The treetops along the west coast of Japan had already long-since begun the cascade of harvest hues, yet my friend and I still had not reserved a location for our English-speaking community’s annual late-autumn pitch-in dinner. We organized many events throughout the year, but none would bring together as diverse a crowd as this one. Home-cooked turkey dinner, once taken for granted by the Americans in the group, had become a near impossibility while living on an island that has for decades mistakenly treated KFC like a Western holiday tradition. The chance to share a bit of authentic home culture with friends was a simple comfort we came to cherish every year. In spite of our best efforts, no matter how many calls we made, venue after potential venue returned our inquiries with the same message, “So sorry, already booked”.
Just as we were nearing the point of weeping and gnashing of teeth, we found an opening. After hurriedly driving over to discuss plans, however, we learned that no one would ever be allowed to host anything even resembling a Christmas party at that facility. That particular rule, which they had inexplicably excluded from our conversation on the phone, came about because of one past dispute. Apparently, the disparity between what the Japanese small-town community center thought would be a Christmas party and what the lively Brazilian ex-pat community once actually held as a Christmas party was so unbearable that Christmas had to be indefinitely canceled. At least, they thought it was probably Brazilians. Different culture, at any rate. From the sound of things, they had engaged in an activity we foreigners came to nickname the “gaijin smash”. “Gaijin” is an impolite word for “foreigner”, and a gaijin smash is what happens when an impolite foreigner barges into an establishment and completely disregards any but his own way of doing things. What really mattered, the staff stressed, is that no one ever have a Christmas party at their facility ever again. They would not under any circumstances endure another smashing. Never mind that we weren’t part of that one ill-fated festa. Never mind that we were only hoping for a quiet dinner event. Never mind the conspicuous lack of any specific holiday theme in our plans. Nope. No Christmas. Goodbye.
On the drive back that night stars faded and time slowed as the Ghost of Christmas Failure led us by the arm and showed us the stern, grimaced faces of all the good people we were about to disappoint. Carols turned to cursing as an entire snowy village of period piece extras lined up one by one to cross their arms and spit in our general direction. Last of all, normally affable Tiny Tim hobbled himself up on his good leg and proceeded to wreck our shins with his adorable little crutch. “Could these shadows really be our future?” we wondered as we stopped at a traffic signal not but five minutes from home.
Anxieties of Christmas yet to come vanished from imagination with a screeching, hollow crunch as the driver following us failed to notice both the red light and the automobile between himself and the open road. Thankfully, my friend and I suffered no noticeable injuries, but it was clear that she would never drive that car again. The adrenaline from the momentary shock stirred all the frustrations of the evening and somehow froze them all at once. Anger, fear, and resentment circled meticulously like hungry predators beneath a transparent layer of ice. Already emotionally drained and utterly knackered, one careless driver had shoved our dead nerves beyond Hades to the vacuous, chilly Tartarean depths below. So, naturally, when he approached to check the damage and exchange information, we did what many exasperated people in similar situations have been known to do.
We did not apologize from a sense of guilt. In fact, the police report would later place 100% of the blame on the other driver. We apologized because such humility is the only proper beginning to potential conflict. This was not our idea, of course, but rather a lesson from Japanese textbooks and the orientation program for our job. Apologies are integral to even the most casual of relationships in Japan. Even after a car accident with an obvious guilty party, both parties express regret. This custom struck hard against our Western sense of self-preservation. We had come to a complete stop at a red light. We clearly had done nothing wrong. Normally, to us apologizing would be an admission that we shared the blame. In our home countries this would not only be viewed as absurd but also might even cause some liability for us. Nevertheless, we followed the advice of our teachers, pushed back against our instincts, and greeted the man that had wantonly ruined my friend’s car with a polite bow.
We didn’t even finish speaking before his assurances of personal culpability overwhelmed the interaction. We bowed. He bowed lower. We were sorry. He was deeply sorry. When the police arrived he explained the situation and hid nothing. He not only paid our examination fees when we went for a check-up that night but also stayed with us until he heard the results. True to cultural norms, he called his workplace and his boss came from the office to apologize to us and sit with him. My supervisor and my friend’s supervisor were also present. A small community came together in a hospital waiting room to handle the aftermath of a traffic incident that ultimately would leave no serious injury.
What we had always understood as little more than an act of admission of guilt we came to see as the humble recognition of how an unfortunate situation affects all involved. This basic lesson on cultural differences helped us avoid friction during a potential conflict. We can’t know what would’ve happened had we not known the importance of apologies in Japan, but we can be fairly certain that the other driver’s willingness to work with us after the accident would’ve been affected had we reacted in a manner foreign to his experiences.
Simple efforts to communicate and reach understanding can smooth over many of the rough edges of cross-cultural conflicts. Fluency is never required. The mere conciliatory effort of recognizing the validity of the other side’s approach to the situation is usually enough. In our small English-speaking community we often directly felt the impact of different approaches to disagreements. Those who chose to approach situations with apologetic humility may not have always achieved their ideal results, but they did succeed in proving to the locals of our rural community that non-Japanese could be reasonable. Those whose chose to smash their way through disagreement, however, not only left behind a negative impression of foreigners, they ruined Christmas.
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Wishing to conclude on a happy note, I would like to add that we did eventually find a community center willing and available to host what was certainly the largest gathering of internationals they had ever seen. We were extra careful not to resemble the sort of foreigners that force their own way, and the center welcomed us back every year thereafter.