Thursday, January 15, 2009

Postcard from the Kaisha

I get emails at the Kaisha that are so sweet they make my fucking teeth hurt. If you work at a Japanese company you are privy to the very formal and polite written Japanese that gets sent around in the form of emails. Co-workers who are close certainly don't employ polite language as I've learned from personal emails that get sent to "all" by mistake instead of just the intended recipient. I've also learned that when superiors berate and admonish those underneath them by email and Cc it to everyone else it is called a public execution. I have fortunately experienced this only once but every time I see the Suit who sent it to me I make a nasty face at whomever I happen to be talking to, which up until recently was always Other Whitie. Now I make inward nasty faces to myself. That way I have less of a chance of getting caught.

When above mentioned polite emails get translated into English and sent to me the formality level gets all out of wack. It's fine to send shit like that in Japanese but in English it sounds over the top, or could even be construed as rude if the recipient thought the writer was putting on fake airs. I want to tell my colleagues that emails containing lines such as "We would be so extremely grateful if you would please kindly consider sending us a copy of that" or "Your advice is precious!" don't really fly in the real world. When asked for advice on email-writing in English by my peeps at the Kaisha I inevitably go about making their correspondence less formal and when they protest that they want to be polite I have to explain that they are being so over-the-top polite it is getting ridiculous and the recipient is going to think they popped out of a Jane Austen novel.

With the Secretaries, as soon as you've had a two-minute conversation with one of them you start getting emails ending with a couple "x"s that just feel wrong. Or you go to lunch with a couple and after the lunch get profuse thanks for such a super happy fun lunch emails, thanking you for a lunch that bored you on the point of tears and you personally felt was a huge failure. You must have done something right with that gaijin wit of yours!

Then there are the emails that serve to make me feel mean and like a Big Harsh Foreigner. Case in point: last night I told a Secretary that I wouldn't be able to do something for her until this morning but squeezed in time for it before leaving the office. This morning I got an email from her saying "I'm terribly sorry for making you work late. Thank you so much for your kindness". Why do I even both refusing things? It only leads to thank you-apologies like this where I then have to send a reply saying, Please don't jump in front of a train because of it, it only made me 3 minutes late. Then I throw in a little heart or star mark to make it Cute and Non-threatening. It's a delicate balance. In all seriousness though, I've sent emails out before with very gentle outlines on how to do stuff (usually in response to the recipient mildly pissing me off) and when I get a heart-wrenching apology I just feel bad for sending anything in the first place and end up sending an apology for making them worry right back.

The funny thing is though, I don't think this makes my Japanese colleagues more polite, as the lines they send me are simply translations of what they would say in Japanese, the weight and meaning of which really can't be translated into English without sounding phony or off. It's simply a mechanism for helping the Kaisha's ningen kankei or human relations, go smoother. I will go further and say the same for any situation in Japan, which may shock people who have visited this place and can't stop gushing over how polite those Japanese are. The honne/tatemae dichotomy works wonders in keeping a whole society of people with the same hurt, anger and real feelings as anywhere else, with constant smiles on their faces and sweet, sweet words filled with politeness but not sincerity coming out of their mouths.

P.S. I've grown so accustomed to the sound of the little dude clipping his nails in the office down the hall that I'm only reminded of how strange slash nasty it is when visitors to my desk look around with a confused expression on their face at the sound of the nippers clicking away.


Anonymous said...

Today was my last day at my kaisha, and all I can think is that I *so* wish I'd found your blog earlier. It would have made my last 2 years a lot less confusing....

Green-Eyed Geisha said...

Thanks for stopping by Anon, hope you are on to greener pastures after your kaisha!