4 on Top, 2 on the Side

About 20 years ago I read a story about an American couple in Japan. They wanted to go from one city to another and went to a travel agent. They asked how much the flight cost. The travel agent said the train is much cheaper. They said they wanted to fly. The travel agent said the train was very scenic. They said they wanted to fly. The travel agent said the train was very fast. The couple got frustrated and walked out.

They later learned there was no flight between the two cities.

This highlighted a key element of Japanese culture that Americans do not get. The Japanese do not like to say no. Anyone with any clue of Japanese culture would have realized that the travel agent was doing his best to say, “dude, there’s no flight, take the train”.

It would have helped me if I had read that story a few years early. I spent 9 months in Japan in the early nineties with Ringling Brothers. We were in Osaka, where English speakers (at least back then) were not so common. I had found a place to get a haircut with a young guy who spoke some English. When you work with the circus, days off are few and far between so one there was one day I needed to get a haircut. The place was quiet with only one woman working there. She didn’t speak English. I did the universal two finger sign language for haircut. She didn’t seem to understand. Being American, I simply tried again. She waved me into a barber chair and cut my hair.

It was a total butcher job. I had to go back to the place the next day and get my regular guy to fix it (resulting in the shortest haircut of my life).

If you are paying attention, you’ve probably figured out what happened. She wasn’t a barber. The place was closed and she was cleaning. But she couldn’t say no to me.

I haven’t thought of this story in many years, but today I walked into my regular barber shop, which is primarily Russian. And when I sat down and explained my very simple haircut, she looked confused and called out in Russian.

Thankfully, she was really a barber and her boss clarified what I said. My haircut was fine…


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