Shoes and Ritual

I think I may have found my new favorite place for writing/blogging/general working: this cute little bakery/cafe a half a mile or so down the road from my gym. Well except for the fact that the kindly barista brought me herbal tea instead of the coffee I ordered (in and of itself not a great offense or really an offense at all). But then, upon realizing her mistake, she quickly retreated for the intended coffee, and when she returned to my table, removed the tea cup she had placed there during her mistake, as well as the pretty porcelain tureen of milk. As she went away, I tried to call her back, explaining that I did in fact want the milk she just took away, but she explained, for some reason wordlessly, that coffee could not be accompanied by this “tea set” milk, and gestured imploringly to the pre-packaged drop of fake cream that turned out to be laying in my coffee saucer.

Bakery/coffee shop. And tureen of milk before it was taken from me.

One thing I’ve noticed (and despite the usual trouble of making generalizations, I don’t think anyone will have the heart to contradict me here) is that the Japanese are very into procedures. One way this can be clearly seen is with shoes. I’m sure nearly all Westerners know that Japanese people take off their shoes before they enter their house. I remember a Family Guy episode where Quagmire gets married and adopts this routine, explaining, as the Griffins are crossing the threshold of his door, that they “do the Japanese thing” at his house, all this as a way of mocking Quagmire for sacrificing his manhood for marriage, since I guess this habit is seen in America as kind of a frivolous, unnecessary regard for form. It’s basically in the same line of criticism with another joke that follows, where Peter starts to insult one of their friends and Quagmire says something idiotic like “Oh we don’t like to use words like that in this house. We always say ‘If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all!'” This line is funny because it’s like comically unoriginal and superficial– much like the “taking off of the shoes” routine, it seems; both are a meaningless, even pretentious attempt to construct an image– in Quagmire’s case, an image of domestic bliss. Not that I would agree with such a harsh interpretation of the shoe routine, and the Family Guy writers were certainly not making a social criticism of Japan here (they were just mocking Quagmire and his conception of marriage, in a very effective way). But the point is that Americans do have a very different regard for “form,” which is possibly why some of the forms in Japanese culture strike me so severely.

As far as the shoes routine, this form actually goes much further than Westerners know. I actually like the habit of taking off your shoes before you enter your house, and probably won’t be able to help but adopt this when I return to the states someday. But probably few Westerners know that, when entering school for example, teachers and students also have to remove their shoes, and put on “indoor shoes” that have never been worn outside. Then if you want to enter the gym at school, one needs yet another pair of shoes to change into, one that is neither your outdoor shoes nor your indoor shoes, but decidedly a third pair, which, by the way, could have been worn outside at some point, proving that this routine is literally for the sake of the form of “changing shoes,” and not to keep the gym floor clean or something. In most houses and many Japanese restaurants, after removing your shoes to enter, you’ll have to change into a pair of bathroom slippers in order to use the restroom. At my gym you have to change shoes before you can begin working out. These “gym shoes” can be any kind of shoe really, just so long as they are different from the pair you entered in. And then, in the locker room, they’ve inexplicably lain down some kind of plastic matting that reaches about a foot and a half in front of the lockers, and I’ve been told off twice by fellow gym-goers for stepping on this mat in my shoes, since one in apparently supposed to reach over the mat to get to the lockers, while keeping their shoe-clad feet safely on the tile flooring… Since I can’t for the life of me understand the purpose behind this particular rule, I usually ignore it.

And there are many other rituals outside of this shoes obsession, some with clear purposes, others without. There are designated lines painted on the train platforms for where one is supposed to line up as you wait for the train. There is an immensely complicated schedule for trash disposal, that designates specific days of the week for the separate collection of plastic bottles, other plastic items, combustible items, non-combustible items, waste paper, and used clothing, and this varies by ward in Tokyo. There are a million different rules for how to handle chopsticks, and at least 5-10 real faux pas that you can commit, like piercing food with the chopsticks, sticking the chopsticks up in a bowl of rice, or using the chopsticks to pass food to someone at the table. There are riding-the-train courtesy rules like switching your backpack around so that it’s hanging on your chest in front of you. There are courtesy rules at meals, like not drinking until everyone has been served a drink and you’ve done a collective “cheers!” (kanpai in Japanese), and refilling your neighbors drinks before refilling your own, even if they’re drinking frustratingly slowly.

Trash disposal schedule

I’m sure there’s a million others that I can’t think of at the moment, but I’ll try to add them at a later date. All this makes Japan a rather intimidating place to live at first. But the strange thing is that, once you do learn these rules, which you will soon enough, being able to live along this clear line of form, knowing how to fit into your place, how to follow the order of things, is strangely liberating and is one of the reasons why, in time, Japan becomes such an easy place to live in… These rituals give an orderliness to everything, it removes so much uncertainty from one’s daily life. It’s comforting, and, what’s more, when I walk into my school gym knowledgeably, unhesitatingly removing my indoor shoes and switching into my third-pair shoes, perfectly synchronized with the other teachers around me, I feel this wonderful sensation of belonging. Maybe the Family Guy writers would rightfully call this a loss of identity for the sake of form and conformity, but if you can fit into this conformity, if you can follow these rituals like a native, you’ll find the chaos of life, even just momentarily, broken down into a perfect assignment of order…

And yet, as I conclude thus, my kind barista comes over and brings me a second cup of coffee (which was delicious, by the way), carefully removing my finished cup and saucer along with wrappers, and placing down a new one, with a new, single cube of brown sugar, and a new single pre-packaged drop of fake cream, and I find it hard to contain the rebellious spirit that rises up within me, in hostile defiance of these meaningless forms, wanting to demand a proper tureen of milk.





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