Robert & Roberta Adair

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Yesterday before a meeting at church, someone mentioned how doors are left open in America.  For instance, to show that the bathroom is empty, the door is cracked open.  If the door is shut, it’s occupied.  In Japan (from what I understand), if there are slippers outside the door, it’s occupied.  Or if the light is on (light switches are outside the room), don’t go a-knockin’.  But the door is always shut.

Someone then asked me what I thought about doors being shut in Japan.  Wow, this question really touched a nerve.  I got a bit huffy in the meeting and have been thinking about it a lot over the last day or so.  The truth is…I don’t like it.

For two months after I arrived at our church, the door to the office (where 3-5 people work) was always shut.  I never went in.  I was also never invited in.  Part of me realized it was a work space; part of me felt like it was a closed space.  I now poke in occasionally, but it’s still awkward.  (obvious reason being that it’s not my work space.  There aren’t too many reasons why I need to be in there.)

I totally recognize that I’m writing (and thinking and reacting) from a very American perspective.  But, from this perspective: Closed door = unwelcome.  Open door = welcome.  Closed door = we’re working; please don’t bother us.  Open door = we’re working, but you’re welcome to pop in and say hi.  Open door = hospitality, warmth, openness.  Closed door = (you get the picture).

While I realize that Japanese people have totally different ways of viewing doors (oh!  And I get the let’s-keep-the-heat-in thing), I perceive it really differently.  And it’s not just an office door.  It’s how closed peoples’ homes (and lives) are to outsiders.  It’s me trying awkwardly to say hi to two people I know and having them literally turn their backs to me (no exaggeration).  It’s the feeling of being totally ignored – something I feel weekly (whether being the one feeling ignored or perceiving that someone else is being ignored.  Both make me a bit crazy).  It’s…wow, I have a lot of examples running through my head, but I want to write and not rant about this.

“Tohoku people are shy.”  I have heard this statement a lot.  And I respond with…”with a few exceptions, no kidding.”

I recognize that there are lots of things at play here (stuff relating to in-group and out-group, me assigning the wrong meaning to a situation, honor and respect trumping “fu-ren-do-ri”-ness (friendliness), and uncertainty avoidance to name a few).  And, wow, there are a ton of things about Japanese culture that are really amazing.  For real.

But closed doors, in my opinion, is not one of them.

[ok – now for question time, which I should do at the beginning instead of as a tag-on at the end.  Is this issue important to address?  Do Japanese people feel as left out and outside as I often do – including (perhaps especially) at church?  To what extent does my lack of language and my white face affect my experience/perception?  As hospitality is a biblical command, how do Japanese people show it?  How is my definition of what it means to be hospitable American versus Biblical?  Is it American or Christian to want to see visitors warmly welcomed (and who gets to define "warmly")?  How can I ask questions without sounding/being self-righteous and critical?  Are there things about doors in Japan I should know about? ;)  ]

Roberta Adair

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