Speaking of Differences

by

Saturday afternoon I gave a speech for a group in Kyoto. Every month they get a speaker to talk about something unique. I once went to hear about a special type of lily which had almost gone extinct, but thanks to one man’s efforts had been saved. Next month will be a high school calligraphy prodigy. This month was just me… they wanted me to talk about my perspective on Japanese life and culture.

When it was first requested, I tried to explain to the organizer what a dangerous topic this is. Japanese people often ask very straight questions about how their society compares or is different to others. Many times: what did you find most shocking?; what is the most difficult point of living here?; and more of that ilk are thrown out as questions. But, quite understandably, people don’t really want to hear that their society is shocking or difficult. Personally, I think Japanese are particularly sensitive about this issue, so it seems inconsistent that they would ask this type of questions so often.

Anyhow, he laughed at me for being ‘overly concerned’; reassured me that my discussions are always ‘amusing’; and within an hour was offended by one of the potential talking points we were kicking around. Over the last week, I was tossing ideas around with my wife to flesh out the speech. I consider it a mark of pride that we have gotten to this point, because early in our marriage there were a few altercations which started when I used the words “In Japan…” to start a sentence. Some of these flare-ups weren’t even negative or stressful points, but she tensed up out of reflex at the beginning.

In our filtering through the dangerous topics there were a number to which see saw the amusing quality and wanted me to use them, but I showed her a few of the traps and she understood why I wanted to slash them.

On the day of the event, my topics were just enough to cover the time alotted (although, I forgot a couple points I really wanted to cover because I didn’t clarify them in my notes). At least a couple members were interested in almost every point and each member showed interest in at least a few points. I guess Lincoln would be proud, since I can’t expect to keep everyone interested in every point.

We broke for tea and desserts and then had open discussion and questions. This section went very well, with general enjoyment. One member asked some tough questions about Zazen (座禅) – a type of Buddhist meditation – which almost got me in trouble. I’m a big fan of meditation, but Buddhist belief structure doesn’t mesh with mine. We managed to get through that with some tact.

For me, the most stressful point was that I rarely practice formal speech patterns in Japan and it would be inappropriate of me to use the more casual forms in this type of speech. I caught myself slipping into habit many times, but afterwards everyone (including my wife) insisted that they never noticed. (I think they were being polite.)

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7 Responses to “Speaking of Differences”

  1. titus2woman Says:

    Can you share a transcript? We are reading a book about Japan right now and enjoying all kinds of topics! (Elementary level).

  2. びっくり Says:

    How about a little summary? (Actually, once my internet connection comes in I think I’ll write a post with more details.)
    I started off with light points: 1 – Many foreign men find Japanese women very attractive; 2 – Colorful phones, colorful buses. Then I moved on to: 3 – A story about very subtle communication used in Japan; and 4 – discussion about variety of food and seasonal nature of food.
    We talked in fair detail about my interest in Japanese calligraphy, specifically: 1 – words as art; 2 – almost unfathomable depth of history to study; 3 – working with a flexible (almost like a living thing) brush vs. rigid pencil or pen writing and associated culture of cooperation vs. pushing to control things; and finally about how this writing is important to organizing my heart and focusing on the point at hand.

  3. Stefanie Says:

    sounds like the speech went well. congratulations!

  4. kinokage Says:

    I too would like a transcript, but I’m particularly interested in your thoughts on calligraphy. I really enjoy your blog!

  5. びっくり Says:

    OK, I’ll write up the details soon. Having the net at home again is a good thing. Also, there will be plenty more calligraphy talk, don’t worry.

  6. titus2woman Says:

    What initially brought you to Japan?

  7. びっくり Says:

    Good question. Not a simple question, but a good one.

    Initially, I came to Japan on business in 1989. I fell in love with many aspects of the country and came on business 11 times in three years. I was supposed to move to Tokyo in 1992, but our joint venture was closed. After that I spent 12 years working in other places. Leading up to my move here in 2004, several forces came together to make it happen. My father-in-law insists it is destiny. Most days I am inclined to believe that. Perhpaps I should write a post about some of these details soon as well. (First I’ll dig through my archives to see what is already there.) Oh, this could be an exciting week at Bikkuri Blog!

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