If you're preparing to go to Japan, the internet will provide you with an endless checklist of things you should or should not do to make yourself less of a foreign barbarian. While a lot of it is encapsulated in phrases accompanying this or that action, half or more is registered through gestures that would be seen as harmless in some other cultures. There are a few notions that rank as chief among these faux pas: standing your chopsticks upright in a bowl of rice, treading over tatami mats in shoes - muddy or otherwise - or chomping on some food while walking around, to name a few.
Beyond the big ones, though, the personal awareness one must exert to adhere to the minutia of manners is intense. Zen Buddhism intense. I used to think I had a fairly good grasp on dinner table etiquette when my girlfriend's mother suddenly pointed out to me that I was doing EVERYTHING wrong. There was, apparently, an order in which I was supposed to pick up my respective bowls. Nested within this order was a new way for me to pick up my chopsticks that involved first lifting a bowl with my left hand, then my chopsticks - from above, and at the exact center - with my right, tucking them between the pinkie and ring finger of my left hand, gliding my fingers about a quarter of the way down the newly suspended chopsticks before shifting my hand below them so as to not break contact while also refraining from touching the tips, and finally adjusting the chopsticks to a usable position (ie the proper position, which is a whole different lesson) with just one hand. If it sounds complicated (and vaguely run-on sentencey), that's because it is. I still practice it from time to time when the mood strikes me, but as a ravenous eater I can ill abide cultural nuances asserting themselves between the food and my mouth. And that's where today's trivia comes in.
えんりょ の かたまり
enryo no katamari
I can guarantee that anybody who has been in Japan for any more than a week or two will have experienced this phrase, even if they did not know the meaning or even detect anything unusual about it. Breaking down the words is not only helpful, but fun for two reasons.
First, 遠慮 is a great word. Why? It summarizes the traditional Japanese psyche: reserved. While this word is not nearly so definitive today as it might have been hundreds of years ago, it will still serve as an excellent label for the diffidence you will puzzle over from students, coworkers, etc. It will also give you the stock phrase "遠慮しないで", or "don't hold back," "don't be shy," as well as the not so stock phrase "今度は遠慮します," which can help you politely decline something you don't want to do. Use them wisely, padawans.
Next - and also, high-geek warning - 塊 is the first word in the title of the bizarre but ridiculously amusing game "Katamari Damacy," or 塊魂. This, sadly, has almost nothing in common with today's trivia save the kanji 塊, which means lump, chunk, clump, bit, etc. For this phrase, though, I'm going to flex my editorial muscle and add in "morsel" as a potential translation.
Put it together - the morsel of reservation, ie the last bit of food on a communal plate that nobody is willing to be responsible for taking. The idea is that everyone is being gracious by saving the final piece for everybody else. Rather than make a big deal about who is going to enjoy the last, tiny, delicious bit of food you've been snacking on, nobody takes it, and the problem is solved. But - much like no-walking-and-eating, always using bathroom slippers, and not referring to your students as the Japanese equivalent of "that little bastard" during class - this is another convention I break unrepentantly.
On a final note, our long-time readers might remember we covered a similar phrase that would've been enriched by this bit of trivia: いいとこ取り. If you use these two phrases together in a single sentence, there is a very high chance you will actually KILL the person you are speaking to with impressiveness. Consider yourself warned.
A little sampling of my usual dinner chatting:
Brett "The Eating Machine" Staebell has dibs on this last piece! Anybody who thinks they can stop me: BRING IT!