Japanese-Style Politesse

A SPECIAL feature of the Japanese national personality - amusing and puzzling, too - may have been revealed by something that happened to me while playing soccer with fellow high-school students when I was an exchange student in Kyushu. Class Match Day is one of the most-looked-forward-to events of the Japanese school year. Homeroom classes of 50 students have worked together as a group the whole year, unlike in the United States, where each student follows a separate schedule. These closely knit academic classes compete against each other at the close of the year on Class Match Day in four sports: girls play basketball or volleyball, and boys play softball or soccer. I played soccer.

First, the many classes in each grade level lined up on a parade field to do the school exercise, a predefined set of perfectly sequenced stretches and calisthenics to warm everyone up. Since this was my first exposure to this drill - I had only been there a month - everyone watched to see how easily I caught on.

To my chagrin, as soon as I caught on to one maneuver, the exercise changed. The drill finished up with a teacher's exhortation to try hard and participate energetically with our teams.

We broke into our kumis (groups) and donned headbands and socks of our kumi color. Mine was purple. As we trotted out to the field, ``Tommy'' (my friends liked to be called by the English names I thought up for them) asked if I was any good at soccer. I responded truthfully that I was very poor at it. To Tommy and the others, my answer meant that I must be very good, and properly modest too. So naturally they put me in the main position: forward center, they called it.

I talked to my classmates in broken English sentences with some of the words replaced with the few Japanese words I had been able to pick up. I was generally understood (by ``generally'' I mean ``more often than not''), but I was always in some doubt about this. My one-month's attempt to learn Japanese had been slow and difficult. In contrast, the high school offered only one foreign language - English - and the students in my junior class had taken it for four and five years.

If I was not understood, Tommy, ``Jimmy,'' or ``Heather'' would nod or smile vaguely and pretend to understand. This, of course, led to more confusion.

On Class Match Day we were to play four games. We had played three and done well, losing only one. I felt satisfied, which meant I hadn't tripped over my own shoes or the ball, or walked into the goal post. Everyone said I was great. I wasn't, but they said this so profoundly it made me suspicious: If my saying I was bad told them I was good, what did it mean to be complimented?

It was at this point during Class Match that the Incredible Incident occurred.

There were many kumi colors - red, orange, black, and so on - but there were so many classes in the school that, unknown to me, there was more than one purple kumi. Before our fourth and final game, I got separated from my team. After wandering around, I saw a group with purple headbands and socks standing next to the field, so I ran up to join them. I was too confused to notice that this group was the other purple kumi.

While Japan is known to be a society where everyone feels they must belong, and membership is sometimes jealously exclusive, as the only foreigner in the entire school, I seemed to be able to fit into any group. Being different in Japan is sometimes akin to being wrong. But paradoxically it was my very differentness that allowed me to fit in and attach myself - if inadvertently - to this other class, a class that had been working together for a whole year.

We promptly marched onto a soccer field. I took my forward center position, which means that, without being aware of it, I bumped someone - probably the class leader - out of his spot and off the team. He must have taken one look at me and left. The team and I played well together. I passed and received the ball from ``teammates,'' and we had a lot of fun. We won, and retired from the field, patting ourselves on the back and joking.

My real team was waiting for me as I came off the field. This is where the second part of the Incredible Incident happened. My real teammates never asked me where I had been or why I had just been playing for a rival team! They never broke it to me that I had been lost. For my part, I just figured that softball had ended early and these students were the softball players from my class, waiting for the rest of us.

Instead, this other group of purple players immediately took me onto the field with them to play more soccer. Now this would be my fifth game. I had earlier asked my friend Tommy how many games we were to play, and he said four; I had him count it on his fingers and draw it in the sand, so there could be no mistake. Then I realized: I hadn't seen Tommy at all last game.... I didn't play very well that game. I was trying to pierce the persistent haze of confusion that surrounds the foreigner in Japan. When I thought I'd figured out what had just happened, it worried me. It wasn't funny at the time.

No one had challenged me. It may have been that my friends were too polite (which is entirely possible) or too shy (many Japanese have never met a foreigner, let alone challenged or corrected one). Perhaps everyone was just playing along with me, or no one was willing to take the first step, preferring to let the whole matter slide. It was unfathomable to me.

There was one other remote possibility. They could have thought I knew what I was doing. Incessant confusion brings out its own state of confidence.

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