It was my very first week in Japan, and already I knew something funny was going on. I guess I’m a little astute like that. I had this epiphany on the second floor of a small cafe in Azabu-juban, which is a rather upscale part of Tokyo, as I was having tea with an attractive young lady of my acquaintance. When she excused herself to use the facilities (we’d had about a pot of tea, after all), the waitress came hustling over.
“Hello,” she said in English. I looked up and thought, Jeez, you’ve got a lot of earrings.
“Hey, how’s it going?” I said.
“Where are you from?” She seemed pretty excited. I looked to see if my friend was coming back any time soon.
“How do you know I’m not from Japan?” I replied.
“Because you’re not Japanese.
“That’s kind of circular reasoning, isn’t it?
“I’m sorry, what?
“Never mind,” I said. “Are you from Japan?
“Of course!” she said. “Can’t you tell?
“I’m American, so no, actually.
“Can you drink green tea?” she asked.
“Like a boss. How ’bout you?
“Of course! I’m Japanese.
“Oh, I forgot.
“Isn’t it too bitter for you?” she asked. “Don’t you want to put sugar in it?
“Well, maybe some people do mix in sugar, or even milk.
“Heeeeey,” she said, and her eyes lit up.
“But have you tried it with salt and pepper?” I asked. “It’s really good like that.
“Iyaaa, muri!” she said. Well, I thought, at least I got her to speak some Japanese.
At the time, I naively believed this to be a random bit of conversation. I can be so wrong. As the same pattern began to repeat itself hundreds and then thousands of times, I gradually realized I’d stumbled onto something far more . . . what’s the word? Insidious? Mmn, nah, that’s not it. Anyway, far more something.
Explaining the Unexplainable
Between conspiracies, aliens, and God, pretty much all mysteries are solvable. Got a circle in your wheat field? That’s aliens. Imploding sky scraper? Conspiracy, of course. The toasty image of Jesus on your waffle? That’d be God.
Now, I don’t want to say there’s a conspiracy in Japan, but let’s just say something seems a little too “convenient.” The deal is, if you look “foreign” (whatever that means; but apparently, like porn, one knows it when one sees it), then you’ll hear the exact same phrases, often in the same order, from every single Japanese person. How’s that even possible? Coincidence? I think not. Special classes? Induction camps? Conspiracy, that’s what. Sorry, but it’s the only answer.
See, God’s a good explanation for big stuff, like where wind comes from and why zebras have stripes. But how Japanese speak to foreigners? Clearly out of his purvey. Logically then, we’re left with only Aliens or Conspiracy. That’s just deductive reasoning. Either way, I’m sleeping in a tinfoil hat. Ken Seeroi is all about safety, lemme tell you, although it’s really hot in the summer, and makes your hair sweat like crazy. But I digress. Anyway, let’s just say you’re guaranteed to hear the following seven phrases like clockwork, usually in Japanese, except for Number 1.
A Checklist for Japanese People Speaking with “Foreigners”
Actually, this sounds a bit more like “herro,” but we’ll let that slide for the moment. Just remember that when you go to France, you’re expected to speak French; in Italy, Italian; and in Japan, English. Abide by that and everybody’s happy. Never mind that half the foreign-looking people here don’t even have English as their native language; Japanese folks can’t wait to bust out this word when they see your big, round eyes, just in case you’ve forgotten how much you don’t blend in. The irony is that native English speakers rarely actually say “hello.” Well, maybe they do in the movies, I don’t know.
2. “Where are you from?”
I usually get asked this question in Japanese, and have found it to be a great phrase for making people feel at home. Please don’t hesitate to try this on your friends of other races. There’s nothing impolite about it, because really, nobody who looks like you could possibly be from here.
The world’s changing, of course, and Japan’s no exception. These days an increasing number of Japanese people happen to be White, Black, or Something Else Altogether. You gotta envy their lives, getting to field this question on a daily basis. Just think of it . . . a white Japanese person? That’s crazy. That’s like a black Englishman. Whoa, impossible. What’s next, Americans from Europe?
3. “Your Japanese is great.”
Subtle power-trip or innocuous compliment? You decide. No really, every day, you decide. And there’s pretty much no decent response to this one. Just last week, I walked into a boutique to look at some manly handbags and the moment I said konnichiwa, the salesman was like, Oooh, your Japanese is great. I was like, Really? From one word? Well, actually, my konnichiwa is pretty stunning, now that you mention it. And just wait till you get a hold of my sayonara.
4. “Have you been in Japan long?”
This comes either before or after Number 3, and they form a nice set. If you say you’ve been here a short time, then the proper response is: “Wow, and already your Japanese is so great.” Alternately, if you say a long time, then: “Oh, so then you’re married to a Japanese?” In either case, you should anticipate follow-up Question 4.5, “When are you going back home?”
5. “What’s your name?”
Ah, an old favorite. So, the reality is that when you’re not around, Japanese people use last names. But the moment you enter the picture, they start calling you and each other by first names. The last-name thing is like a secret handshake, a sort of Japanese closed society, straight up Illuminati stuff. But when they meet you, because you look so “foreign,” they just take your family name, ball it up, and roll it under the nearest train. You get called by your first name, and that’s the way it is, Ken.
6. “You use chopsticks really well.”
So the other day I was in a soba shop next to this wrinkly old couple who would not stop staring at me eating a bowl of noodles. Their table was only a foot away, and they were like 300 years old and the old lady was freaking fixated on me. I was all like, Okay, just don’t look at the old people and maybe they’ll go away. But then this skeleton claw reached out and grabbed my arm and started shaking me, and an old witch voice said, Heeey, you can use chopsticks really well! I was like, Jeez old lady, lemme go! All that agedness is probably contagious. Plus, that’s my chopstickin’ arm. I need that. But to be fair, my chopstick skills are, in fact, pretty amazing. And you should see me with a spoon.
7. “Can you eat natto?”
Of all the foods in Japan, somehow natto has won the award for the strangest thing “foreigners” could ever stuff into their mouths. Not sea snails, raw horse, squid innards, or whatever monjyayaki is, but gooey beans. There’s about a million things on a Japanese menu more terrifying than natto, but Japan has unanimously concluded that fermented beans equals gaijin kryptonite. Even buying natto in the supermarket is embarrassing. I try to wait until there’s nobody in line, and then it’s like, Yeah, I’ll, uh, take this candy bar, and that comb, and a cigarette lighter, and a 12-pack of condoms, and a copy of Penthouse . . . and, oh yeah, that, umm, natto over there. No, not that one, the one on the left. Yeah, just go ahead and put that in a bag, would you? Jeez, I’ve got a ton of combs and Penthouses.
Rule, Law, or Force of Nature?
Japanese people live for rules. And when they meet “foreigners,” the only rule seems to be they’ve got to cover all seven points as soon as possible. For years, scholars have speculated that this may even be an obscure law or ancient Imperial edict. Recent research has also raised debate over the actual number of required questions and statements, with some putting the number as high as twenty. However, seven remains the agreed upon figure for working calculations. One could argue higher, or lower, but let’s not get all crazy splitting hairs and going into imaginary numbers and stuff. Suffice to say these seven are etched deeply into the DNA of every Japanese person.
Win Beer with the Japanese Rule of 7!
The Japanese Rule of 7, by the way, happens to be the world’s safest bar bet. Here’s how to win a beer. A delicious beer. Just wait until you hear someone say “herro,” and then immediately turn to the person next to you and say, I bet I can tell you six more things this fool’s gonna say. They’ll be like, No way. Boom, instant beer. You can even use it with the speaker him/herself, since it’s physically impossible for Japanese people not to run through the remaining six points, no matter how hard they try. It’s like putting a sack of cats in a roomful of mice.
And to help keep you well lubricated, here’s a convenient and stylish wallet-sized card, listing all seven points, suitable for laminating. It even includes English translations to assist you in making friends outside of Japan with “foreigners” and others who don’t physically resemble you. And if you live in Japan, then the next time you find yourself in a smoky izakaya and a drunk salaryman strikes up a conversation (which is like every day if you’re me), don’t hesitate to whip it out and show him you know what’s up. Guaranteed to keep the conversation flowing.