Thursday, June 10, 2010

This is Amanda, graduating class of 2008. May I bother you by starting this blog?

Japan is a country that still is very deep in tradition and ritual. Some things are done because, well, they’ve always been done that way. Along with ritual and ceremony is politeness. You must always be polite.

An interesting example of this politeness comes whenever one of my students wants to enter the Teacher’s room. For anyone new here, in Japan, the students have stationary classrooms that they take most classes in. The teachers move around to them throughout the day, but the kids stay with their classmates in the same room. There are exceptions for things like science and music where they go to rooms that are specifically for those classes. But even then, none of the teachers have desks set up there. Teachers spend most of their time (when they are not teaching) in the Teacher’s Room where we all have desks. A point of note is that the Teacher’s Room is the only room in the school aside from the computer lab to have air conditioning or heat. Which makes it sort of like heaven. When they decide to turn it on…


So, when a student wants to find a teacher, they come to the Teacher’s Room. They open the door, or if it is open they stand at the entrance but never step inside. You see, there is a magical force field there. A force field that can only be passed through if given permission by the teachers. And to get the teacher’s permission you must say a rather complicated password.

This “password” consists of a self introduction as well as the purpose of your desired intrusion. It must include your name, class year, who you want to see and why you want to see them. Then you must nicely ask if you can come in. Translated into English, it goes something like this: “This is second grader Mika Yamamoto. I have brought the workbooks for Mr. Koeji. May I come in?” Once this is finished they must wait for the teachers to confirm that they may enter. But there is one final step. Before they cross the threshold they must say what translates literally to “I’m being rude,” and give a little bow. Then they can come in. And once they are finished with whatever they were doing and are leaving, they must turn at the door, facing back into the room, give another little bow, and say, “I was rude.”

Now “I’m being rude” is a really direct translation. It’s probably best translated in this situation as “Pardon my intrusion” or some other very polite form of “Excuse me” or “Sorry to disturb you.” People often use this phrase when they are going to hang up the phone before the other person as a way to say, “I apologize for being the first to end our very pleasant conversation,” instead of just “goodbye”. Like so many things in Japanese, it says far more than the actual words themselves. It’s a shorthand of sorts for conveying many thoughts and feelings that are appropriate for politeness in that given situation. And is therefore difficult to translate.

But it’s not just used by the kids. If some adult who does not work at the school comes for some reason or another, they will skip the whole introduction thing, but will still apologize for the fact that they are being rude by entering our teacher’s room. And most of them will also be stopped by said magical force field until they have been seen and greeted by someone inside. Because you would not want to intrude uninvited.


Now imagine how busy this gets during the passing periods. All students who need things must go through this process. Luckily it doesn’t have to be individually. If 4 of you are there to ask the music teacher a question you can simply begin by having each person say their name in the intro and let one person say the rest and then all be allowed in together.

But they aren’t always invited in. If the teacher you are looking for isn’t there, you don’t get to enter. Sometimes the teacher might just come to you at the doorway to answer a quick question or give you something or talk to you in the hall. This is especially common when the air conditioning is on.

My very small elementary students like to play a game called “Push your friend across the threshold when he hasn’t asked for permission to see if he gets in trouble.” It’s not really called that. Just so you know. But that is what they do. They will be standing there, waiting for someone to bring them something or talking to a teacher and one of them will get this sly little grin on his face and give the one nearest to the door a little push. It is amazing how quickly they react against this action, stiffening up, grabbing at the door frame, and trying to keep themselves from toppling over off balance into the room. Sometimes a kid will try really hard to get his friend inside while the other tries equally hard to stand his ground.

And before you think the teachers are horrible monsters, no, the kids don’t really get in trouble if one of their feet suddenly crossed that mystical boundary without permission. They are far more likely to get in trouble for the ruckus they are making in the hallway.

But if a kid does it wrong, they will correct him. If he doesn’t say he’s being rude they tell him to go back to the door and say it. If he doesn’t introduce himself or doesn’t speak clearly he has to do it over before they will let him in. At the beginning of a new school year it is amusing how many kids have to start over because they get their grade level wrong. But it’s not just the teachers doing the correcting. If a student hears another one say the wrong grade, they will immediately point it out. This may just be because its kinda funny. Although to be fair they have like a week break between the terms that start a new grade (school year ends in March and starts back up in April), so it’s an honest mistake.


With the tiny elementary school first graders who are brand new to school, a teacher will often come with them to walk them through the process of how to properly ask for permission to enter the Teacher’s Room. And they will often come in little groups to help each other remember and speak in adorable unison.

There are amusing moments that pop up from time to time where a kid comes to the door and goes through their spiel and then we both realize I’m the only one in the Teacher’s Room. Now this whole exchange is done at a pretty quick speed because everyone already knows what you’re going to say more or less. I kinda half follow them when I’m actually listening, but I tend to miss a lot of why they are actually there. You know, the only important part. So once we both realize that I’m the only one there, and they don’t run away because they were looking for a specific teacher who is not me, I allow them in without knowing what they actually need. It’s almost always to get something like the flag or pushpins or something a teacher left on his desk. But I’m always slightly worried that it’s all a scheme to get or do something they wouldn’t normally be allowed. It’s very slightly though.

One last thought on the usage of the “I’m being rude” bit. I have noticed that anytime someone needs to get something from inside someone else’s desk they will speak this phrase. This interests me, because if you are apologizing to the person who’s stuff you are about to go through…well, they aren’t there to hear it (which is why you are in their desk in the first place). Is it possible that you are apologizing to the desk? The most interesting idea I have come up with to explain this is that you are, in fact, informing EVERYONE ELSE in earshot that you are about to go through stuff that isn’t yours. A way to say, I’m not being sneaky, you all see me and I’m not going to mess anything up or steal anything. However to prove this one I would have to observe someone actually trying to be sneaky and not saying this phrase…

I apologize for rudely wasting your time on my meaningless prattle and thank you for taking the time to read it.

16 comments:

  1. I love it. That's pretty neat no matter how you slice it. I think I will make my kids do that in year to come....Mwhahahha!

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  2. That reminds me in a way of the Aggie method of introducing oneself. "My name is Jennifer and I am the proudest member of the Fightin' Texas Aggie Class of '02 whoop."

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  3. This was no waste of time! I am always find the cultural differences very interesting. I have to say that in my very short time there, I LOVED the politeness factor... especially at the airport lol. Thanks for sharing your experiences and insight!

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  4. i agree that the politeness is an awesome part~

    the politeness to inanimate objects still gets me tho XD i'm gonna go with ur explanation cuz it makes it less silly =p

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  5. I tend to say "I'm gonna steal stuff!" when I'm reaching for something belonging to a friend, even if they offered it to me seconds ago. I guess I have a very....very warped version of "I'm being rude" myself sometimes! XD

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