Japan is an exotic place, a land of endless wonders for those of us from the West. While some may think of the general fascination with the country as a “new” thing — I always considered the 1978 release of Space Invaders as “the point when everything cool started flowing from Japan” — of course this phenomenon is really not new at all. When I visited the Van Gogh museum in Amsterdam, I was surprised to see a body of the painter’s works that were re-creations of famous ukiyo-e paintings from Japan (his “Japonaiserie” period around 1880), something I had not known about previously. The idea of Europeans of the late 19th century falling in love with Japan and trying to puzzle out what kanji characters might mean just like modern fans attending an anime convention is fascinating to me.
Still, because Japan is so different from America and Europe, it’s natural that confusion should arise when foreigners see things that aren’t familiar to us, and sometimes these misunderstandings can be amusing. When I first came to Japan I thought those small bamboo ear cleaners called mimikaki were tea scoops used during tea ceremony, which caused hilarious laughter by my girlfriend at the time. In Firefly there’s a scene in which the character Inara gives herself a sponge bath using a lacquered bucket that looks sufficiently Asian for the show’s setting…but it’s actually a sushi-oke, a round tray for serving sushi, and you’d never use one to wash yourself. There’s another type of sushi tray called a kiri that looks enough like a wooden geta sandal to cause confusion among foreigners, who may wonder why they’re eating off a wooden shoe. Of course, there’s plenty of potential for Japanese to make cultural errors when in the U.S., too. Japanese baths always have a tiled area outside the tub where is where you wash yourself before getting in, and every once in a while you hear of a Japanese student attempting to do this in the U.S., splashing buckets of water over their body to get clean before getting into the bath.
It’s easy to get confused about what you see in Japan.