When I am asked how to tell the difference between Japanese and Chinese, I sometimes answer:
‘In general, Japanese are more self-controlled. They talk less excitedly, speak in lower tone, move their bodies less and do not use many gestures. They usually do not interrupt each other. They seem a rather placid people’. ‘But remember’, I add, ‘this applies to the exterior’. ‘Within, the Japanese may be irritable, nervous, quarrelsome and deeply emotional. It is only that at ordinary times they do not like to show it. Only at exceptional times, when they are really roused, they do show it’.
I sometimes explain that the ordinary word for ‘Excuse me’ in Japanese is shitsurei. Rei means something like a ceremony, orderly and harmonious; shitsu means losing it or breaking it. So the word shitsurei means: ‘I am doing something out of order, breaking the smooth surface conduct which is so important in Japan’.
Of course, such generalizations are made about all nations. It is a curious fact that though there is truth in them, they never seem to apply to the individuals whom the foreigner meets. For instance, before I went to live in Germany in 1935, I had read that Germans speak more loudly than most other nations. So I was prepared to meet verbally booming Germans. But in fact, most of the Germans whom I met in Frankfurt used to speak to me rather quietly. So I thought, ‘Oh, the book was wrong’. I had lived there a little time and noticed that when the Germans spoke to each other, they used a louder voice. At first I thought they were always angry with each other. Then I realized that this was their normal voice. When they spoke to me, they spoke gently and slowly, using simple German so that I could understand easily. I was a special case. The book had been right.
Similarly, we can read that French people are quick to understand. When you talk to a Frenchman, often he will grasp the point of what you are saying, before you have finished your sentence. French people (like Indians) love argument and debate. So he does not want to agree with what you are saying. And before you have finished your sentence, he has understood your meaning and disagrees. He interrupts: ‘Mais non, mais non!’ (But no, but no!) British and Japanese feel that this is rather rude, but other French people do not mind it at all. They enjoy it. Television watching is not so popular in France as in most countries. It is said that this is because one cannot interrupt the television by saying, ‘Mais non, mais non!’
The English too are seen by others as rather strange. A Spaniard once said to me: ‘Your English way of talking is like your English weather—dull with not much sunshine. You use exactly the same voice to talk about a football match as about a terrible earthquake or fire; it’s as though the earthquake or fire is no more important than a football match. Or perhaps a football match is as important to you as an earthquake or fire. You English talking together are like a full orchestra in which only the violas play!’
Similarly, to an Indian, the Japanese way of talking seems rather inexpressive, especially in Kyoto. On the surface at least, it is calm. A British poet, visiting Japan, remarked that the speech of Japanese women with children made him think of the song of small birds: it was so musical.