Mcminville was one not too long ago, as I was informed by my father, and Irish Catholics were on the list too.

    By Blogger ladybug, at 10:45 PM  

  • I recently moved from a Sundown Town to a center of cultural diversity.

    I sometimes feel like I am in a different country.

    word ver. gooysuy

    a wet pig!

    By Blogger Pa've, at 9:43 AM  

  • Back in the days of the Old West (cue off-key saloon piano), in the little old town of Pendleton, Oregon, a man who shot a Chinaman in the middle of the street in broad daylight was arrested...and given a fine for discharging a firearm within city limits.

    It's good to see that times have changed.


    By Blogger The Moody Minstrel, at 4:37 PM  

  • I thought “From Oregon with Love” was made in the 1980s. Did they make a new one?

    I saw a few episodes as a teen. Talk about cultural misunderstanding. I was like wow, Japanese people must think that Oregon is the most depressing, lonely place in the whole world…

    By Blogger Swinebread, at 11:05 PM  

  • Hm, as I was writing that comment I remember wondering why the Japanese, with their society full of protocol and covering emotions, are so much closer to that response than the Westerners...

    By Blogger Olivia, at 6:36 AM  

  • hmmm.. big fire.. small fire engine..

    or the other way round.

    I like your description of Human (perhaps more so for face loving Japs) esp on "hiding negative emotions behind a pleasant face".

    By Blogger Robin, at 12:46 PM  

  • I think some people laugh when they are embarrassed,(I mean Westerners) somehow it tides over the situation. It annoys me though when people laugh when something goes really wrong and it seems that they are laughing at misfortune.

    By Blogger Peceli and Wendy's Blog, at 3:12 PM  

  • Swinebread
    I thought “From Oregon with Love” was made in the 1980s. Did they make a new one?

    The original series (as with all Japanese dramas, only one season planned) ran in the 1980s. However, it was so popular that at least three sequels were made throughout the 90s and early '00s [read "oughts"], bringing back some if not most of the original characters with the original actors, only older (kind of like "The Waltons" used to be, only different).

    The original series and most of the sequels were filmed in or near Madras, so the emptiness wasn't altogether inaccurate. The last one I saw was near Tillamook and focused on the plight of the timber industry.

    What was really funny was in one sequel (still in Madras) when a couple of young Japanese in backpacks hike down a back road out on the Central Oregon prairie, pass by a horse farm, stop and have a look at a nearby horse, and next thing they know they are running away from a crazed farmer yelling, "Horse rustlers! Horse rustlers!" and popping off at them with his deer rifle. No sooner do they escape that than they are picked up by the police, arrested, and charged with...wait for rustling because the crazed farmer somehow managed to call the cops from way out in the middle of his pasture (and this was in the early 90s, so no cell phones). (Hmm...I wonder how many horses a twenty-something person can carry in a backpack.)

    Oh, well. Those shows were always good, clean, sentimental, (bad acting,)fun, and they always showed lots of great shots of the Oregon countryside.

    By Blogger The Moody Minstrel, at 3:38 PM  

  • Olivia
    Any comment I made would probably send my foot straight into my mouth, so I'll leave it at that.

    Human nature can be such an artificial thing, can't it? ;-)

    Yes, you're right, but the Japanese in particular have gone to great lengths to analyse themselves and their "mask-like smile" response.

    By Blogger The Moody Minstrel, at 3:50 PM  

  • Hmmmm... ignorant me, never seen that movie before... *smiling*

    By Blogger Lrong, at 9:20 AM  

  • hmm thats rather interesting.. i don't like it though..there is nothing worse than hiding how you truly feel with a kind of makes people look emotionless..just having one response..a smile..where for humans its not speech that expresses but facial expressions and body language.

    By Blogger memo, at 1:21 PM  

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