Sunday, September 11, 2011

The Japanese Smile; Lafcadio Hearn

Lafcadio Hearn (1850-1904) was an international European writer of Greek origins who grew up in Ireland. He later came to Japan and settled in the local town of Matsue where he married a Japanese woman from a samurai family and became a naturalized Japanese citizen, assuming the Japanese name Koizumi Yakumo (小泉 八雲). His name is well known to the people in this area; Matsue city is a 45 minute drive from Yonago and the closest big city. Hearn is probably its most famous citizen and the Lafcadio Hearn Museum and his old samurai residence are among its biggest attractions. Hearn lived in many countries and wrote on a variety of topics, but is probably most famous for his writings on Japan. Among them, his most famous book is Kwaidan: Stories and Studies of Strange Things, a collection of  Japanese legends and ghost stories. He also wrote an essay entitled, "The Japanese Smile" where he reveals part of the Japanese character;

The Japanese Smile:
"The first impression is, in most cases, wonderfully pleasant. The Japanese smile at first charms. It is only at a later day, when one has observed the same smile under extraordinary circumstances- in moments of pain, shame, disappointment- that one becomes suspicious of it... But the same smile is to be used upon all pleasant occasions, when speaking to a superior or an equal, and even upon occasions which are not pleasant; it is part of deportment. The most agreeable face is the smiling face; and to present always the most agreeable face possible to parents, relatives, teachers, friends, well-wishers, is a rule of life... Even though the heart is breaking, it is a social duty to smile bravely." (From Glimpses of unfamiliar Japan published by Hughton Mifflin Co.)

Here, Hearn refers to the Japanese smile as a form of self-control, rooted in Japanese culture. Smiles to indicate affection, agreement, and sympathy are the same wherever you go. But this smile of self-control is something that puzzles foreigners.

I myself have often seen in Japan, what in America, we call "painted smiles". You see them most often from store clerks or people in business situations. I clearly remember this once from a video store clerk. He was bowing profusely, saying something polite, with this huge Cheshire smile painted on his face. It felt so superficial and false. He didn't know me, he probably didn't like me, he was just going through the motions of his job.However, I don't want to give the impression that all Japanese are like that. I remember the staff at the convenience store I used to always go to. They knew me, I was regular. They were so kind. And you could feel the genuineness of their smiles and service. We also got a lot of little freebies. Japan is a country of contradictions. You see genuine and false smiles everyday.

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