Readers in Council,
The Japan Times,
5-4, Shibaura 4-chome,
Minato-ku, Tokyo 108-0023
I must conclude that “Name Withheld” of Yamagata (“Abuse of bathhouse privileges”) is a Japanese because of the almost typically Japanese abuse of the idiom “When in Rome, do as the Romans do.” It sounds as if he/she is repeating from rote memory some English idiom taught long ago in a junior high school English textbook approved by the education ministry. It is almost typical to hear Japanese use English idioms incorrectly or out of context; just as it is typical to see English words and phrases horribly splashed on clothing and advertising, both misspelled and incorrect, in the name of fashion. The effect is to create a feeling of strangeness. Of course, foreigners are probably a lot worse in the way they abuse Japanese.
Among Japanese there seems to be no critical thought devoted to what this saying about Romans means - about its moral and ethical implications in addition to its behavioral implications. I feel I have no duty whatsoever to do as the Romans do when I am in Rome if I perceive with my natural intelligence that what the Romans are doing is objectively wrong, immoral, criminal or just plain stupid.
How would Name Withheld prefer foreigners in Japan to act? We could spit, vomit and urinate in the streets. Or, we could drive our cards through red traffic lights. We could smoke in the clearly marked nonsmoking areas. We could advocate and practice proactive racism, or we could steal a lot of umbrellas and bicycles. Would that make Name Withheld happy? I think not. I suggest, when in Rome, be intelligent, observe, and try to be cool and low key.
Published Sunday, December 8, 2002 as “Strange use of an English diom.”
The matter of barring foreigners from public bathhouses came to a head in the Hokkaido town of Otaru which banned Russian sailors for etiquette violations. It raises the whole question of the propriety and validity of Japan’s continuing disposition to use corporate, or group accountability to deal with problems, rather than treating each case individually. Foreigners quickly get heated on the subject and are quick to shout “Fascism!” Japanese do a poor job of addressing that charge. Instead, they revert to their rhetorical technique of simply repeating their position without building up to it with a succession of logical points, the way many Westerners would do.
The English idiom “when in Rome do as the Romans do” is one of those pithy little things learned in a junior or senior high school English textbook. It appeals to the Japanese fetish for law, rules and obedience and it does not occur to Japanese that it can be said that we have a moral obligation to disobey, or at least to ignore stupid rules and laws. Again, I think the idea that the purpose of the law is to serve people, not the other way around does not commonly occur to Japanese.