Oysters and Chopsticks Etiquette

Hello! I’m just back from visiting Mexico for the first time. I haven’t used my Spanish for 15 years, so I was pleasantly surprised with how much I was able to understand. Need to work on the speaking part. I was throwing out tons of けどs and ああ、そうs in my effort to make conversation.

While I was away, I had another Bilingual article in The Japan Times. I took a look at a 1965 エチケット事典 (Etiquette Encyclopedia): “A Japanese guide to dealing with gentleman callers and unruly dogs.”

It’s a pretty amazing text, and I look forward to reading through it more thoroughly. I wanted to share a couple of fun sections here. Under food, the author provides a list of 食べにくい一品料理 (tabenikui ippin ryōri, Difficult-to-eat items), one of which is 生かき (namakaki, raw oysters). Here are the instructions for eating them:

必ずレモンがそえてあります。これを絞りかけますが、レモンを絞る時はいつの場合でも、汁がまわりに飛ばないように左手でおおうのがエチケットです。レモン汁をかけたら左手で貝の殻をおさえ、かき用のフォークですくって一口に頂きます。

They are always accompanied with lemon. You squeeze this on top, but when you squeeze the lemon, it is always polite to cover it with your left hand so the juice doesn’t spray the surroundings. After adding the lemon juice, hold the shell of the oyster with your left hand, scoop out the oyster with an oyster fork, and eat it in one bite.

A couple of cool linguistic things to note here:

The first is the way エチケット gets used here to end the second sentence. Very interesting. A more literal translation would be “it is etiquette to cover it with your left hand.” I guess there’s a way to get closer to the Japanese than my translation. Something like “etiquette calls for…” or maybe “the etiquette is…”

Second, 貝の殻 is pretty interesting in that both characters can mean shell. 貝 seems to be referring to the meat of the oyster in this case, and it can mean shellfish more broadly whereas 殻 only refers to the shell or other kinds of outer coverings.

And if the oyster instructions didn’t convince you that this book is precise and prescriptive, check out some of the guides to 箸を上手に使うマナー (hashi o jōzu ni tsukau manā, Manners for using chopsticks well). In addition to the typical instructions, they provide this photograph for the section 器を持ったまま取る時 (ki o motta mama toru toki, taking them while holding a dish):

IMG_7539

And the instructions:

左手で器を持ち右手で上から箸を取り、左手の薬指か小指で箸をはさんで右手を持ちかえます。逆に箸を持ったまま、お茶碗やお椀を取る時は、箸先を手前にして右手の掌と薬指、小指の間に挟み持ち、親指と人さし指と中指を使って取り上げます。

Hold the dish with your left hand and take the chopsticks from above with your right. Slip the chopsticks between your ring finger or pinky and hold the dish with your right hand. Conversely, if you’re picking up a teacup or bowl while holding chopsticks, hold the chopsticks between your right palm and ring finger or pinky with the tips facing out and take the teacup or bowl with your thumb, index finger, and middle finger.

Am I the only person who didn’t already know of this technique? The second half of the instructions seem to make more sense to me than the first, which seem a little…precious? Or maybe I’m mistranslating based solely on the image from the text. I’d be curious to hear from readers on this one.

And don’t forget the cool finger vocab listed in the paragraph above!

This is a great text. I might have to buy a more modern version just to see the kind of things that are listed. And I can see myself coming back to this old one for future blog posts.

How to Condolences

I’m in The Japan Times again this week with an article about how to offer your condolences: “Condolences: what to say when there’s nothing you can say.”

I’ve had this happen to me twice now. I detail the first one in the article. I managed to handle the situation with a little help from my friends.

But the second I’m not sure if I handled as adeptly. My host mother in Aizu lost her husband last year, and another friend in town let me know that he had died. I shot off an email in both Japanese and English. She’d been part of the English Conversation classes in town, and at one point her English had been quite good. I thought it was a fair balance, seeing as how my Japanese has deteriorated slightly from its peak. Looking back, I did manage to get some of the phrases in there, notably お悔やみを申し上げます, but I missed ご愁傷様.

When I visited this past December, I asked another family what I should say in these circumstances, and they told me about ご愁傷様.

In the process of writing the article for the JT, I came across the blog 考える葬儀屋さんのブログ. It’s been running since 2009, possibly inspired by the 2008 movie Departures, which I’ve still yet to see…just put in an order on the Chicago Public Library.

The topics vary quite widely from topics such as 日本の仏教は正しいのか (Is Japanese Buddhism correct?) to 男性のお葬式の服装はユニクロがお勧め (I recommend men’s funeral attire from Uniqlo).

The two most interesting articles for me were ご愁傷様の意味と正しい使い方 (The meaning and correct usage of goshūshōsama) and 「お悔やみ申し上げます」の意味と正しい使い方 (The meaning and correct usage of ‘okuyami mōshiagemasu’).

Highly recommended reading. His look at the difference between 「公」 and 「私」toward the end of the first article is especially interesting.

The two most useful bits for me (in addition to what I already included in the article) were the following:

1. ご愁傷様 can be used in non-funereal situations as lightly ironic/funny. The examples he gives are of offering “condolences” to a coworker who has to work on a weekend and of Prime Minister Kan’s wife, who apparently said the line 「おめでたいと言っていいのかどうか。逆に、ご愁傷さまかもしれませんよ」 when Kan was inaugurated.

2. Families who are grieving can respond to ご愁傷様 with the phrase お心遣(づか)いありがとうございます (Thank you for your consideration).

I hope not to find myself in the latter situation anytime soon, but it’s always good to be prepared to dig up phrases like these. Part of doing Japanese is performing the ritualistic parts of the language. These are signs to others, and as a foreigner, I’d argue that they take on heightened meaning when building relationships. Once you’ve gotten beyond these, you can go deeper.

Cool Compound – 主食

shushoku

Over the 4th of July weekend, I went back to the small town in Fukushima where I spent three years teaching English and “coordinating international relations.” I had a nomikai with the students from the English conversation class I taught at the Town Hall, and then a few of us lit fireworks in the parking lot of the town offices. It was a nice little trip, great to get out of the city and just relax the whole weekend.

I ran into one of the great Japanese compounds at the dinner – 主食 (しゅしょく). We started with a toast and then snacked on sashimi, bits of fried food, edamame and a bunch of other things. El vino did flow – beer and 麦焼酎水割り, mostly. Towards the end, I could kind of tell it was time to wrap things up, but then one of the ladies said, だめだ。何か主食とらないと。 We couldn’t leave without having a 主食 – a staple food. The classic Japanese 主食 is rice, but the restaurant had no rice dishes, so we settled for ramen. Apparently noodles count as a staple food. The great illusion with 主食 is that rice is the only one that exists in the world. This proves otherwise.

Because rice isn’t eaten as much abroad, often Japanese will think that there are no 主食 in the US. I always point to Mexican cuisine and the use of corn in tortillas, pupusas, and tamales. Corn and beans are all staple foods all over the world. Don’t fall for the 主食 fallacy.

I’m heading back to my town to help carry the mikoshi in a festival next weekend. Should be fun.

Cool Custom – 差し入れ

Anyone who has worked in Japan in some capacity knows that there are a lot of social functions outside of work that actually semi-count as work. Welcome parties, end of year parties, new year parties, farewell parties. They serve to confirm that you are part of the group, and the free-flowing booze loosens lips, allowing sensitive topics to be discussed in a relaxed atmosphere.

The one problem with these parties is that they are expensive. In the small town where I worked, they cost at least 3000 yen (roughly $30) but were usually 5000 yen ($50). You get a nice dinner and as much beer as you are comfortable with. I went with the junior high school, sometimes the elementary schools, the people at the apartment building where I lived, and the Board of Education. As you can imagine, the cost adds up, especially around the end of the calendar and academic year.

I rarely refused for financial reasons, but I know other teachers who did. I was sometimes unable to go due to scheduling conflicts, but I felt really bad when I couldn’t attend – the parties were fun, and I was in a small enough town (8000 people) that finding a way to socialize was difficult. During the farewell party for the junior high school in my third year, I noticed that the young computer tech guy was carrying a giant bottle of nihonshu. At some point he stood up and announced that the head tech guy, who was not present, had given it as a 差し入れ. That was when it clicked. He couldn’t make it to the party for whatever reason, so he left a present instead. If only I had known that throughout my time in the town.

差し入れ (さしいれ), which literally means “insert,” can be considered a kind of preemptive omiyage of sorts. Often it’s given when you can’t attend an event, and in those cases it’s usually liquor. It’s a fantastic custom! It shows that you really wanted to participate, it probably costs less than the meal, and your coworkers will gush over you once they’re nice and boozed up and finally make it to your bottle.

Nihonshu and shochu are both appropriate 差し入れ for parties, but I recommend shochu since it can be split between more drinks and watered down for people who don’t drink that much. It will also increase your 渋い factor.

差し入れ are appropriate in other situations, too. If you know someone is studying or working overtime, bring them some coffee. It looks like people also give it to contractors doing work on their house, in which case nikuman, warm oshibori, or coffee are all winners.

Everyone knows about omiyage, but I feel like 差し入れ are somewhat uncharted. Hugely useful. Win friends and influence people with this cool custom.