Book review: Etiquette Guide to Japan (by Boye Lafayette De Mente )

By | October 25, 2015

When studying a foreign language on your own, it’s easy to get fixated on linguistic things like vocabulary, grammar, and pronunciation, because those are your fast-track to being able to actually communicate in that language. But without the well-structured program of a formal class, you may be missing out on some areas like cultural practices and etiquette which are very important to be able to live within a society that speaks that language.

For me personally, I definitely a have blind spot regarding Japanese culture, and this is one of the reasons I decided to check out Boye Lafette De Mente’s book “Etiquette Guide to Japan”. I read the third edition which was edited by Geoff Botting, and came out less than two months ago from Tuttle Publishing, in September 2015. The original edition was written 25 years ago in 1990!

Overall I really enjoyed this book and learned a great deal about Japanese culture, including many things I probably should have learned years back but never got around to it. There is a whopping 40 chapters on nearly everything you can think of, from dining etiquette, dating, wedding customs, and even a few chapters about business and the workplace. Each chapter is very short (most are around 2-5 pages), which increases readability and adds the convenience of being able to finish a chapter even for those who read in short bursts due to limited time.

The material is, for most part, very well-written and researched, which is not surprising given the extensive experience of both the author and the editor. De Mente has been involved with Japan since the late 1940s, and was one of the first people to introduce many Japanese terms to the west, including words like “wabi-sabi” and “kaizen”. Botting, the editor, is a journalist who has lived in Japan for over 25 years. Both of them have authored or co-authored several other books about Japan. After only 40-50 pages, it was already clear these guys had a great grasp of Japan and it’s culture, so I decided to just sit back and enjoy the ride, worrying little about mistakes. Their writing exemplifies a certain type of professionalism which is absent in many informal blogs on Japanese culture.

My favorite part about this guide is that the author connects many of the current customs to Japan’s history, going back decades if not hundreds of years. He acknowledges these cultural traditions have been evolving at an increasing pace, and in one place even states that should you ask a Japanese friend to learn the right thing to do in a certain situation.

I hate to be picky about a book that has so many strong points, but there was one major thing that bugged me about this work, and a few other minor ones. If you’ve read some of my other reviews you might see this first one coming –  several problems with the notes on Japanese language in the book. Here is list of some of the Japanese-related problems I found in the book.

  • In the Japanese language notes (starting on Pg. 8):
    • “-e” ending sounds are described using english words that end with “-y”. For example “se” is pronounced as “say”. This is a good rough approximation, but to my ears ends up more like “sei”, due to both the length and the fact that “y” words have a vowel sound that changes near the end.
    • For description on combined syllables, it says to run the syllables together, and yet uses notation like “re-yuu”, which is a bit confusing to me (why not just say ‘ryuu’?). Furthermore, I feel that using the word “Beulah” isn’t the best choice for a pronunciation example. It may be familiar to a certain generation, but I’ve never seen it before and didn’t know it’s proper pronunciation in English.
    • Even though it says on page 12 that low vowels are indicated by a straight line above the letter, this convention is not followed for several words (for example, page.99 has “shogatsu” without a line above the “o”)
    • There is no mention about the small “tsu” (that effectively creates a pause in a word), even though some of the words use it (i.e. Appuru on page 186). Nonetheless, “Bread” is written as buredo (It should be bureddo, though I don’t think this is a very common loanword).
  • There are several places where a word’s pronunciation is blatantly incorrect. For example, “haiden” (from 拝殿) is said to sound as “hi-dane” (pg. 126), whereas this should have been something like “hi-den”. Pronouncing “hi-dane” normally would lead to something like “haidein“, no matter how fast you say it. Also, “matsuri” is written with two different sounds on the same page (pg.101): one correct (“mot-sue-ree”) and one incorrect (“mot-sue-re”). Pg. 186 also lists denshi (“den-shee”) for battery, which should have been denchi.
  • Pg. 133 recommends westerners learn the word “yugen” (referring to 幽玄) to mean something like “mystery” in reference to Japanese things such as arts and religion. However when I asked a Japanese person about this, she said this word is not common and quite old-fashioned, and didn’t recommend to use this word with Japanese people.

I’ll admit that some of these criticisms are minor and a few have a subjective element. But overall I feel this many problems should not be present, especially in a book in it’s 3rd edition. Please note that in pointing out these errors, I am not suggesting anything about the authors, who I am sure could run circles around me in terms of Japanese language and culture. These just reflect careless mistakes, and a focus on what is most important: the culture itself, which they have done a superb job describing.

On to the minor complaints. First, given the experience of the authors I think this book could be made a bit longer (again considering it is a third edition). After all there is less than 200 pages. Although the book bills itself as being a guide on etiquette, in reality a part of the book focuses on history (related to etiquette, which is fine), and other topics that are very loosely related (“people watching”, “arts & crafts”, etc.). I’d prefer either removing the non-etiquette chapters and adding a bit more content about etiquette, or changing the title (or subtitle) to reflect the broad stance taken.

Another somewhat minor point: a large part of the book is written from a neutral stance, but the more I read through the more I felt the author’s bias towards Japan, with expressions like “Japanese are the best at this”, or “Japanese logical thinking is evident in that”. To be honest, I think it’s almost impossible for someone who knows a country this well to write without any bias, and in a way his subjective opinion is educational in it’s own way. So I guess I can’t really count this against the book.

Finally –  and this one is really minor – I found it confusing that the book’s correct publishing date didn’t appear to be listed anywhere. I checked both the front and back covers several times, but the only dates I found were 2008 and 1990. While reading, I stumbled on a chapter that referred to 2013 after which I did a double take, and looked up the book online to find out the date for the 3rd edition is supposedly 2015. So I guess it’s just a minor printing/editorial mistake that this was omitted from the book itself (or it’s hidden somewhere where I haven’t been able to find it).

So in summary, despite all the nitpicks I have towards this book, it’s a great read and highly recommended to anyone, except those who have lived in Japan for an extended time. My biggest issue (the Japanese language mistakes) is ultimately mostly irrelevant because nobody is going to become fluent from reading this book. Eventually they will study with a proper textbook and discover these mistakes themselves.

It’s pretty easy to find this book, and you can get it at the usual places like Amazon or Barnes & Noble, in both print and digital forms. It’s a great deal at under $10. Here is another review of a book on Japanese design by the same publisher.


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