Foreign student’s biting comeback at book’s lofty title wins support online.

While Japanese etiquette isn’t nearly the minefield of potentially offensive faux pas that some people make it out to be, there are some complex aspects to polished manners in Japan. For example, most cultural guidebooks and language texts will teach you that after eating a meal, you’re supposed to say “Goshisosama deshita,” literally “It was a feast,” to show your appreciation to the person who prepared or paid for the meal.

What’s less widely known, though, is that if you buy dinner for someone, and they say “Goshiso-sama deshita” to you, you’re supposed to respond with “Osomatsu-sama deshita” (meaning “It was a coarse/humble meal”) in order to humbly deflect the praise. In all the years I’ve lived in Japan, though, I think I’ve actually heard someone say “Osomatsu-sama deshita” maybe a dozen times.

This raises the question: If there’s something that etiquette says you’re supposed to do, but hardly anyone does it, is it still etiquette? Twitter user @MIYAKO60611, who’s a student from Taiwan currently studying Japanese in Hiroshima, made his opinion on the matter crystal-clear when he stumbled across a Japanese-language book on Amazon, titled Nihonjin no Kyuwari ga Shiranai Nihon no Saho, or Japanese Etiquette that 90 Percent of Japanese People Don’t Know.

So what does @MIYAKO60611 think of that premise? According to his tweet:

“If 90 percent of Japanese people don’t know about it, it’s not Japanese etiquette. It’s just THE AUTHOR’S etiquette.”

With roughly 30,000 likes for the tweet, that’s a statement a lot of Japanese Twitter users would second, as they left comments including:

“Like they say, ‘Times change.’”
“People who earn a living through etiquette lessons can’t make money if there are manners people don’t know about, so they just make them up.”
“Now I want to write a book about Japanese Etiquette that 100 Percent of Japanese People Don’t Know.”

The publisher’s description for the 192-page book, from author Kiyotada Ogasawara, reads:

“Do you think of traditional Japanese manners and etiquette as stuffy and constricting? But since the Kamakura era of 800 years ago, ‘proper Japanese etiquette’ has existed for the purpose of efficient, waste-free behavior, making it beautiful and not physically tiring. [This book answers] ‘Why is it incorrect to clasp your hands in front of you when bowing?’ ‘Why is it bad manners to use both hand to open a sliding door?'”

Setting aside the logic behind trying to dispel a stiffly formal stigma by invoking centuries-old behavior standards from what was, even by Japanese standards, a rigorously spartan period of feudal rule, it looks like the real aim of the book isn’t to explain and promote Japanese etiquette that was never known, but that has fallen out of use. Viewed in that light, a few Twitter commenters have come to the book’s defense:

“Not to get all serious, but if 90 percent of modern Japanese people don’t know about those etiquette points, there’s a chance of those traditions crumbling, so maybe this book is an attempt to preserve them.”

“I think they should have called the book Etiquette that 90 Percent of Japanese People Have Forgotten.”

For those who are interested, the book can be ordered here through Amazon, where it’s priced at 691 yen (US$6.50) for the paper version or 626 for digital. If nothing else, it should be a good window into Japanese traditions. Just don’t expect too many people to appreciate, or even notice, when your manners are “correct.”

Source: Twitter/@MIYAKO60611 via Hachima Kiko
Top image: Pakutaso

Follow Casey on Twitter, where he always makes a point of saying “Osomatsu-sama.”