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.”
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?
“[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.
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.
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.
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