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Polite Lies: On being a Woman Caught Between Cultures

Polite Lies: On being a Woman Caught Between Cultures

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by Kyoko Mori

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Twelve essays by a Japanese-American writer about being caught between past and present, old country and new.


Twelve essays by a Japanese-American writer about being caught between past and present, old country and new.

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Polite Lies

On Being A Woman Caught Between Cultures

By Kyoko Mori

Henry Holt and Company

Copyright © 1997 Kyoko Mori
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4299-3477-0



When my third grade teacher told us that the universe was infinite and endless, I wrote down her words in my notebook, but I did not believe her. An endless universe was too scary to be true — a pitch-black room in which we were lost forever, unable to find the way out. It worried me just as much, though, to think of the universe having an end. What was on the other side? I pictured a big cement wall floating in outer space, light-years away. At night, I dreamed that I was alone on a spaceship that orbited the earth in gradually widening circles. I didn't know how to turn the ship around or steer it out of its orbit. Outside the window the black sky stretched all around me, and the Earth looked like an old tennis ball, faded and fuzzy. Unable to go back home or to land on another planet, I circled around endlessly.

Now, thirty years later, I think of that dream when I fly to Japan from the American Midwest. On the twelve-hour flight between Detroit and Tokyo or Osaka, I imagine myself traveling in outer space for eternity, always getting farther and farther away from home.

Japan has not been my home for a long time. Though I was born in Kobe, I have not lived there as an adult. I left at twenty to go to college in Illinois, knowing that I would never return. I now live in Green Bay, Wisconsin. I am an American citizen. My life can be divided right down the middle: the first twenty years in Japan, the last twenty years in the American Midwest. I'm not sure if I consider Green Bay to be my "home," exactly. Having grown up in a big city, I am more comfortable in Chicago or Milwaukee. But even the small towns in the Midwest are more like my home than Japan, a country I know only from a child's perspective. I don't understand Japan the way I have come to understand the Midwest — a place I learned gradually as an adult so that I can't remember when I didn't know the things I know now and take for granted. I recall Japan with the bold colors and truncated shapes of a child's perception. My memory seems vivid and yet unreliable.

Since I left, I have made only five short trips to Japan, all of them in the last seven years, all for business, not pleasure. Japan is a country where I was unhappy: my mother killed herself when I was twelve, leaving me to spend my teenage years with my father and stepmother. I usually think of those years as a distant bad memory, but a trip to Japan is like a sudden trip back in time. The minute I board the plane, I become afraid: the past is a black hole waiting to suck me up. When I was in kindergarten, I worried at night that my room was full of invisible holes. If I got out of my bed and started walking, I might fall into one of the holes and be dragged through a big black space; eventually, I would come out into the wrong century or on another planet where no one would know me. I feel the same anxiety as I sit on the plane to Japan, my elbows and knees cramped against the narrow seat: one wrong move and I will be sucked back into the past.

As soon as everyone is seated on the plane, the Japanese announcement welcoming us to the flight reminds me of the polite language I was taught as a child: always speak as though everything in the world were your fault. The bilingual announcements on the plane take twice as long in Japanese as in English because every Japanese announcement begins with a lengthy apology: "We apologize about how long it's taken to seat everyone and thank you for being so patient," "We are so sorry that this has been such a long flight and we very much appreciate the fact that you have been so very cooperative with us," "We apologize for the inconvenience you will no doubt experience in having to fill out the forms we are about to hand out."

Every fourth or fifth sentence has the words sumimasenga (I am sorry but) or osoremasuga (I fear offending you but) or yoroshikereba (if it's all right with you). In the crowded cabin, the polite apologies float toward us like a pleasant mist or gentle spring rain. But actually this politeness is a steel net hauling us into the country where nothing means what it says. Already, before the plane has left American airspace, I have landed in a galaxy of the past, where I can never say what I feel or ask what I want to know.

In my family, proper language has always been an obstacle to understanding. When my brother called me from Japan in1993, after our father's death, and asked me to come to Japan for a week, he never said or hinted at what he wanted me to do once I got there. I could not arrive in time for the funeral even if I were to leave within the hour. He didn't tell me whether he wanted me to come all the same to show moral support or to discuss financial arrangements. In a businesslike manner, he said, "I was wondering if you could spare a week to come here. I know you're busy with school, but maybe you could make the time if it's not too inconvenient." When I agreed, he added, "It'll be good to see you," as if I were coming to visit him for fun. And I replied, "I'll call my travel agent right away and then call you back," businesslike myself, asking no questions, because we were speaking in Japanese and I didn't know how to ask him what he really wanted.

Our conversation wasn't unusual at all. In Japanese, it's rude to tell people exactly what you need or to ask them what they want. The listener is supposed to guess what the speaker wants from almost nonexistent hints. Someone could talk about the cold weather when she actually wants you to help her pick up some groceries at the store. She won't make an obvious connection between the long talk about the cold weather and the one sentence she might say about going to the store later in the afternoon, the way an English speaker would. A Japanese speaker won't mention these two things in the same conversation. Her talk about the cold weather would not be full of complaints — she might even emphasize how the cold weather is wonderful for her brother, who likes to ski. She won't tell you how she hates the winter or how slippery and dangerous the sidewalks are. But if you don't offer her a ride, you have failed her. My Japanese friends often complain about people who didn't offer to help them at the right time. "But how could these people have known what to do?" I ask. "You didn't tell them." My friends insist, "They should have done it without being asked. It's no good if I have to spell things out to them. They should have been more sensitive."

Having a conversation in Japanese is like driving in the dark without a headlight: every moment, I am on the verge of hitting something and hurting myself or someone else, but I have no way of guessing where the dangers are. Listening to people speak to me in Japanese, over the phone or face to face, I try to figure out what they really mean. I know it's different from what they say, but I have no idea what it is. In my frustration, I turn to the familiar: I begin to analyze the conversation by the Midwestern standard of politeness. Sometimes the comparison helps me because Midwesterners are almost as polite and indirect as Japanese people.

Just like Japanese people, Midwesterners don't like to say no. When they are asked to do something they don't want to do, my Midwestern friends answer, "I'll think about it," or "I'll try." When people say these things in Japanese, everyone knows the real meaning is no. When people in Wisconsin say that they will "think about" attending a party or "try to" be there, there is a good chance that they will actually show up. "I'll think about it" or "I'll try" means that they have not absolutely committed themselves, so if they don't come, people should not be offended. In Japan or in the Midwest, when people don't say yes, I know I should back off and offer, "Don't worry if you can't. It isn't important."

In both cultures, the taboo against saying no applies to anything negative. Once, in Japan, I was speaking with my aunt, Akiko, and my brother. My aunt was about to criticize my stepmother, whom she disliked. Because she was with my brother, who feels differently, Akiko began her conversation by saying, "Now, I know, of course, that your stepmother is a very good person in her own way. She means well and she is so generous."

I could tell that my aunt didn't mean a word of what she said because my Midwestern friends do the exact same thing. They, too, say, "I like So-and-so. We get along just fine, but" before mentioning anything negative about almost anyone. They might then tell a long story about how that person is arrogant, manipulative, or even dishonest, only to conclude the way they started out: "Of course, he is basically a nice person, and we get along fine." They'll nod slightly, as if to say, "We all understand each other." And we do. "I like So-and-so" is simply a disclaimer meant to soften the tone. I expect to hear some version of the disclaimer; I notice when it is omitted. If a friend does not say "So-and-So is a nice person" before and after her long, angry story, I know that she truly dislikes the person she is talking about — so much that the only disclaimer she can make is "I don't like to be so negative, but," making a reference to herself but not to the other person. The omission implies that, as far as she is concerned, the other person no longer deserves her courtesy.

When I go to Japan and encounter the code of Never Say No and Always Use a Disclaimer, I understand what is really meant, because I have come to understand the same things in the Midwest. But sometimes, the similarities between the two forms of politeness are deceptive.

Shortly after my father's death, my uncle, Kenichi — my mother's brother — wanted to pay respects to my father's spirit at the Buddhist altar. I accompanied him and his wife, Mariko, to my stepmother's house, where the altar was kept. Michiko served us lunch and tried to give Kenichi my father's old clothing. She embarrassed me by bragging about the food she was serving and the clothes she was trying to give away, laughing and chattering in her thin, false voice.

As we were getting ready to leave, Michiko invited Kenichi and Mariko to visit her again. She asked them to write down their address and phone number. Squinting at the address Mariko was writing down, my stepmother said, "Hirohatacho. Is that near the Itami train station?"

"Yes," Mariko replied. "About ten minutes north, on foot." Then, smiling and bowing slightly, she said, "Please come and visit us. I am home every afternoon, except on Wednesdays. If you would call me from the station, I would be very happy to come and meet you there."

"You are welcome to visit here any time, too," Michiko returned, beaming. "You already know where I live, but here is my address anyway." She wrote it down and handed it to Mariko.

Putting the piece of paper in her purse, Mariko bowed and said, "I will look forward to seeing you."

As I walked away from the house with Mariko and Kenichi, I couldn't get over how my stepmother had wangled an invitation out of them. The thought of her coming to their house made me sick, so I asked point-blank, "Are you really going to have Michiko over to your house?"

They looked surprised. Kenichi said, "We didn't mean to be insincere, but we don't really expect her to come to our house."

"So you were just being polite?" I asked.

"Of course," Kenichi replied.

I would never have guessed the mere formality of their invitation even though polite-but-not-really-meant invitations are nothing new to me. People in Wisconsin often say, "We should get together sometime," or "You should come and have dinner with us soon." When I hear these remarks, I always know which are meant and which are not. When people really mean their invitations, they give a lot of details — where their house is, what is a good time for a visit, how we can get in touch with each other — precisely the kind of details Mariko was giving Michiko. When the invitations are merely polite gestures, they remain timeless and vague. The empty invitations annoy me, especially when they are repeated. They are meant to express good will, but it's silly to keep talking about dinners we will never have. Still, the symbolic invitations in the Midwest don't confuse me; I can always tell them apart from the real thing.

In Japan, there are no clear-cut signs to tell me which invitations are real and which are not. People can give all kinds of details and still not expect me to show up at their door or call them from the train station. I cannot tell when I am about to make a fool of myself or hurt someone's feelings by taking them at their word or by failing to do so.

I don't like to go to Japan because I find it exhausting to speak Japanese all day, every day. What I am afraid of is the language, not the place. Even in Green Bay, when someoneinsists on speaking to me in Japanese, I clam up after a few words of general greetings, unable to go on.

I can only fall silent because thirty seconds into the conversation, I have already failed at an important task: while I was bowing and saying hello, I was supposed to have been calculating the other person's age, rank, and position in order to determine how polite I should be for the rest of the conversation. In Japanese conversations, the two speakers are almost never on an equal footing: one is senior to the other in age, experience, or rank. Various levels of politeness and formality are required according to these differences: it is rude to be too familiar, but people are equally offended if you are too formal, sounding snobbish and untrusting. Gender is as important as rank. Men and women practically speak different languages; women's language is much more indirect and formal than men's. There are words and phrases that women are never supposed to say, even though they are not crude or obscene. Only a man can say damare (shut up). No matter how angry she is, a woman must say, shizukani (quiet).

Until you can find the correct level of politeness, you can't go on with the conversation: you won't even be able to address the other person properly. There are so many Japanese words for the pronoun you. Anata is a polite but intimate you a woman would use to address her husband, lover, or a very close woman friend, while a man would say kimi, which is informal, or omae, which is so informal that a man would say this word only to a family member; otaku is informal but impersonal, so it should be used with friends rather than family. Though there are these various forms of you, most people address each other in the third person — it is offensive to call someone you directly. To a woman named Hanako Maeda, you don't say, "Would you like to go out for lunch?" You say, "Would Maeda-san (Miss Maeda) like to go out for lunch?" But if you had known Hanako for a while, maybe you should call her Hanako-san instead of Maeda-san, especially if you are also a woman and not too much younger than she. Otherwise, she might think that you are too formal and unfriendly. The word for lunch also varies: hirumeshi is another casual word only a man is allowed to say, hirugohan is informal but polite enough for friends, ohirugohan is a little more polite, chushoku is formal and businesslike, and gochushoku is the most formal and businesslike.

All these rules mean that before you can get on with any conversation beyond the initial greetings, you have to agree on your relationship — which one of you is superior, how close you expect to be, who makes the decisions and who defers. So why even talk, I always wonder. The conversation that follows the mutual sizing-up can only be an empty ritual, a careful enactment of our differences rather than a chance to get to know each other or to exchange ideas.

Talking seems especially futile when I have to address a man in Japanese. Every word I say forces me to be elaborately polite, indirect, submissive, and unassertive. There is no way I can sound intelligent, clearheaded, or decisive. But if I did not speak a "proper" feminine language, I would sound stupid in another way — like someone who is uneducated, insensitive, and rude, and therefore cannot be taken seriously. I never speak Japanese with the Japanese man who teaches physics at the college where I teach English. We are colleagues, meant to be equals. The language I use should not automatically define me as second best.


Excerpted from Polite Lies by Kyoko Mori. Copyright © 1997 Kyoko Mori. Excerpted by permission of Henry Holt and Company.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Kyoko Mori was born and raised in Kobe, Japan and moved to the United States as a teenager. Now a professor of Creative Writing, she has published her poetry and short stories in leading magazines such as The Kenyon Review, The Apalachee Quarterly, and Beloit Poetry Journal. She is the author of two novels for young readers, One Bird and Shizuko's Daughter, which was chosen as a Best Young Children's Book by The New York Times. She has also written two memoirs for adults, Polite Lies and The Dream of Water.

Kyoko Mori was born and raised in Kobe, Japan and moved to the United States as a teenager. Now a professor of Creative Writing, she has published her poetry and short stories in leading magazines such as The Kenyon Review, The Apalachee Quarterly, and Beloit Poetry Journal. She is the author of two novels for young readers, One Bird and Shizuko’s Daughter, which was chosen as a Best Young Children’s Book by The New York Times. She has also written two memoirs for adults, Polite Lies and The Dream of Water.

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Polite Lies: On being a Woman Caught Between Cultures 4.3 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 8 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This book changed my view of the cross-cultural differences between Japanese thought and behavioral patterns and those of Americans, and probably western thought in general. They are more extreme than I realized. Watching many films from Japan still didn't prepare me enough for what Kyoto Mori wrote about: among other things, how cancer, illness, finance, and the roles (and voice intonation) of woman are regarded, though it did add to my understanding of the film "Ikuru". It's a significantly different view of reality. I am grateful that she provided these invaluable insights. If we can understand how others think perhaps we can reach some level of peace.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I loved the essay format. I really got an emotional account of Japanese culture, which felt unique. But it was also educational. Highly recommended. If you like the sample, buy it, because you'll probably like the whole book.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Polite Lies by Kyoko Mori explores the similarities and differences between the culture of Mori's childhood country, Japan, and the Midwestern one she settled into as an adult. Mori combines personal experiences and memories to offer insight on the culture of modern-day Japan. The memoir is divided into twelve different chapters, each focused on one element of culture (language, family, rituals), and each are vivid and fascinating, but all of them combine to form an inspiring piece of literature. One of the novel's main themes is the influence of language (note the title of the book). The first chapter focuses on the difference in style between Japanese language and Midwestern language, and the effects of each. Mori elaborates between the different occasions certain words and tones are permitted in, and the restriction that she feels in having to conform to those rules. Then, all throughout the rest of the novel, language plays a role in the understanding of the other cultural elements. In "Bodies," for example, Mori writes, "My friends and I had no language to speak about sex, in or out of the biology class" (Mori 111). Each chapter adds another layer of insight to the previous ones. The benefit of reading a memoir about culture rather than a strict textbook is that personal experience gives the reader something to relate to. Mori does a great job of this, relating her memories of growing up in Japan to her friends' memories of growing up in the Midwest. However, the disadvantage to reading one author's point of view is that it leads to bias. Mori makes clear that her childhood in Japan was not a pleasant one, and that her experience does not necessarily account for all of Japanese culture. Her pained memories lead to an almost skewed picture of Japan; one of unhappiness and societal disorder. This novel is great for those who are interested in learning about the culture of Japan. It offers a good beginning resource for those who have no prior knowledge. However, for those who study culture pedagogically, this book is too light for reading. For those who have finished this book and are interested in some of Mori's fiction novels (also based on her experiences growing up in Japan), try her New York Times bestselling book, Shizuko's Daughter. Overall, I give this novel four stars out of five. And admiral piece of literature for an author with an honest voice.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I thought this book was interesting to read. It's a little depressing though and unfortunately it does not leave a positive impression on Japanese culture. But then again the author had a sad childhood, so one can't expect something cheery and positive. There were a few deep points that the author tried to communicate which I was able to appreciate, but not fully - but then again that was because of my deficiencies in appreciating the deeper aspects of literature and not the author's fault. I think its a good book, but I would recommend also reading other books along with this to get a view of Japanese culture from other perspectives as well. Most of the other books I read gave positive perspectives of Japanese culture and this was my first one to see a darker side to things - it's a good balance, because in reality most, if not all cultures have a positive and negative side to things, so reading only the positive aspects of things won't really give you a balanced view. So, I recommend this book.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Mori's 'Polite Lies' is both well-written and more than a little fascinating. At times you feel like laughing at some of the experiences she puts forth, while at other times you feel utterly horrified. Far from sensualizing her experiences, she relates them with the understanding of someone intimately aquainted with them without catching you up in a prolonged reaction or a detailed analysis. She provides background information and the details, and allows the reader to draw his or her own conclusions. This is truly a work of genius.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Having lived in Japan 4 separate times, I loved returning because things worked somehow and at the same time confused me as to how they worked. Mori by sharing her personal experiences -- through her mother's suicide, her stepmother's evil intent, her transition to life in Green Bay, her divorce to her husband, and more -- offers a lot of insight into the thinking that makes Japan's culture such a magnetic source of confusion for me. Also, coming from the Chicago area, I learn from Mori's comparison of her understanding of Midwestern Green Bay culture and Kansai Japanese culture. It's a comparison that other sociological books and more quantative readings fail at. In terms of writing quality, maybe I'd give it 4 stars, but the way Kyoko Mori shares so much personally, this open honestness encouraged me to give it 5 stars. This book might also be useful for couples with a Japanese or Japanese-American partner.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This book read more like an essay than a memoir. The author goes into too much description, so the story tends to drag at many points.