On Sneezing in Japan

In Japan, no one can hear you sneeze.

OK, they can hear you, they just don’t erupt into spontaneous prayer.

I’d ask, “What do you say in Japanese when people sneeze?” Occasionally I’d hear “odaiji ni” as an option. So I said “odaiji ni” to anyone I caught sneezing.

In truth, no one in Japan says a word in response to an “atchoo!” (or “hakushun!”). Why would they? A sneeze is not a question. I’d asked the question, so people had to imagine an answer.

I started saying something half-way between “get well soon” and “there but for the grace of God go I” until someone heard me say it to a stranger on a train.

“Don’t do that.”

Spirited Away
Ironically, there’s a word for a sneeze in Japan – くしゃみ, kushami – which matches the history of the English sneeze prayer. Just as we’d bless the sneezer to protect him from the evil spirit that may enter his body, the Japanese would name the sneeze.

An unnamed spirit within the sneeze could return and try to kill you. So people nearby would declare “you see death!” (as in, “That guy you just sneezed out, his name is death!”) so that everyone knew a sneeze-spirit was hanging out.

If this sounds ridiculous, well, the Japanese have given it up. Like, a hundred thousand years ago.

I’m American. From the cradle, I was surrounded by the English language, baths in the same room as toilets, and people who say “God Bless You” to a sneezing person. I would never consider that I could just say nothing.

Which is a challenge of life abroad. How do you know what to do, when you don’t even know you’re supposed to do something?

Just Ask

“[T]here are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns – there are things we do not know we don’t know.”
– United States Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld

As a foreigner in Japan, I am the counterpart to a Japanese visitor to America, constantly looking at a sneeze without recognizing it as a transcendent moment.

There are known knowns: I know I need to bow and take my shoes off when I go inside. There are known unknowns: I know that I don’t know how to behave at a Japanese wedding, or how to report that my bike has been stolen. For those things, I can ask for help.

The unknown unknowns, of course, I can’t list out. This is the entire sphere of Japanese cultural expectations that I am blissfully unaware of. This is the Japanese tourist standing next to you when you sneeze and responds with awkward silence. He doesn’t know he’s expected to say something. And he doesn’t know that he doesn’t know. It’s not his world.

My time in Japan includes more than sneezing etiquette, of course: I work. I have expectations and obligations. I can’t ask questions about these obligations, because I don’t know that they exist.

If I want to stay out of trouble, I have to imagine all possible worlds, examine the consequences of my actions in each of those worlds, and then act. Only when I act do I get to find out which reality I live in.

I’m basically Schrodinger’s Cat.

In the thought experiment proposed by Austrian physicist Erwin Schrödinger in 1935, a cat is placed into a box with a radioactive substance and a device which, if it detects a split particle, releases a hammer on a vial of poison. Then you put a cat in the box and seal it. At any point in time, the hammer might drop. (No, he didn’t actually do this).

The cat is inside the box and, presumably, he knows if he is dead. But nobody outside of the box knows. You’ve got a dead cat on your hands, or you don’t. The universe has split into two separate paths – in one, the atom splits and the cat dies. In the other, it doesn’t.

Some physicists argue that the cat is alive in one universe and dead in another. You just don’t know which universe you live in until you open the box and see.

That’s my life.

I am a Cat.
You never know what social or professional faux pas you’re unaware of, and when you might cross it to trigger a catastrophe.

I would not know, for example, that when sending an e-mail in an office, one should order the names in the CC: field by the order of their rank in the company and that failure to do so is an insult. (Actually the case in Japan).

It’s hard to ask about this sort of thing, because if you’re in the world where the cat is running around after you open the box, you don’t ask questions about the dead one.

When I break a rule, most people rack it up to being a wacky foreigner. But sometimes someone gets angry: “Why didn’t you ASK how the names in the CC field should be organized?”

We’re supposed to ask, but I don’t even know where the rules are. It’s impossible to consider every unknown unknown.

Unknown Unknowns
Knowing that you don’t know is the sign of a smarty pants who can consider outside possibilities. As Cornell Social Psychology professor David Dunning told Errol Morris in 2010:

“Unknown unknown solutions haunt the mediocre without their knowledge. The mediocre doctor is not aware of the diagnostic possibilities or treatments never considered.  The run-of-the-mill lawyer fails to recognize the winning legal argument that is out there.  People fail to reach their potential as professionals, lovers, parents and people simply because they are not aware of the possible.”

We never know what we aren’t doing as perfectly as we could be – or how much worse. But in Japan, a culture I will politely call “strict,” I’m often being judged by rules I don’t know exist.

You wonder why I’m anxious.

Hello World
You are born with a basic set of operating instructions, passed on by past generations: Shit, eat, look around. That’s all you did as a stupid kid. The core DNA kicked in a few more surprises at puberty and into old age. For most of it, though, you’re on your own.

You have a lot of time for putting your hands through every carpet, your tiny fingers picking up lint and rocks and acorns and sticking them up your nose. Your parents love you in certain ways and so you decide to test that and based on those tests you decide what love will be.

Every day starts as an unknown unknown. But then you start focusing on the known unknowns. You come up with a new set of experiments designed to do one thing: Get what you need to ask the next question.

A child in Sudan, you might guess, has no need to run his tiny fingers through the carpet, and so his sense of touch is shaped by dirt and grass instead of nylon or cotton and laundry machines.

Your world narrows – it’s called “focus” – and you may not always notice the colors of leaves or the weirdness of all the paperwork you’re supposed to file. You move through the world, missing a lot, but doing a lot.

Your entire childhood is spent whittling the possible into the practical, and then you’re called an adult.

Until you move to Japan.

Dead Plus Alive Over The Square Route of 2
So, how do you live in a culture where everything is an unknown unknown, where you never know the name of the sneeze?

To roughly paraphrase the Copenhagen interpretation from quantum mechanics: You’ve got to fuck up.

Niels Bohr solved the Schrodinger’s Cat paradox by saying: Hey, the cat isn’t dead or alive until it’s observed. You have to open up the box and see if you killed the cat. Until you do, it’s all just theory.

Bohr is just like those ancient superstitious Japanese men naming the sneeze: If someone spews a bunch of particles everywhere, you’d better see it. You’d better point at it and call it out: “You are death!”

Likewise, I will occasionally be subjected to the angry condescension of Japanese coworkers who expect me to live by Japanese customs and philosophies, ideas they have a hard time imagining aren’t universal.

That’s how I learn: Be who I am, be honest and earnest, and then open the box and hope for the best. One hopes that the cat has survived and that the sneeze hasn’t killed anyone. One hopes no one is offended, demands your resignation or avoids you at parties. But then, at least, you know a little more about which world you’re living in.

Every year, thousands of theoretical cats are killed in thought experiments by theoretical physicists around the world. Find out how you can help by “liking” This Japanese Life on Facebook. 

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15 Responses to On Sneezing in Japan

  1. Emily Wilson says:

    0.0 I feel overwhelmed now.

    Oh well! Jut inspiration to try harder ^-^

    • owwls says:


      • cddmanful says:

        Bing’s translate makes that, “Please do its best!” Is that something of a social imperative, in Japan’s culture? Or perhaps a mis-translation, since auto-translation like this has a hard time with the contextual understanding of Japanese, I think. Makes it scary to wish to learn Japanese, as I recently began to wish to do.

  2. Sam H says:

    Interesting as always!
    I also sort of struggled with the idea of consciously holding back from saying bless you.
    At first, I found it peculiar that they don’t really say anything when someone sneezes, but then I realized we don’t really say anything when someone coughs .

  3. Cat says:

    It feels like Japan is a big closed box that has its own ways of doing everything. I would never have thought of asking in what order the names in the CC:s should be. I guess that the only way to learn is to make mistakes and ask people to point it out for you. Japan really isn’t like the rest of the world after all.

    • Ben says:

      On the contrary, Japan is exactly like the rest of the world in that it has it’s unique differences. I’ve been living here for nearly four years and one thing I have discovered is that the world views Japan as being this crazy unique place that is out of this world, and the Japanese do a lot to reinforce this image. It’s not true, rather it’s all about perspective. I find things strange here just as Japanese would find things strange in my country. I don’t know that I’m supposed to order names in the CC:s just as much as a Japanese man would not know that to give a weak handshake to an Australian male is considered slightly insulting. These are social peculiarities and ALL countries have them.

      • owwls says:

        Agreed, Ben. That’s the point of my post, really: It’s equally weird to say something to a sneeze or to stay silent. Just depends on what you usually see. Japan is no different. The problem is when you expect everyone to know what’s going on.

        Anyway, for day-to-day weirdness, I found the Czech Republic stranger than Japan.

  4. Kaori says:

    It’s really ridiculous when they get mad over something you weren’t taught…like we were suppose to know about it somehow before hand. Those that know the unknown often forget that it can still be an unknown unknown for others.
    Oh and the sneezing? You don’t have to say anything expect maybe a random Daijobu? if it’s a friend. Sneezes in Japan mean that someone is gossiping about you. There’s a saying that goes something like 1 sneeze=bad gossip, 2 sneezes=good gossip, 3 sneezes=just a cold…or something like that. It varies depending on the region :)

  5. spartan2600 says:

    Your understanding of Schrodinger’s cat is a little incomplete. The entire experiment, the cat, the device, hammer and poison are all contained within the box to start with. Only the observer exists outside the box. Its also important to stress that the radioactive substance exists to generate a truly *random* binary answer, zero or one, yes or no. Most things we assume are random aren’t actually random. If we had enough physical data on the exact locations of all the relevant atoms, we could know what the lottery drawing will be tonight. Assuming its the kind with the ping-pong balls, we need to know the locations of the balls, how the balls will be interacted with, and everything else is plugging in variables to physics equations. Radioactive decay is not like this, it is truly random in that even if we had perfect and total information, the quantum events occurring in the radioactive matter are still impossible to predict.

    So now given that, it is impossible to predict if the cat is dead or alive, since the imaginary box does not allow any information to escape. We now have an uncollapsed probability- the cat is dead or the cat is alive. The very act of opening the box and *observing* the cat is what determines if the cat is dead or alive. The act of opening the box forced the probability to collapse into a certainty. It is this strange phenomenon, the fact that the mere *observation* of an event is what determines the reality about the event, that is important in the study of quantum mechanics.

  6. Megan says:

    My boyfriend grew up in Canada and does not say bless you when I sneeze. I think this is just his thing and not Canada’s thing, or perhaps it’s regional. I’ll have to ask him more about it. It’s strange to talk about such a simple common thing, isn’t it? But back on topic, when we first got together I was confused as to why he did not say it. I have the quirk of saying it to myself when I’m alone or under my breath if there are people around and I’m not blessed. This is impossible on the phone so it does kind of bother me. I say it to him both unconsciously and in the hope one day it will rub off on him lol. I can’t imagine how weird it is when no one says anything, or expects you to say anything and the million other small differences between the cultures.

    • Archana says:

      I know what you mean. You must like the feeling behind saying bless you – after all, it’s hardly an awful thing to ay – you are wishing the other person well. I pray (although I don’t believe in god) because I know it’s good to pray.

      My husband used to make fun of me when I would go to shrines and pray (we had just started dating then and the ease with which he made fun of religion, prayer and me for praying told me a lot about him and his prejudices)- making up a sort of ritual from the one I had already. I didn’t react and sometimes he would make little sarcastic comments about how people to donate to pray while i was praying.

      One day, i think because he got tired of me not reacting, he made a comment as i asked him if he had any change for the shrine,”Oh, of course, we can’t pray without paying up.”

      He is a nice guy but the jibes were getting annoying. So I smiled and said,” Have you ever wondered what I am praying for?”

      His silence and quizzical look was evidence that he had not. So I explained, ” I know there is no god. But I often feel worried about my future so i say a prayer for the worried feelings and the disappear, temporarily. I also worry about us. I love you and want our relationship to be harmonious. So I pray for that. And finally, I pray for you. I worry about your health, safety and peace of mind.

      He felt so humbled (because i was genuinely praying for him – and had not told him until i had had enough of his ridicule) and never made fun of me again. Now he prays for me. Neither of us believe in god but prayer works.

      I hope you never stop saying bless you when someone sneezes. Did you manage to get your boyfriend to say it?

  7. RevRuby says:

    Love it! Funny and informative. ありがとう。

  8. Rosharuo says:

    In the context of a discussion of “Gesundheit vs. Bless you” (and in Spanish “¡Salud! vs ¡Jesús (mil veces)!”) on my FB page, I mentioned that I couldn’t recall the equivalent in Japanese (I was pretty fluent in Japanese 40 years ago but am totte mo rusty now). A friend posted a link hither. Now I know why I don’t recall the Japanese for “Gesundheit”. どうも ありがとう!

  9. Raya Gancheva says:

    While this was quite interesting and thought provoking, can I just say: this was fucking hilarious. :D

  10. Carlos says:

    I was told by my Okinawan friend that one can say クスケー(kusukee) after someone sneezes. But since this is Okinawa-ben most of Japanese won’t get it. Anyways is always interesting when a gaijin can teach Japanese people words from their own language, so give it a try next time. Here the story behind


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