June 03, 2004

English Etiquette and Japanese Tea

This week's Guardian education supplement features an intriguing little article on an unusual topic: a West London finishing school that offers courses in English manners for students from Japan. The most popular courses, it seems, discuss how the English drink their afternoon tea; a majority of the students are wives of Japanese businessmen who work in London, though some pupils fly to London from Tokyo just to take the class.

Here's the most interesting passage from the article:

There is something deeply incongruous about a Japanese woman teaching Japanese students old-fashioned English traditions and it is hard to work out whether they believe what they are learning is useful or merely interesting. One student tells me she wants to learn how to serve tea to her English teacher, another how to use the Royal Doulton tea set she had collected at home.

Cherry says her interest stems from a fascination with the elegance of a bygone age. "Afternoon tea is about quality of life," she says. "Japanese people always want to do things quicker, make more money. There is no concentration on ceremony. Now, by learning about afternoon tea, we make the event the purpose of the act."

Traditional Japanese tea ceremonies, she says, are now rarely practised in Japan. But it is through a reference to western films that Cherry reveals one of the central, and for us, perhaps most shameful, motivations behind her school.

"In some films, like Lost in Translation, Japanese people are seen as a joke," Cherry smiles. "That's fine, we can laugh at ourselves, but I can teach people how not to be a joke when they come here."

Hailing from a country where there is no word for "sarcasm" and where conformity is something of a cultural tenet, it is unsurprising that there is a market for Cherry's own particular brand of British conventionality.

I found this passage fascinating on a lot of different levels:

  • The movie Lost in Translation won near-universal acclaim from American critics, but I, for one, found the movie's attitude toward the Japanese kind of off-putting. (That's one of the many reasons I thought that Lost in Translation was the most over-rated movie of 2003.) This article is one of the only Western news stories I've seen that make this (remarkably obvious) point, and it's interesting to see how the movie was perceived abroad.
  • When you think of traditions associated with tea, Japan--and not England--is usually the first country that leaps to mind. Is the article correct that the traditional tea ceremony is rarely practiced in Japan? Do the women who study English tea traditions remember the Japanese team ceremony? It would have been nice if the article had pursued these questions.
  • Is it true that Japanese has no word for "sarcasm"? I'm a little skeptical: this statement reminds me of Ronald Reagan's famously erroneous claim that Russian has no word for "freedom." (One rather unreliable site--Altavista's Babel Fish--does give a Japanese translation of the word.) Even if Japanese has no one word precisely identical to "sarcasm" in its meaning and connotations, is there really no roughly analogous concept in Japan? Finally, what does sarcasm have to do with conformity and conventionality? The connections seem rather tenuous to me...

I found the idea behind this article quite interesting, but I wished that its author had been willing to investigate the cultural context of tea in both England and Japan, and hadn't merely done a little straightforward reporting, tossed around a couple of stereotypes, and called it a day.

Posted by Ed at June 3, 2004 08:10 PM


It's a bit hard to imagine what exactly was being taught. The Japanese tea ceremony may be a complex ritual, but English afternoon tea is just, well, tea drinking (or was - don't think many people have it these days). The cup goes on the saucer, you stir with the spoon, don't forget to warm the pot before you put the water in. That's about it, isn't it?

Posted by: Peter Hankins at June 4, 2004 09:57 AM

Here's how the article answers that question:

"It is the tea courses that have proved most popular. I have been invited to attend a one-off afternoon lesson. After learning how to stir tea, the lesson moves on to how to cut a cake. The solid silver cake knife is gripped thus, the students learn, and pushed through the cake in one tidy, tip-first motion. The silver cake slice is inserted under the cake thus. The edge of the knife is then used to transfer the cake gently onto the plate. The cake is passed around the table and each student has a go. "

I'm not saying that I find this answer especially compelling--like you, I can see little point in delving into the minutiae of such a simple activity.

I also found it odd that there seems to be a lot of demand for information on "the traditional English wedding" among Japanese students at this school. But is there anything especially distinctive, or interesting, or attention-worthy about English weddings? (Are they any different from American, French, or German wedding ceremonies, for example?)

I suspect that the answer to this question is that interest in English weddings has nothing to do with their Englishness, or with the distinctiveness of the relevant traditions. In fact, I suspect that the students are interested in _Western_ traditions or activities, which in turn says something about their interest (o lack thereof) in Japanese culture. I wish that the article had spent more time pursuing questions like these.

Posted by: Ed at June 4, 2004 12:01 PM

Yes, I expect you're right. I suppose it's just possible that Japanese institutions translate slightly more easily into an English context than that of most countries. I remember being told about the culture of the Japanese civil service and finding all the allegedly strange features (lingering feudal hang-ups, keen desire to work by consensus, importance of saving face, etc) utterly familiar (I'm an English civil servant myself). But I dare say if these people happened to be in the USA, they'd be studying... whatever the US equivalent of afternoon tea is.

Posted by: Peter Hankins at June 4, 2004 01:43 PM
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