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Thursday, September 1, 2011

Taboo Topics: What Japanese People Talk About that We Don't

Went blog-topic fishing on Twitter and got a good question from takayamakouichiさん. He asks:
"If I were to go to America, what topics should I avoid if I don't want to cause trouble? Other than abortion..."
I like his phrasing, "迂闊に異見する," to carelessly give one's opinion. Imagining a Japanese visitor to America casually saying "So, abortion's pretty great, yeah?" struck me as hilarious. I'm glad you already know to avoid that one, Takayama-san. 笑

It would actually be pretty easy to list the major conversational themes to avoid in America:
  1. Religion
  2. Politics
Sometimes I hear "The Economy" thrown in there too, but that's so mixed up with politics that I think it's safe to lump those together into a "Politico-Economic" category. Like "abortion," most of the topics I would want to stay away from at the dinner table seem to tie into these.

I have a feeling that there's probably a lot of cross-over between Japan and the West when it comes to what not to talk about in mixed company. Imagining an off-the-cuff Takayama-san saying「妊娠中絶のことですが。。。」("So, about abortion...") at a party in Japan, or say, his in-laws' house, is just as laughable.

Plus, if you were a Japanese VISITOR in America, I have a feeling you'd be forgiven for asking about American politics, religion, and yes, even various methods of... birth control. As someone who was foreign to the country, people would expect you to be curious about it, and as long as you didn't openly reject the answers you got, I think you might be able to have some educational conversations.

So instead of going too broad and basic about what topics are potentially offensive among Westerners, I'd like to offer up a couple of specifics. The following are things I've noticed that Japanese people talk about that I don't think get tossed around so openly in the West.

(and other movements of the bowels)

I'm sure this has come up at least once on the site before. Japanese people really don't mind being specific about going to the bathroom. It's just as common to say "うんこしたい: I have to poop"or "おしっこしたい:I have to pee," as it is to say "トイレを借ります:I'm going to use the restroom." I'll allow that a Japanese business women might not say "I'm going to go poop," to co-workers, and that an American man might say "Gonna go take a shit" to his friends. But overall, in America it's not really cool to get specific about what you're planning on doing in the bathroom. In Japan, not a problem.

Case in point: Tell a Japanese co-worker that you're not feeling well, they might ask you directly if you have diarrhea. Or if you're constipated. My reaction to that question is always, "Sorry, what?"

I'd even recommend that Japanese people avoid using the word toilet. Having been here for five years now, when I go back to America, I sometimes catch myself saying "Where's the toilet?" which I forget is actually more vulgar than saying "restroom," "bathroom," or "facilities."


Having never been a woman, in America I found myself left out of period discussions. Not so in Japan. Where periods are considered a much more valid reason for taking the day off of work, I was pretty surprised to find "Oh, my period was pretty bad," a not uncommon answer to "Were you out sick yesterday?" I'm not sure people would balk at this as much as they would the above mentioned bodily-functions, and I don't want to be the guy who consigns periods to the realm of the shameful. That said, practically speaking, you would be labeled as "the lady who talks about her period" pretty quickly, Japanese woman.


If you are not a racist, and you've ever heard a Japanese person say 「外国人は苦手: I don't really care for foreigners,」you were probably shocked. I've been shocked and I've heard it more specifically: 「黒人は苦手: I don't really care for black people」or 「インド人は嫌: I don't like Indian people.」

Part of the problem is with my translation. 苦手 might also mean, "I don't handle foreigners well," due to being shy, or not speaking English, feeling uncomfortable, or whatever personal fault of the speaker. It might not be intended to reflect negatively upon the group in question. It's still something you would never say in a social environment in the West, unless you were comfortable that those around you shared your feelings.

It's come up here a million times before, but in a largely heterogeneous country that sees nothing wrong with using generalities to think about not only other groups, but itself as well, these kinds of statements are more acceptable.

My wife and I were discussing our world trip plans the other day with another couple, and they asked if we had plans to go anywhere in Africa. Morocco and Egypt are on our lists, but beyond that, not really. What my wife said though, was "アフリカが嫌:Nope, Africa's no good."

What she meant was "I don't have enough specific places in Africa that I want to see to make it worth putting up with the heat and what I've heard are dangerous areas." But as I mentioned to her later, writing off an entire continent that way, in a conversation with people you don't know that well... not the best move. In Japan, unless your conversational partner happens to love Africa, you might not make a lot of waves. In America, some people would take that as a racist remark.


This is the last one and it probably doesn't belong on this list, because it's not something I hear discussed openly in Japan really. It isn't really talked about in Japan at all unless it's in relation to someone on TV. In recent years, gay and transsexual entertainers have become really popular, but it's extremely telling that it's usually only gay or transexual men who act or appear feminine. お姉 (older sister) is what they're called, and with no public dialogue to contradict them, they've led a large portion of the country to believe that gay = a woman stuck in a man's body (or vice versa). To my knowledge, this is pretty far from accurate.

I haven't heard a whole lot of openly made remarks about sexual orientation, but in private discussions, it's clear that the average Japanese person knows little about homosexuality. "I wish I had a gay friend," is something that I hear from women from time to time, but then I heard that from very young or very naive women in America too. I'm pretty sure that grew out of whatever image of "gay" they were getting from TV as well.

I guess there were two reasons I wanted to include it here. First, I think a straight Japanese person who tried to start a conversation about homosexuality, and expected it to conform to what their perception of homosexuality was, might potentially offend some people. And second, there's no religious-basis for any kind of hatred or condemnation of homosexuality over here. When I'm away, I tend to forget that there are lots of hateful people in America who get really fired up over things that have nothing to do with them. I imagine, depending on the venue, that conversation topic might turn up a handful of those people as well.

So those were the ones I could come up with off the top of my head. Have you guys found yourselves in any conversations that made you think, "This would NOT be cool to be talking about back home?"


BilabialBoxing said...

I actually feel like the economy would be an okay topic to talk about in America, perhaps so long as you don't go into the causes for the bad economy. But even then I think just about everybody could commiserate about "Wall Street" or whatever. Everybody thinks they're salt of the earth who got the short end of the stick here.

Derek Blais said...

Yes, Japanese are pretty at ease to speak about bowel movements and "race."

I'd add weight and age to your list. With regards to women, these topics are forbidden in "western" countries.

Hiko said...

As said above by Derek, weight is definitely a topic Japanese talk openly about that is taboo in obesity epidemic plagued western fatty countries.

Another one in my experience, if not so much out in public with anyone, but certainly among peers and friends, is that young Japanese in particular can talk very matter of factly very explicitly about sex. And not just talking in detail about techniques like talking about cooking pancakes, but guys who know each other usually have no qualms talking about and comparing different health and pink salon bars and stuff. Guys here use blow job bars like we use video game centers back home. Took a bit of adjustment at first...

Bobby Judo said...

> Derek ,

Yeah, I hear comments about weight and age a lot more than I did back home.

> Hiko,
REALLY curious as to HOW exactly you went about adjusting...

TM said...

Nice post! As a large guy, I get asked point-blank all the time about my size - weight and height. My college students are also not shy about asking about my dating life - how often I go out, with who, what we do, etc.

Mat Schaffer said...

How about prostitution? It feels a lot easier to say "Hostess club" or "Health" in Japanese than it does to say "Tittie bar" in english.

Anonymous said...

I've noticed these too! When I was a beginner, I remember blushing bright red when I realized that my Japanese language partner was telling me that her son had to poop.

Slight quibble: a transexual man is someone who has transitioned to male. Someone who has transitioned to female, like the entertainers you're talking about, is a woman, not a man, and so is called a transexual woman.

the_greatest_pip said...

Several others have already said weight, and just to add to that, I often hear friends tell each other "ちょっと太ったな" which is something I can't imagine many Americans saying to each other. Oh, also blemishes. Japanese seem to be more prone to point out someone's blemishes to them than Americans.