About 10 days ago or so, we moved just up the street. You wouldn’t think that would be a big deal, but it was– packing up 5 people, 6 years worth of hand-me-downs for the kids, a kitchen, an office… all while keeping things running was more of a challenge than I anticipated.
The last time we moved, we were 3 (and none in school) and weren’t trying to keep our work running in the middle of the move.
I also didn’t get horrendously sick with a severe allergic reaction to the dust stirred up… but that’s a whole other story!
Anyway, one of the first things you do when you move in Japan is “Aisatsu” [Eye-sah-tsu], which is your formal greeting and introduction.
Getting aisatsu right is very, very important in Japanese culture. You always greet the people you know and respond to greetings. Of course, this is common anywhere, but in Japan it takes on a greater and more pronounced importance. It’s taught and stressed from preschool age and expected as you grow older.
I worked in the public school here teaching English for a couple of years, when I’d go into the teachers workroom where everyone gathered in the morning, it seemed like an unending chorus of “good morning’s” for a good 15-20 minutes. Even walking down the hall, you never passed in silence.
As a foreigner, it was almost tiring and overwhelming to do this so regularly.
However, it’s so important. After a while, you really notice and even feel it personally when someone does not do aisatsu for whatever reason.
We lived in the same neighborhood and frequently passed the house we planned to move into. So, being foreigners in the community, people recognized us already. And, because we had visited the house a few times, people already guessed that we’d be likely moving in.
As I saw neighbors out hanging laundry or moving around, I’d see them sneak glances at us.
But no contact, no friendly smile, no anything.
Until, that is, we performed our “aisatsu”.
In America, you offer a welcome (or used to be a meal) to the newcomer. However, in Japan, it’s traditional that when you move in, you (the newcomer) give a gift to your new neighbors (even in apartment complexes). You are entering a new group, a new community, and you ask for favor from them.
It doesn’t need to be a very big gift– usually between $5 and $10 per family, but very nicely wrapped and presentable. Typically, you’d give a gift of something useful– a hand towel set, even sometimes a nice saran wrap bundle. We opted for some nice liquid soap and a simple towel, all cutely bundled and wrapped.
Usually, you’ll give a gift to the people next to, in front of and behind you (or above and below, in the case of an apartment). These are the people you’ll see the most.
When we did ours, we introduced ourselves, told them we had just moved in, apologized in advance for any inconvenience and that we would probably disturb them with having 3 small children, and asked for their favor.
They were SO kind! (Of course, this is how it’s supposed to be)… but they really were very friendly and we chitchatted a lot with most of the neighbors.
We live next door to the longest-standing member of the group (the “sempai”- who is higher/est in rank), and she gave us the names and details of everyone in our “official group”– those of us who share a trash spot. She’s even planning to make us her famous pancakes and introduce us to her granddaughter who studies English in college.
We welcome the opportunity to develop these relationships.
Anyway, now we always smile, nod and sometimes chitchat from across the way every time we see one another. It creates a nice friendly atmosphere, and we try to make the most of that as their resident Americans.
It really is amazing what a good and careful aisatsu can do… and just as important to maintain the care of your relationships in Japan.