One sunny day in May 2008, I came home to find a large box of laundry detergent hanging from my door. After a moment of confusion — was it a gag gift or an early birthday present? — I realized it was from the church next door, which was soon to undergo renovation. I learned this after digging out a multipage flyer hidden under the detergent that explained, in excruciating detail, the steps the church would undergo: a tarping, various roof repairs, possibly some jackhammering. After I finished reading about the ordeal, I felt like the church deserved a gift of its own.
A month later, another gift arrived. This time, there was no mistaking it for real sentiment, just a token apology: a towel with a construction company’s name. Hello, we are building a grocery store next door! Sorry! Enjoy your towel! The work in question wasn’t being done right outside my balcony, so according to the standard inconvenience scale, it required nothing more than a 100 yen towel to wrap around my ears to drown out the hammering.
Stories like this make good entertainment for friends and family back home. But I got a new perspective on the system last month when, after losing my wallet, I found myself on the other side of the exchange.
A Japanese friend advised me that whoever found it would probably just keep the cash and throw the wallet away, because if they returned it to the police, they’d be required to provide their contact information. Why would they need to do that? For the "orei" — a gift of thanks. “This 'orei'… how much is it?” I asked. Ten percent, my friend replied without hesitation. Ten percent of the cash in the wallet.
When I picked up my happily intact wallet from the police the next day (“It looks like there are some nice people left in Tokyo after all!” my friend exclaimed), the officer ran through the etiquette of the "orei." He advised me to call first, as a formality. I should start by asking if I can send something; the person will say no, so I should then ask again. If they keep saying no, I can let it rest; if they say yes, negotiations ensue. They have the opportunity to name an amount, but if it’s too much more than 20%, I should refuse. If it’s too little, I should insist on giving them more. All of this despite the fact that we all know it’s going to end up as 10-20%.
I gathered up my courage to make the call. I hate to phone strangers even in my native language, let alone someone who in all likelihood was a neighborhood "ojiisan" mumbling in an Arakawa dialect unintelligible to anyone under 50. Fortunately, my benefactor turned out to be a middle-aged salaryman. Still at work at 8 p.m., he didn’t quite know what to do about the "orei" situation either. Our conversation was awkward: he wanted some cash, but obviously didn’t know how to ask for it and couldn’t bring himself to name a price. In the end, I wound up sending a stylish card with the appropriate amount tucked inside, prepared to put the experience behind me.
But you know what? The incident left me feeling strangely angry. Not because of having to send a thank-you gift, or because “The Man” expected me to pay money for my wallet. I am happy that I could send a gift to someone who was thoughtful enough to keep his hands off my love hotel and Book Off point cards, and the 200 yen on my Suica.
No, my problem was the memory of the unbelievable inconvenience caused by my new neighborhood grocery store. After three months of nonstop jackhammering, the grand opening kicked off a ceremonial week of screaming and blasting music, from 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. To this day, an employee is paid to stand under my balcony welcoming customers and warning them about passing cars, although thankfully he seems to have lost his voice now. And what did I get before the construction of this monstrosity? A blank towel. In other words, a big slap in the face.
Now, I may not have grown up with the "orei" chart grafted onto my brain, but thanks to the wallet experience, I know enough to tell when I’m being insulted. A towel? Come on! Just have an employee show up at my door, give me the finger, and be done with it already.
My salaryman friend and I may have been uncertain and uncomfortable with this complicated system — be grateful, but not too much! — but at least we had the good sense to use our human instincts. Despite our awkward exchange, we (like that poor church) went beyond the token efforts of a corporate robot to find our common ground.
Molly Des Jardin is a PhD/MSI candidate at the University of Michigan, artist, writer, photographer and future librarian. You can find her on the web at www.mollydesjardin.com
This commentary originally appeared in Metropolis magazine (www.metropolis.co.jp).© Japan Today