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Doing it right and being polite: An interview with writer Amy Chavez

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By Jeff W Richards

Writer Amy Chavez has called Japan home for 25 years. If you’ve spent any length of time consuming English media here, you’ll likely have come across her work — either her “Japan Lite” column for the Japan Times, her stories on Huffington Post and RocketNews24 (now SoraNews24) or perhaps you’ve read one of her books. She is the author of "Running the Shikoku Pilgrimage: 900 Miles to Enlightenment” and “Japan, Funny Side Up.” Her latest offering is "Amy’s Guide to Best Behavior in Japan: Do It Right and Be Polite!” released in May 2018 by Stone Bridge Press.

We caught up with Chavez, who lives on Shiraishi Island off the coast of Okayama, to find out a little more about her writing life in Japan, what it’s like living on an island of only 500 people in the middle of Japan and her thoughts on how visitors to Japan can easily avoid any major faux pas during their travels.

You’ve lived in Japan for 25 years. What inspired you to come?

Amy Chavez: I came to Japan to teach English at a university.

Most readers will probably know you from your Japan Times column, “Japan Lite” that started running over 20 years ago. How did that come about?

AC: I always knew I wanted to be a writer, but when I was in college everyone said I'd never be able to make a living [doing that]. I have an undergraduate degree in creative writing from Miami University in Oxford, Ohio. I wanted to do my master’s and decided on an MA in technical writing and teaching English as a second language (ESL) — a double major to help fund my penchant for overseas travel and as a backup for finding a job. It was the tech writing experience that really honed my writing skills. When I moved to Japan, I taught at a junior college in Okayama for four years, then quit teaching to concentrate on writing full time once I had started writing “Japan Lite.”

Shiraishi Tori.jpg
Photo: Amy Chavez

You live on Shiraishi Island in Japan's Seto Inland Sea in Okayama Prefecture. How long have you been living there and what was the inspiration to move?

AC: I wanted to live in Japan's countryside, so at first I looked around Okayama to be near my job where I was teaching at a university. Then one day I came to this island to visit and fell in love with “the old Japan”: the traditional Japanese houses by the sea, the fishing boats trundling across the bay, the spiritual quietude — it was like being in the eye of a typhoon with non-stop, workaholic Japan churning around the periphery of this island of incredible calm.

When I left the island, I asked the guy at the ferry port if there was any place I could rent. He took my phone number and said he'd call me if he found anything.

Of course, I thought I'd never hear back from him because you hear all these things about how in Japan they don't like outsiders. To my surprise, two days later he called and said there was a house available literally on the port (you can fish from my living room). The first thing I did after moving here in April 1997 was buy a small sailboat, which I moored right outside of my house. After nine years, I finally convinced my landlord to sell me the house.

You run a bar and cafe on the island, maintain an English-language news and events blog for the community and handle accommodation reservations for foreign visitors. How did that come about?

AC: I wanted to do something to help revitalize the island. The population was — and still is — declining rapidly. We now have under 500 people living here, which is a huge drop from when I came here in 1997. The island is home to the Shiraishi International Villa, an accommodation built by the prefectural government in the years of kokusaika (internationalization) to attract foreigners who wanted to see traditional Japanese life in the countryside.

I realized there wasn't much for foreigners to do once they got to the island — but imagine a small island with just one beach bar and not much else! It's paradise.

So, I opened the Moooo! Bar in 2004, which became a place that visitors could find a native English speaker to whom they could ask all their questions!

I decided to write a definitive guide, a "culture vulture's" guide, for people who are interested — even fascinated — with Japanese manners

I started realizing what tourists have to deal with traveling here (as opposed to living here) and soon I was acting as the liaison between the island people and the foreign travelers. I put up the Daily Moooo! website and blog to help foreigners know more about the island before they got here and I helped them book into the international villa. Then the island started getting really popular, so I started booking people into local accommodations such as our one minshuku (guesthouse) and three ryokan (traditional Japanese inn). We also have one other guesthouse in addition to the Shiraishi International Villa.

Since nobody else here spoke English — at all — I had to make a deal with each of the proprietors that I'd handle all the reservations, get the tourists to and from the accommodations, collect the money and translate should any problems arise.

You’ve published the books "Running the Shikoku Pilgrimage: 900 Miles to Enlightenment” and “Japan, Funny Side Up.” This time, for "Amy’s Guide to Best Behavior in Japan," what convinced you to write a book on etiquette in Japan?

AC: This book is basically a response to all the people complaining about bad tourist manners. Everyday in the Japanese and foreign media here you read about poor tourist behavior and frankly, I'm afraid there's going to be a backlash — like locals not wanting foreigners in their establishments. Also, I was afraid that many tourists were actually going to take advantage of the kind Japanese and their omotenashi (hospitality).

That said, whether it's the “Ugly American” in Europe, the “Party Going Australian” in Bali or the “Pushy Chinese” in Japan, it’s my belief that people don't mean to be rude — they just don't know any better.

A lot of research went into it asking experts — like tourism boards, those who manage ryokan and restaurants, the Ogasawara School of Etiquette (to name a few) — and Japanese locals alike. Not everyone agrees with everything in the book, but we tried to find a happy medium that most Japanese people would agree on and that most tourists could comply with. No one is telling people they have to follow everything in the book. It's just telling them what the standard is for Japanese people.

Even long term expats like myself are still making mistakes! Most of us tell prospective tourists: "Just use common sense and you'll be fine!" But the tourist would really like to know more. So I decided to write a definitive guide, a "culture vulture's" guide, for people who are interested — even fascinated — with Japanese manners and want to know what's behind them and why the conventions are the way they are.

Amy and Miffy.jpg
Photo: Amy Chavez

How did you decide on what was the highest and lowest priority pieces of advice?

AC: I originally wanted to write a book that gave only the most interesting points on Japanese etiquette. The inside information that the Japanese people won't tell you and that takes us expats years and years to learn. But in the end, I had to include even the basics in order to create a book that would also be useful to the casual tourist and to make it more viable for a publisher to take on.

Many of the points in the book I'm hoping people will have fun trying out. For example: at a restaurant when you take the bill up to the cash register, present the bill with the print facing the cashier (so they don't have to turn it around themselves). Or to line up your coins on the money tray when paying. Little things like that people find fascinating and it turns out that such people are interested in trying different etiquette points, especially if they've been to Japan many times. So these points are for them, not necessarily first-time visitors.

If you could give three of your most important common sense tips to first-time visitors to Japan, what would they be?

AC:  One, lower your voice. Two, speak English slowly. And three — never show your anger.

How has Japan changed for the better since you arrived 25 years ago and how has it changed for the worse?

AC: For the better, English is everywhere now, which is really nice to see! But on the other hand, I feel Japan is becoming more and more Western all the time.

“Amy’s Guide to Best Behavior in Japan: Do It Right and Be Polite!” (¥1,410, June 2018, Stone Bridge Press, 144pp) by Amy Chavez is available on Amazon.jp and through Stone Bridge Press.

© Japan Today

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12 Comments
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Pondering the minutiae of Japanese manners is possible in the middle of the Inland Sea but the reality of life is found elsewhere.

Try living with most Japanese in large cities-most foreigners do and this is where most visitors come.

Imagine, 10 people behind you at the 7-11, I don’t think lining up money in a neat row would endear anyone to most Japanese here.

Also,Japanese people, are also guilty of not following their own etiquette, such as not washing adequately before entering the onsen bath.

And the new one of eyes down, ploughing into others whilst on mobile phones!

How about smoking,texting and driving?

And the times I’ve had doors swing back on me-countless!

Or not stopping at red lights?

Hopefully, these ones might get some etiquette change in the future.....

7 ( +7 / -0 )

Points taken, but even so, such a book will surely be welcome. Most Westerners seem to be nervous at the thought of how to behave when visiting Japan, and Amy should be able to relax them.

-1 ( +1 / -2 )

Most Westerners seem to be nervous at the thought of how to behave when visiting Japan

I don’t know any.

7 ( +8 / -1 )

Wow! Amy you have a neat life. I am stuck in the Tokyo grind with a stern Japanese wife as my overlord. Should jump ship to my own island.

3 ( +3 / -0 )

Pondering the minutiae of Japanese manners is possible in the middle of the Inland Sea but the reality of life is found elsewhere.

Couldn't agree more. Looking at the leaves, ignoring the forest. Books written in an ivory tower on an island obfusciate the reality of Japan and don't really contribute to the understanding of current Japanese society and culture.

3 ( +4 / -1 )

If you could give three of your most important common sense tips to first-time visitors to Japan, what would they be?

AC:  One, lower your voice. Two, speak English slowly. And three — never show your anger.

My three for Kyoto tourists would be:

Follow posted signs about acceptable behavior. In the absence of signs: stay on paths, in principle don't touch things that a) aren't yours and b) are not for sale. Don't lean or sit on things that are not clearly benches.

"Shoes off inside" includes the wooden pallets used for taking them off. Don't put feet/shoes on places where people are going to sit (benches etc.)

Lower your voice on public transportation and in places of worship

Just based on the most common things I see and that seem to bug Japanese caretakers and staff the most.

2 ( +3 / -1 )

I decided to write a definitive guide,

It's for other people to decide whether her book is "definitive".

I doubt there is much cross over between tourists who cause proper trouble (*) and tourists likely to read a book on etiquette. Japanese people will appreciate it if readers do line their coins up or hand banknotes over the write way up, but let's get this straight, they are not a "major faux pas". As kurisupisu says, it would be nice if Japanese people would do these things too.

(*) Proper trouble does not include things that may inconvenience others but are shouganai, like taking a big suitcase on the subway.

1 ( +1 / -0 )

I sense that this book best suited for rural life, particularly in small villages where all people know each other. In general, this might be a good book for living in a village anywhere.

As others have pointed out, urban life is different. (I’d add that outside your village life is different.) Japanese motorists do not stop for pedestrians, ride bicycles where they are not supposed to and smoke where smoking is banned or where it is sure to annoy people. You a whole different outlook in order to survive. It is not all that different for the tourist and resident. I do not mean you are forced to be rude. It is just delicate etiquette often takes a back seat to survival.

5 ( +5 / -0 )

My first Japanese teacher was a lovely but prissy woman who used to teach us gaijin barbarians the ‘Japanese’ way to eat a grilled fish. My coworkers in the izakaya tend to rip fish to pieces in between smoking and roaring out orders for more drinks without a thank you.

5 ( +5 / -0 )

Nothing riles up foreigners like another foreigner speaking of their knowledge of japan.

5 ( +6 / -1 )

Lots of sour grapes in this thread. Tough to bear how successful she has been I guess. Seems like a rather happy and well adjusted author.

-3 ( +1 / -4 )

Been reading "Amy" for at least 20 years now and have mostly enjpoyed her wide and varied writings. Some of her pieces have been exceptional, like the time she wrote about having to console the grieving Australian family over the death of a member after a ski accident in Niseko where she was working. Being the Eng - Japanese go between in that case must have been gut wrenching.

Her observations and whimsicals writings, while not always entirely successful, have certainly been a fresh blast and she has never avoided to be critical, esp of locals, where she believes criticism is due.

Her current work she says -

"....Not everyone agrees with everything in the book, but we tried to find a happy medium that most Japanese people would agree on and that most tourists could comply with. No one is telling people they have to follow everything in the book. It's just telling them what the standard is for Japanese people...."

probably covers it capably enough. It's not a bible.

But I do agree with some posters that suggest some of the etiquette may be more regional-speecific, and for sure should be mandatory reading for any number of Japanese folks. Bad manners by the locals abound day in, day out, drives me nuts at times - just they don't stand out like a "foreigner".

0 ( +1 / -1 )

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