It’s all written in the ‘Wa Handbook’


I took a road trip skiing with some Japanese friends to Nagano Prefecture for the weekend, a 10-hour drive by behemoth four-wheel drive. No problem though, there would be six of us. That averages out to 1.7 hours of driving per person. Wrong! In Japanese math, that adds up to 3.3 hours per person, because only the three men would drive, while we three women would be able to get our beauty rest. We women would also be given the only reclining seats in the car.

At the first service area, I woke up and went in to get some hot tea. “Oh, Amy, there is juice in the car,” said the driver. There is juice in the car. There is juice in the car. Can someone deconstruct this sentence for me? I am a Westerner, you need to tell me exactly what this means! Whose juice? YOU have juice in the car? WE have juice in the car? Who cares anyway, I don’t want juice! I want hot tea.

This was one of those Japanese moments when you’re supposed to understand implicitly that “There is juice in the car” means the leader of the group has bought drinks and snacks in advance for everyone and that this expense would be split between everyone at the end of the trip, along with gasoline costs. The Japanese people know this because it is written in the Japanese “Wa Handbook.” If, however, you are a Westerner who hasn’t read these ancient scriptures, you will politely refuse the juice, not wanting to sponge off others.

Back on the road, the women awoke and started passing around snacks: dismembered sea creatures that had dried into a plastic-like consistency. Snacks are meant to be shared in Japan, and as with most food, presentation is everything. This is also written in the “Wa Handbook.” A box of chocolate almonds, for example, was opened carefully along the perforated lines on top of the box so that once open, the entire selection would be exposed so that everyone could easily pluck out one piece.

The consomme-flavored potato chips were opened by splitting the bag open at the top first, then down the seam in the back to open up into a tray so that we could each lift out a chip one at a time without soiling the rest of them with our fingers. And by all means, never pass a handful of potato chips to someone else! These are not poker chips, but potato chips. Yes, it’s written in the “Wa Handbook,” the modern version, in the section titled “The Wa of Junk Food.”

I got the distinct feeling that the cooler full of sandwiches and snacks I had brought for myself would be construed as “anti-wa.” Perhaps I should share my food. But how do you share a tuna sandwich among six people? Open up the sandwich to display the tuna, then give everyone a pair of chopsticks?

At around midnight, someone brought out the “bashimi,” raw horse meat. As we gnawed on horse meat while rumbling along a deserted highway at 110 kph, I couldn’t help but wonder if we weren’t really in the Serengeti, our four-wheel drive in hot pursuit of a wildebeest. Once the creature had fallen, our Japanese predators would waste no time getting out the chopsticks. “There is raw wildebeest in the car,” they’d tell people later.

When the speedometer toped out at 120, I started getting really nervous. If the Japanese eat raw horses, chicken, and fish, what’s to stop them from eating — ME! God forbid we have a traffic accident.

I thought about my cooler again and if there might be something I could share. Yes, I could share my carrot sticks! But when I passed around the raw carrot sticks, the driver refused to eat them. Raw animals? Yes. Raw vegetables? No way!

It must be written in the “Wa Handbook,” under “The Wa of Raw.”