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  • Writer's pictureLarissa Reinhart

#ThrowbackThursday A Southern Writer in Japan

This #ThrowbackThursday post was originally from the now defunct but previously fun and informative Mysteristas blog from December 2015, soon after I returned to living in Japan for the fourth time. As a Southern writer, I wrote about Georgia in my Cherry Tucker Mystery and Maizie Albright Star Detective series while living in Japan. Now that I'm back in Georgia, I'm getting nostalgic to write about Japan!

A Southern Writer's Reflections on Georgia in Japan

I’ve lived in Japan four times over the last twenty years. This summer’s return has garnered me a lot of room for reflection. In the five years since my last move, I’ve had five books and a novella published. I actually began writing on our last stint in Japan: one manuscript that will never see the light of day and my first Cherry Tucker mystery. Both stories were set in Georgia. Now I’m back in Japan and still writing about Georgia.

Why Georgia while in Japan? Setting aside the obvious—write what you know—I’ve often mused over the similarities between the South and the Land of the Rising Sun. And so I don’t reflect for days, I’ve whittled down a much longer list to three topics.

Lipstick. In the South, ladies still wear hats to church and lipstick to the market. I’m talking capital L ladies, now. The no white after Labor Day rules are still taught in polite society and children still do cotillion. In fact, where I lived, getting your child an invitation to cotillion classes can get competitive.

In Japan, ladies wear lipstick to the market, dress up for shopping and lunch, and still do kimono or yukata (a cotton, less formal kimono) for ceremonies and special occasions. As do men (except for the whole lipstick thing). There are specific suits and dresses for funerals, weddings, graduations, and any number of events. Lipstick and blush. Heels and pearls. Hats and parasols. If hoop skirts caught on here, we might have an East/West Gone With the Wind mashup. And I’d never rule out anything in the Japanese fashion scene.

Shopping in a summer Yukata (cotton kimono)
Shopping in a summer Yukata (cotton kimono)

Politeness. One of the things I love best about the South is the respect for polite conventions. I’m surprised when I travel north and strangers don’t offer me a hello. In the South, children are drilled on their “Yes, ma’am's" and “No, sir's." If you have to wait in line, you pass the time by chatting with folks around you. You shake hands and you smile. You just do.

In Japan, there are a generous handful of polite phrases in constant use. You can’t walk into a shop without the greeting "Irisshaimase" (welcome to the store). When you meet someone, after your initial introduction you always say yoroshiku oneigashimasu (please be kind/take care of me). Yoroshiku and oneigashimasu are used liberally for sorry, please help me, pass the salt. Maybe not pass the salt, but pass the salt oneigashimasu works. It’s an awesome, all-encompassing phrase.

In the office, you apologize for leaving at the end of your workday, Osaki ni shitsureshimasu (Excuse me for leaving before you). And the response is Otsukaresama deshita (Thank you for your hard work). At home, upon leaving the house you say, Ittekimasu (I’m leaving) and ALL the family replies Itterasshai (take care). When arriving you say Tadaima (I’m home) and everyone responds Okaeri (welcome back). And of course there are greetings for morning (ohayo gozaimasu), afternoon (konnichiwa), evening (konbanwa), and good night (oyasuminasai). The list goes on and on.

And the bowing. I find myself bowing when talking on the phone and driving my car. And so does everyone else. Including the deer (see my daughter in the video below).

Cynics might consider these standards of politeness meaningless because they’re in such constant use. However, the standards unify society. Polite phrases keep social mechanisms lubricated. You get to know your neighbors, coworkers, and shopkeepers without invasiveness. You can interact with a large volume of people in the gentlest way possible. If you’re introverted, it’s a great communication method because you always know what to say.

Food. It’s not just the South who loves fried chicken. People tend to think of sushi and ramen when they think of Japan. Although those are staples of Japanese cuisine, that’s not every day eating here.

Except for ramen. Ramen can easily be eaten every day.

Fried foods aren’t just for tempura. If you can drop it in hot oil, it can and will be fried in Japan. The main difference is bite-sized frying because you don’t cut with chopsticks. Frying is done for traditionally similar reasons as in the South. Frying preserves meat. You can eat it cold. Frying makes a tough vegetable edible (okra’s in Japan, too). Frying tastes good…

fried food at a Japanese convenience store
Assorted fried food at a Japanese convenience store

Other staples of the Japanese diet you find in the South are greens, ham, shrimp, pork, chicken, sweet potatoes, shelled peas, green beans, tomatoes, and watermelon. And the most obvious—rice. Not just served on the side. One of the basic dishes here is don, a bowl of rice with simmered meat on top. Doesn’t it sound like low country fare?

As you can see, there’s plenty of Southern to inspire me in Japan. I’ll just grab a side of chicken and okra to go with my sushi as I bow and greet my neighbors. Although I’ll skip the lipstick and pearls.

Enjoying American BBQ in Japan at Midtown BBQ in Nagoya
Enjoying American-style BBQ in Japan at Midtown BBQ in Nagoya

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