Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Learning to bow

After living here a while your body language changes. Manoeuvring your way around small spaces and unconsciously observing the way those around you interact with movement is bound to have some effect. I remember my Japanese teacher in high school telling me that she used to find herself bowing while talking on the phone in Japan. I was 16 and found that to be terribly endearing. I had no idea what I was in for.

I feel strange lifting my arm to wave to Japanese people I don't know well from a distance and prefer a quick nod of the head. When I see people in the hallways instead of keeping my head up and smiling I duck it in a mini bow of acknowledgment and am always torn when a foreigner holds a door open for me as to whether I should say thank you and make eye contact or just bow my head in thanks. On a slightly unrelated note, I have learned not to become incensed when the beau beckons for me with his fingers pointing down instead of up, a gesture that would normally make me feel like a dog but in Japan fingers point down, much like the directional swirl of the toilet bowl water in different hemispheres.

After the years I've spent here, my body language slowly evolving, I finally learned how to bow this week. I'd love to tell you that the Kaisha sent me to a bowing class as punishment for being a gaijin on a Monday but it's actually part of my training to become a kimono dressin' master. My teacher sat me down for one of our lecture lessons this past week and taught me about the delicate intricacies of manner from a Japanese perspective. She even whipped out a tray at one point to demonstrate how to carry something but luckily it didn't go as far as having me practice it up and down the room (possibly equivalent to walking with a pile of books on your head in a Western etiquette class?). She then taught me how to bow both standing up and sitting down, with three degrees of politeness for each. Granted, the average Japanese person learns this by imitation, but I would hazard a guess that most of them do not learn it like this unless they go to finishing school, take lessons in a traditional art, or are taught it in a work seminar. Hand placement, where to focus your line of vision, how far forward to go, bending from the waist with a straight back, not bending your head too far forward so as not to allow a peek down the back of your kimono collar, the speed at which you move and the length of the pause once you are down - all things to think about in executing a proper and graceful bow. I will say though, I felt a lot smoother after having it spoon fed to me. Getting up and down from seiza was also something we practiced, and my teacher related to me the words of an old crooner whose name I cannot recall, which were that learning to get into and out of seiza properly takes ten years to master. Now if that's not some good old Japanese methodology of learning I don't know what is! I felt like the fucking karate kid but with a fancier obi.

The most interesting part of my teacher's lecture however, was the story she told me of herself as a young OL. Back in the day (over twenty years ago) when she joined a company as a young bright-eyed OL, the company sent her and the other newbies to an OL boot camp. Apparently they had to get up early and exercise every day for the week of this camp and were drilled on proper manners, including proper use of keigo and how to answer the telephone. The kicker however, was that they were also taught how to do things like fold and put away futon properly. Instead of simply being trained to be good office ladies, their company was practically grooming them for their futures as housewives. I suppose we should be happy that things have changed although looking around, it seems things are not changing quite as quickly as they'd have us believe. Companies still have training sessions for newbies and while perhaps not as extreme as folding futon, there is still an eerie sense of the fifties that I get from it all. What is interesting to me, is the fact that upon entering a company here, both men and women are (re-) taught keigo and basic business practices such as writing emails and letters, and phone manners. Am I out of touch and this kind of thing happens elsewhere? Or do university graduates either sink or swim in the manner department depending on the experience they've had before starting their careers? I suppose one thing that comes out of manner training here is a sense of uniformity across the board, but to me this makes the interactions between people a bit stiff and rehearsed. And here we go into the honne and tatemae thing again. I'm going to quit here and be thankful I am learning how to bow by choice, and not through some boot camp designed to primp me into marriage material.


Anonymous said...

I understand that job hopping is way less common in Japan, but what if a more seasoned employee ends up in a new kaisha. do they still have to go through this umm "education"?

Lisa said...

We don't do any manners/email/how to write a letter training at jobs in the US, but I think we should! I think there is generally a lack of preparation for entering the work world.

But learning how to fold a futon (or make a bed) for your job? Seems strange. Isn't that something a woman should learn growing up?

RMilner said...

Some might say making a bed is something a man should learn growing up.

Japan is still fairly old-fashioned about that kind of gender-role.

The Kasdan Family said...

As a former Japan livin' gaijin and blogger, I had to write to tell you how much we appreciated your stuff on bowing and elevators. Completely and totally dead-on stuff.

Lisa said...

Ok, RMilner, I think we can agree men should learn to make beds, too. However, the subject in question was a woman!

Green-Eyed Geisha said...

Anon - I doubt they would have to go through it. I think these "education" camps and seminars are generally geared towards employees right out of college, many of whom have no real world experience (not that futon folding counts as such).

Lisa - You would think so, right. Perhaps they are doing it to ensure women with no "proper education" learn the appropriate domestic ways...who knows.

RMilner - It is old-fashioned, although my sensei's story is a couple decades old (and even still that is frightening). Business etiquette seminars are still the norm but I wonder if some kaisha still run these training camps.

Kasdan Family - Thanks for the comment! I'm always happy to hear that others can relate :)