japonisme: something in my eyes

16 May 2012

something in my eyes

many years ago i was read- ing a short story, follow the eagle, by william kotzwinkle, for about the 400th time. this is a story about a young native-american motorcycle rider and here it was, the middle-of-the-night, when i noticed for the very first time that the story was increasingly in the cadence of hiawatha! why had i never noticed before? well, this same phenomenon has happened again, but i'm going to string this out for a little longer as i wait to see if you can guess.

in his charming and perceptive essay seeing eye-to-eye with japan, taras a saks provides some fascinating differences he's observed between american and japanese cultures. for example, "In the book The Inscrutable Japanese, by Kagawa Hiroshi, the author notes that if Japanese children, when scolded, look their parents in the eye, they will be further reproached, “Why are you looking at me that way?” In contrast, if an American child looks down or away when chastised, he or she will most likely be ordered to “Look at me when I’m talking to you!”

he continues, "Though in the US, for example, direct eye contact is seen in a positive light — denoting honesty, sincerity, self-confidence, and trustworthiness — in Japan it can be taken as proof of vanity, hubris, overconfidence, and rudeness"

in another column, selling dog training services successfully, the author instructs, "It’s important to take charge at the initial consult. Don’t be content to be left standing in the entryway while the client’s life swirls around you, politely waiting to be acknowledged. You’re a professional there to do professional work. They’re paying for your time and there’s a limited amount of it—it’s important to get right to work and set a tone of productivity. When the door opens, introduce yourself and shake hands while making good, solid eye contact. If the dog is present, compliment her and, if safe and appropriate, pet her. But then straighten back up, smile, and suggest, “Shall we sit at the kitchen table and get started?” Clients will feel more comfortable if you take the lead, and are much more likely to hire you if you seem competent and in control."

whether it's dog-training or vacuum cleaners, the rules are the same, as well as for for everything from laundry detergent to breakfast cereal: behave the way you would if you wanted to strike terror in the hearts in japan! in fact, can that be the underlying message in both cultures? i wonder if bullying is as much a problem in japan as it is here, where basic to our culture is the positive effect in a nation of salesmen turns us also into a nation of bullies.

and yes, surely you've noticed by now: after six years of doing this blog; after thirty years of being a student of japanese art, yesterday i noticed something for the very first time: they are never, ever, looking you in the eyes.

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Blogger Haji baba said...

I was talking to a British Muslim woman who came from an Indian background about this and she was disconcerted when I talked to her about reactions in Morocco to direct eye contact. Why did I do it? It seemed to her inappropriate - I suspect immodest.

The Moroccans understand that one's interests and desires are expressed through the eyes. Window-shopping of the sort that westerners go in for, is fatal in the souks. You look at the goods, the shopkeeper engages you in conversation. There is no such thing as 'just looking'.

But I don't think you need to go to Japan for differences. In countries like France where life is often more public, it is rude to take notice of what is deemed to be private behaviour eg a man touching his girlfriend's bottom or a middle-aged man paddling in a fountain. The French are very touchy about this kind of staring even though they are starers like no others. Equally, the Italians choose not to notice. They see, but pretend not to. It is a great deal to do with modesty and shame, very important in Japan but also in the Mediterranean and Near East.

16 May, 2012 14:13  
Blogger lotusgreen said...

oh that's very interesting, charles. it hadn't occured to me how much variety there may be.

thank you. i guess you wouldn't be the first person to suggest that americans are shameless. ;^)

16 May, 2012 17:11  
Anonymous evan said...

I wonder...here in the west a portrait where the eyes follow you it's considered weird & spooky. In Japan, I guess the art would be considered rude. Conversely it makes me wonder- what would be ruder for a Japanese- shunga art, or a portrait of a woman whose gaze is directly right at the viewer?

22 May, 2012 11:20  
Blogger lotusgreen said...

or if they were combined!

22 May, 2012 14:03  

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hi, and thanks so much for stopping by. i spend all too much time thinking my own thoughts about this stuff, so please tell me yours. i thrive on the exchange!

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