While I’m a huge advocate of modern technology (heck, I’m writing this on a phone right now), there are some things, tiny niggles perhaps, that nonetheless irritate.
For example, back in the day you’d pick up a ringing phone without the faintest idea who was on the other end. So of course you start off the conversation with a pleasant “Hello?”
Now, you can see exactly who’s calling if you have their name saved on your phone. So now if you call someone, they will up straightaway and declare “Oh hey, PJ, how’s it going?” as if they have just performed clairvoyance.
Is it weird to say that that puts me on the back foot? To this day I have not figured out a way to reply that does make me feel like a dirty creeper. The best I can manage is a sheepish “Oh, er, hi…yes, it’s me…”
The problem is I’ve had that little opening gambit, the greeting, taken away from me, and the conversation just doesn’t feel right without it.
Japan wholeheartedly agrees with me on this, except they see these greetings as being essential in ABSOLUTELY EVERY FORMAL EXCHANGE EVER.
The Japanese word for greeting is ‘Aisatsu’, except this doesn’t really translate well. When we think of greetings, we think of what comes at the beginning of something, but with aisatsu it comes at at the beginning and the end. I suppose the nearest English equivalent we have is ‘pleasantries’, except that doesn’t really convey the cultural weight that aisatsu carries.
Because aisatsu are the bookends for all constructed conversations and presentations, big and small. Something big like the olympics? A Japanese person would view the opening and closing ceremony as aisatsu. All the way down to something small like a school’s local basketball after-school club. Sure, some of the kids may indulge in a bit of casual play at the beginning, but practice doesn’t properly begin until all members gather in a big circle for…yep, you’ve guessed it: aisatsu. And at the end, nobody would dare get on their bike and leave without performing aisatsu to formally close today’s session.
These uniform opening and closing are one of the big factors that maintains a sense of social cohesion in Japan, and it pervades everything, whether Japanese people realize it or not. The concept of aisatsu is impressed upon children from a young age, so of course aisatsu does subconsciously bleed into even casual meet ups like a drinking party with friends. Watch closely when you go drinking with a Japanese friend: they never sup their poison until everyone else is ready, and will only do so with a declaration of ‘Kanpai!’ On the flipside of that, a stroll around the plaza of any major train station around one of the bigger Japanese cities on a Friday or Saturday night will reveal big groups standing in big circles, having a final chat before peeling away and staggering home. It’s rare to see people falling away from a group mid-party in Japan. Why would they? It’s not the end of the occasion. Aisatsu has not been performed as a group to finish this night out on the lash. Okay, this example is a bit forced, but not by much.
Aisatsu is right up there with the ‘Kata’ as being one of the social constructs of Japan that makes this society run as smoothly as it does. And after living here so long, it does rub off on you. Perhaps if I lived elsewhere, I would’ve figured out a way to reply to those phone calls by now. Maybe something like: “Well no actually, I’m PJ’s long lost twin, and I have some secrets to tell you about him..”