The Exclamation Point Wars

Tokyo on One Cliché a Day

The Exclamation Point Wars

Tokyo on One Cliché a Day

The Exclamation Point Wars
Dispatches from the front lines of travel.
Oct. 15 2003 4:52 PM

Tokyo on One Cliché a Day

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Today's slide show: Images from Tokyo.

Japan Cliché No. 3: Inane Protocol

Seth Stevenson Seth Stevenson
Seth Stevenson, a regular contributor to Slate, spent two months in Tokyo on a media fellowship from the Japan Society.
Tokyo by night
Tokyo by night

This is how I will remember Tokyo: I am about to be late for an appointment. It is scorching hot and humid as I come up out of the subway. There is wincing glare off glass skyscrapers on every side. Instantly, sweat begins to blot through my shirt in widening circles that will soon meet.

I am terrified of offending the person I'm about to meet, as it has become clear to me that "on time" here 1) means 10 minutes early; and 2) is a religion. Well then, you say, I really should have planned ahead. Yes, but can I explain to you how fricking hard it is to find anything here? This is the place where, quite literally, the streets have no name. I'm not sure why they still haven't bothered to name them, but they haven't. Seems not to be a priority. Consequently, people don't give you addresses here to find things (because there are no addresses). They give you schematics.

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(Note to self: Develop proposal for Japanese government, whereby I become minister of street naming. Endeavor to name all streets. Move beyond hackneyed tree and president themes. In first effort, name one neighborhood entirely for teeth. Bicuspid Street, Wisdom Avenue, Molar Boulevard. Receive mixed reviews. Improve greatly with subsequent efforts. Win over Japanese. Fame, fortune ensue.)

I'm supposed to meet my friend Professor Ikei at the Meiji Jingu baseball stadium. Keio University, where he teaches, is playing Rikkio University in a college baseball game. I am already six minutes late, because I walked the wrong way coming out of the subway and had to double back. Luckily, Professor Ikei is a wonderful, laid-back guy who seems willing to forgive my idiocy. When I finally meet him outside the gate, he is all smiles, and we head right in to our seats on the first base line. Soon we are chatting about baseball in Japan, trying to make ourselves heard above the din of the university bands and the shrieking male cheerleaders urging on the crowd. Professor Ikei has this great conversational habit that I really want to start emulating. It happens when I ask him a complex, open-ended question, like, "Do you think baseball in Japan has become so popular due to its one-on-one, pitcher vs. batter, samurailike confrontations and the way it lends itself to becoming almost a martial art, or do you think it is more simply a matter of the decadelong U.S. occupation foisting the game upon the Japanese?" In response to this sort of query, Ikei-san will launch into a deep, sustained belly laugh. AHHHHH HAH HAH ha ha ha ha ha ha ha. Then the laughter abruptly stops, and he'll nod once, slowly, with a blank look on his face, and say, "Maybe." I love that. I'm already practicing my own version.

Of course, not all my moments of social un-grace are tolerated so kindly and so smoothly dismissed. The last time I came to Japan, on assignment reporting a story, I had recently started freelance writing and hadn't yet gotten around to making up business cards. And I'd forgotten how important they are here. At my first meeting with several corporate executives, they lined up to hand me their cards, and I sheepishly said that I had none to give them in return. This caused much quick, sharp, audible inhaling, which is Japanese for "you are such a hopeless moron that I am embarrassed for you and for your family." There was murmuring, and then they asked me for my contact information and wrote it down. A young lackey disappeared from the room. Ten minutes later, he returned and handed me a stack of newly printed cards, literally still hot off the press or the printer or whatever, and emblazoned in two colors with my name, number, and e-mail address. I, in turn, handed these new cards immediately back to the executives. And, at my first private moment, smacked myself in the forehead.

Just a few days ago, I ran up against another protocol incident. I was trying to interview executives from the front office of the Yokohama Baystars baseball team. My friend Sonoda-san felt he had a good connection to set me up with these interviews, going through a friend of his who has connections with the Baystars' ownership group. But then the schedule for the interviews came back, and it showed only one interview. Lasting 10 minutes. With a 22-year-old public relations flack who had no decision-making role with the team.

OK, first of all, any 10-minute interview is pretty much worthless. Not enough time for real conversation. Add on that this particular interview will necessitate an interpreter, which means that with translation time it turns into a five-minute interview. Factor in the reality that there is nothing this nice young man can tell me that will be of any interest. And then realize that to get to Yokohama will take an hour, and so will getting back, both times accompanied by an interpreter being paid by the hour, and all of this for a worthless 10-minute interview. Sounds like a recipe for canceling the interview, yes? I said as much. But Sonoda-san politely informed me this was not possible. Apparently, me canceling the interview would be so socially inappropriate, and cause such ripples of unrest, that it could threaten the relationship between the Baystars' ownership and the Baystars, between Sonoda-san's friend and the ownership, and even between Sonoda-san and his friend. And so I trudged out to Yokohama and conducted the interview—even though neither the PR flack nor I wanted to be there—and trudged back home. Nobody's fault. Just the way things are here. But believe me, as I think about the societal norms that prompted this, in my head I am sharply and audibly inhaling.

Sonoda-san's a great guy, and I love my e-mail exchanges with him. It's already tough to imply tone over e-mail, and with the cultural barrier it's even tougher, so I've resorted to adding a few superfluous exclamation points in my e-mails, like "Thanks!" and "I'd be glad to go out to Yokohama for that 10-minute interview!" Sonoda-san has responded by upping the ante, often appending two or even three exclamation points to statements like, "Seth-san, thank you for your kind understanding about the interview with the Baystars!!!" Recently, I have jacked it up to four exclamation points, as in "The interview was not bad!!!!" It's like a war of exclamation points. Pretty soon, if we don't put 12 exclamation points after "Hello," it will seem rude and aloof.

Do I think this awkward pas de deux says something about the difficult nature of negotiating Japanese societal protocol, and the extent of my vain hopes not to offend within this context? AHHH HAH HAH ha ha ha ha ha ha ha. Maybe.