Even with all the research I did beforehand, sometimes habits are just hard to adjust to. Although I was fully aware of their tradition of saying “itadakimasu” (a phrase used to give thanks before a meal) and “gochisou sama deshita” (a phrase used to express gratitude for the meal) I often forget to say one or the other. Fortunately, my host family is very understanding and usually initiates the phrase so I don’t forget to say it. However, there are a plethora of other unfamiliar rules and exceptions that come in Japan’s food etiquette. For instance, a friend of mine and I once went to a small shop in Shinjuku. After staring at a menu outside for a couple minutes, an old man ushered us in to talk with him. He didn’t speak English at all and spoke with an Osaka ascent. Luckily, my friend and I were able to piece together what he was saying to us. Apparently he was the president of Generali (the largest insurance company in Italy) Japan’s division! Anyway, back to the topic of food etiquette, he explained to us that when you are eating soba, it is polite to slurp your noodles. It shows that you are enthusiastic about the meal.
However, I discovered that this rule doesn’t apply to all noodles when my host family give me funny looks as I was applying this rule to pasta. I think in the future, I’ll just wait until someone else takes the first bite to figure out what I’m supposed to do.
Lost in translation:
One night while Alfonso (a close friend) and I were trying to figure out what we wanted to eat, we found a Spanish restaurant near campus. Being in Japan, you typically wouldn’t expect to see a Spanish flag in front of an establishment, so it caught our attention and we decided to read their menu outside to see what they had. As expected from Japan, once we were near the door, a worker approached us to urge us to come in. What we didn’t expect was for him to greet us in Spanish. Alfonso, being from Venezuela, was excited for the opportunity to speak Spanish with someone for the first time since arriving in Japan, so we decided to give the place a try.
The food was delicious but also a bit expensive so we only ordered one dish to share. In the meantime, we chatted with Taki-san (the worker who greeted us), who we learned to be the owner of the establishment. Taki-san introduced us to his wife and Momo, a student who was working there because she wanted to improve her Spanish. When Taki-san introduced us to Momo, he told us her name in Japanese means Peach and translated her name to Mandarina (which apparently means tangerine in Spanish). Alfonso, thinking that was a cute name, intended to tell her that she had a “kawaii namae.” Instead, he said “kawaisou” which translates to “poor thing.” (He was trying to say “kawaii sou,” which roughly translates to, “seems cute.”) I noticed the mistake, but the owner and Momo giggled, and my friend looked confident, so I thought maybe I was wrong. Besides, in my culture, it is rude to correct others in public. After we finished our food and said goodbye to the staff, I asked him if my translation was wrong. He stopped momentarily to think about what he said before. Upon realizing his mistake, he squatted down on the sidewalk, covering his face in embarrassment. Pretty sure, now is an appropriate time to use the term “kawaisou.“