A Japanese guide to dealing with gentlemen callers and unruly dogs


Special To The Japan Times

Bookworms often have a rare jewel in their collection that they are unable to throw out — despite efforts to こんまり (Konmari, tidy in the method of Marie Kondo by getting rid of clutter) around the house. For me, this book is the 1965 エチケット事典 (Echiketto Jiten, Etiquette Dictionary).

I found my copy after the Japanese consulate in Chicago partook in some Konmari of their own. I was unable to resist its yellowed pages, the cameo pendants that decorate its cover, and the tagline across the top that provided a hint as to the contents inside: 交際・慶弔・服装・手紙 (Kōsai/Keichō/Fukusō/ Tegami, Relationships/Congratulations and condolences/Clothing/Letters).

The 366-page publication was included as an appendix for the April 1965 issue of the magazine 婦人生活 (Fujin Seikatsu, Women’s Life), and its goal is to help guide the Japanese through the terror that is modern life; every instance of 交際 (kōsai), which means “relationship” but can also be thought of as “social interaction,” represents the possibility of unthinkable embarrassment due to etiquette failure.

The strategies the magazine suggests aren’t as dated as you might expect, and the book’s approach is an interesting exercise in language.

The introduction begins by defining the two different types of etiquette: 個人 (kojin, personal) and 対人 (taijin, inter-personal).

The goal of kojin etiquette is the following: エチケットとは安定なり (Echiketto to wa antei nari, Etiquette is that which is stable). Whether you’re using utensils, meeting with friends, or attending a wedding, the book asks readers to think about the “stability” of their actions.

The core of taijin etiquette, then, is 相手の身になって考えて行動し、ものを言う (Aite no mi ni natte kangaete kōdō shi, mono o iu, Put yourself in another’s position and consider them when taking actions or saying something).

These seem very reasonable, as does the assertion that etiquette shouldn’t be stodgy: エチケットに型はない。エチケットは生きているといういい例だと思う (Echiketto ni kata wa nai. Echiketto wa ikite iru to iu ii rei da to omou, There’s no template for etiquette. I think etiquette is good practices that are alive). Here the authors use 例 (rei) to mean “practices” or “customs” rather than its other frequently encountered meaning, “example.”

However, the book then goes on to be very prescriptive; the contents amount to a list of advice for very particular situations. As can be expected when giving advice, the authors make frequent use of the Japanese words for “should” and “shouldn’t.”

One of the most frequently encountered phrases is 禁物 (kinmotsu, prohibited thing/action). If, for example, you arrive to visit an acquaintance on time but they are occupied with a previous caller, the book recommends: そんな場合、不平そうな顔は禁物です (Sonna baai, fuheisou na kao wa kinmotsu desu, In this circumstance, you should not make an unhappy face). Instead, encourage them to take their time by saying どうぞごゆっくり (Dōzo go-yukkuri, Please, take your time).

When you finally do get to meet with your acquaintance, remember: 長い話は禁物 (Nagai hanashi wa kinmotsu, You shouldn’t drone on for too long).

The book’s attitude about gender relations also becomes apparent when it advises women not to take callers when their husbands aren’t home, giving the following reasoning: 物騒な世の中なので女性といえども油断は禁物です (Bussō na yo no naka na no de josei to iedomo yudan wa kinmotsu desu, Women must never let their guard down in such an insecure world).

Another frequently encountered phrase is Xするべきでしょう (X suru beki deshō, You should X).

If you’re unsure whether to call upon someone, the guide suggests going for it but settling for a brief 挨拶 (aisatsu, greeting) or 名刺交換 (meishi kōkan, business card exchange) in the 玄関 (genkan, entryway). Even if they invite you in, 遠慮すべきでしょう (enryo subeki deshō, you should refrain).

A third way the author expresses “should” is simply to follow a verb with こと (koto, thing/matter) and end the sentence there. For example, the day after a 見合い (miai, arranged introduction), 世話をして下さった方へ、お礼を申し上げることを、忘れないこと (Sewa o shite kudasatta kata e, orei o mōshiageru koto o, wasurenai koto, Don’t forget to give your thanks to the person who helped [arrange the miai]). This doesn’t have to be a gift; aisatsu alone is fine.

This Echiketto jiten is a wonderful time capsule. It gives readers a close look at a time when Japan was 20 years out from the war and beginning to prosper. People had the time and money to consider コース (kōsu, course) vacations for their 新婚旅行 (shinkon ryokō, honeymoon).

These were times when some of the biggest worries were how to be a good neighbor, friend or spouse. While many of the examples are serious, some are quite lighthearted. For example, if you’re calling on a friend and have an unexpected encounter: 犬に吠えられて困るとき (Inu ni hoerarete komaru toki, When a dog barks at you, causing trouble). The authors recommend waiting at first, as the dog should attract the attention of the homeowner. If that doesn’t work, find the closest 赤電話 (akadenwa, “red telephone”), which was the word for “pay phone,” referring to their color from 1951 until 1995.

I don’t recommend taking the time to seek out this particular text, but Amazon shows a number of similar, more modern texts that would be equally useful for intermediate language students. They’re far more likely to suggest using your 携帯 (keitai, mobile phone) to call the owners of an unruly dog.