Written by Lorna Shapiro
So in Japanese there are many levels of “politeness” in conversation, and it is very important that a Japanese person use the correct level of politeness for a particular situation. I was travelling with Chisato, a young woman from a small town in the Fukushima prefecture, so she was quite inexperienced in conducting conversations in the level of politeness required in business transactions. Therefore she was more than a little anxious about acting as my translator when I went into a fabric manufacturer’s offices to arrange to purchase some fabric I had decided I had to bring home with me. As we arrived at the office building I could feel the tension oozing out of every pore of her body.
As we entered the manufacturer’s building, the lobby consisted of a broad area of concrete, then a raised area, one step up, where the receptionist sat behind a desk. On this raised area, the floor was covered with tatami mats. Walking in with Chisato, and knowing she was very tense, I decided that I would speak to the receptionist to save Chisato from having to speak straight off. So, since the receptionist was up a step, I walked over towards her desk and stepped up to speak to her.
At this point I heard a hissing “LORNA!!!!” come from Chisato and looked to see her still standing on the concrete, and looking, appalled, at my feet which, as it turns out, were still in shoes. Shoes now firmly planted on a tatami mat!
I did the fastest piece of footwork you’ve ever seen anyone do as I leapt back down to the concrete level, now aware that in offices, as in homes, shoes on tatami mats are strictly taboo. Standing down on the concrete level, I addressed the receptionist who, in a very Japanese manner, completely ignored the fact that anything untoward had just occurred.