It should have been a yes or no question.
It was exam day for high schools in my prefecture, and so teachers were forbidden to leave the building, lest they pass on crucial details of the test to the legion of spies waiting outside.
The schools offered a bento (lunch box) delivery to the office for 600 yen. The test is a two-day operation: The exam, then the grading. I decided to buy one for exam day and pack a lunch for grading day to save money, but a teacher secretly paid for my bento.
When the bentos arrived, I went to pay.
“You don’t have to pay,” he explained, “because I already paid for it.”
It was raining the next day. When the bentos arrived, I’d forgotten both my umbrella and my packed lunch. I scraped some coins together from my desk and prepared for the rainy walk to the corner convenience store for a salad and ham sandwich. But first, I’d ask about the bento situation.
In an American office where there’s a planned delivery, someone might say, “Hey, are there any extra sandwiches? I’ll pitch in if there are.” Maybe someone ordered one and forgot or something. The answer might be something like, “No, everyone took their sandwich.” End of the story.
Here’s what happens when you ask if there’s an extra lunch in Japan.
I asked my supervisor, “I don’t have a bento today, right?”
She instantly stood up from her desk, where she’d been eating.
“You told me you didn’t want bento today.”
“I know. I’m just making sure.”
“Do you want bento?”
“No, no, I’m just seeing, I looked at the paper and there’s no line through my name, so I’m confused.”
“But you said no bento today.”
First off, let me explain what’s happened, on a couple of levels. First, asking “I don’t have a bento today, right?” translates, in that hint-at-everything manner of Japanese communication, that maybe probably I was expecting bento.
Second, “just making sure” doesn’t qualify that assumption at all. It continues to imply that there was some expectation of having a bento. My reason for this assumption was the off chance that, last week, when I’d ordered it, I’d actually gone ahead and ordered two. I also thought that, when my co-worker paid for the bento I’d ordered, he might have paid for it on a day that I said I’d bring my lunch.
Rather than stopping at “No, that’s right, you didn’t order a bento,” my supervisor gave her famous last words, “wait a minute,” and went to the desk of the next person in the hierarchy, the woman who ordered and distributed the bentos.
This woman went to the school’s central office and returned with a list of bento orders, which seemed to be bound together and preserved in a book. Next to my name was a circle for day 1, and no circle for day 2.
“So,” they said, “You didn’t order the bento.”
“I know,” I said. “That’s fine. Thanks so much!”
Then the plot thickened.
“But there is one extra bento.”
She asked if I’d want the extra bento. I said sure, thinking this would be easy.
“But you said you wanted to take the convenience store lunch,” she said.
“Yes. That’s fine, I’ll do that, but it’s raining, so if I don’t have to walk to the convenience store, I’d take the extra bento.”
“Wait a minute.”
My supervisor and the office secretary looked through the list of who ordered bento and did a mental count of everyone in the room who was eating one. She ran to a teacher sitting at a table and said something in Japanese. This teacher stood up, walked over to me and the secretary, and they all spoke in Japanese.
The new teacher walked over to his desk, came up to me, and offered me his home-made boxed lunch.
“Please, have his lunch,” my supervisor told me.
“Oh,” I said. “No, no, it’s OK, I don’t want someone else’s lunch. I’ll just go get my lunch at the convenience store as I planned.”
“But, you told me you don’t want to go to the conbini.”
“If there’s an extra bento, I’ll take it,” I said, “but I don’t want to take away someone’s lunch or dinner!”
The three teachers talked in Japanese. My supervisor turned to me.
“Wait a minute.”
The three teachers counted the names on the sign-up sheet for bento and then counted the bentos in the delivery box, checking it against the number of bentos listed on the receipt.
“I’m so sorry,” my supervisor said. “There is no extra bento.”
“That’s absolutely fine,” I said. “I’ll just go to the convenience store.”
“Did you order the bento?”
“No, I was just confused, because yesterday Mr. Tanagawa paid for my lunch, so I didn’t know if I ordered it yesterday or today.”
“You had the lunch order paid for by Mr. Tanagawa?”
“But today you don’t want the bento?”
“Yes. It’s OK. It’s perfect. Everything is perfect.”
A Moment to Myself…
I went to the convenience store on the corner and bought a ham sandwich, a salad and some milk tea.
…And Back to Interconnectedness
When I came back, Mr. Tanagawa asked me to eat lunch with him.
“You shouldn’t tell other teachers I paid for your lunch,” he said. “I could get into trouble.”
“Oh,” I said. “I’m sorry. I didn’t know.”
“It’s OK, but it can cause many kinds of problems for me.”
“Oh, wow, well, you’re very kind! I’m sorry, I didn’t know.”
“Now, I also must apologize to you, because I caused so much confusion for you today.”
“No, no. I didn’t have any confusion at all. I just checked to see if there was an extra bento. You were very kind to pay for it! It was not necessary at all.”
“No no, it’s my pleasure. But I caused a lot of trouble for the other teachers, so I am very sorry that I troubled you.”
In the midst of that exchange, the teacher who’d offered me his homemade lunch looked at my bag of convenience store sandwich, shouted annoyedly in Japanese, shook his head and walked away.
“Why did you refuse his lunch?” Mr. Tanagawa asked.
“I didn’t want to take his homemade lunch from him!”
“But it’s very rude to refuse him. He is an older teacher. He is a very kind teacher, and you said no, it’s a kind of insult, maybe.” He thought for a minute. “You didn’t understand he wanted you to eat the lunch, maybe? Right?”
He leaned in on “right” as if to say, “you’ll go along with this story, right?”
I didn’t catch on at first. He looked annoyed. He emphasized the sentence again.
“You didn’t understand he was offering you his lunch. RIGHT?”
“OK,” I said. “Right.”
“Wait a minute.”
Mr. Tanagawa came back with the teacher who’d offered me lunch and said something in Japanese. The other teacher nodded and said, “OK.”
Mr. Tanagawa explained. “I told him you didn’t understand.”
Japan presents a tangled web of reciprocity in its daily acts of kindness. These result in obligations that I’ve found overwhelming: I prefer not to be obligated to anybody, but in Japan, it can be insulting to refuse an obligation to another person. Refusing an act of kindness – like taking that teacher’s lunch – is a refusal to give back a future kindness. Refusing any kind of favor risks coming across as declaring, “Don’t do me any favors!”
It’s clear in the enkai tradition of pouring drinks for everyone around you, and never refusing when someone offers you a drink. You can think of this drinking party as a metaphor for social contracts in Japan: You accept a drink from your neighbor and agree to pour a drink for your neighbor. Refuse the drink and you refuse the obligation to serve it later. Drawn to its logical end, you end up with a very dull office party.
There are daily gifts and favors that draw you into the social web. I find these threatening, not reassuring. They impose on my independence – creating debts I’ll have to repay in unpredictable ways, at inconvenient times, when the person offering a favor has complete control over what’s being presented to me. It feels like a trap.
But there’s also the shame of being asked to return a favor I can’t possibly repay. Obligations are especially threatening when you don’t know what those return favors might be, especially when what seems like an even exchange of favors between two Japanese natives might be wildly disproportionate when redeemed from an illiterate foreigner.
There have been many acts of kindness in Japan that have gone so far overboard that they began to make me nervous, more than appreciative, which has spawned a bit of soul-searching throughout the years I’ve been here. In Japan, this is called “arigata meiwaku,” an unwanted kindness, usually presented to butter someone up for a favor.
The Awkward Kindness of Japanese Strangers
Once, a friend from America visited and picked up a 100-yen coin that an older woman dropped on the train platform. The woman asked where we were going in broken English.
She lead us to the train, which was kind enough. She then boarded the train, rode it with us for twenty minutes, took us to a shop in the city we were going to, bought us a snack, lead us to a temple, and then took us to the museum, where she arranged to have an English guide give us a tour.
The problem is, this is all remarkably kind; but it also wasn’t anything that I had asked for. I felt guilty talking to my friend in English when the woman didn’t speak English. At a certain point we actually tried to lose her by thanking her and ducking into a shop; when we left the shop she was there, waiting for us.
A similar thing happened in Kyoto. We were looking for the subway line to our hostel, which wouldn’t have been difficult, but the moment we looked at the map a man came over to us, told us where to go and lead us to the train platform. We thanked him.
He got on the train with us, rode it to the station where we needed to transfer and showed us the transfer train. We thanked him. He waited until the train arrived and got on the transfer train. Once we got off the train at our stop, he walked up the stairs with us to the exit of the train station.
We asked if he was going to our neighborhood. He shook his head. No, he said, he was going to Osaka.
He bowed and we bowed back at him; there was nothing we could do to pay him back for going an hour out of his way on a work night to show us how to get to a hostel we honestly could have come to by ourselves.
Larry David Syndrome
It feels terrible to complain about the excessive kindness of friends and strangers. I think the guilt it inspires causes a lot of people to seek a less benevolent explanation – that perhaps foreigners are treated like children, those feelings of looming obligation sublimated into the rejection of our coddling. I can’t speak to the motivations of the Japanese people who have acted kindly to the point of awkwardness, I can only speak for me.
I like my debts paid in full, and I want to know the repayment terms before I agree to anything. This is probably the result of being raised in a relatively independent culture, where the reigning fantasies of film and song are odes to severing ties and breaking free of our duties, not relishing them. We see a web of interconnected obligations as a source of deprivation, something that holds us back, not something that supports us in a safety net of mutual responsibility.
Americans are inherently selfish, some drunk Japanese people tell me. “Not you,” they say. “The culture.” I used to argue that our ideas of selfishness and social good were just more centered to individual freedoms, but this makes no sense here. The American Dream, this notion of “liberty,” isn’t a global dream. It’s a culturally constructed one. It is too obvious to say, but not all people long to be “free” in the American sense because not everyone wants to do things “the American way.”
And that’s fine. But I value my independence, and I am constantly fighting to protect it from staggering acts of kindness and generosity; the American dream!
Please don’t like This Japanese Life on Facebook. I couldn’t stand owing you a favor.