Everything I Know I Learned from Japanese Curry Instructions

I got this in a Japanese supermarket:

back of food mix box

Translation:

How to make soup curry:

Ingredients-
1 packet of soup mix
1 packet of flavorful oil
1 packet of spicy flavoring
80g (3 oz.) of chicken thigh meat cut into bite sized pieces
1/4 medium sized carrot
1/2 medium sized potato (cut in half)
400ml water

1. Boil water in a small pan.  Add chicken, potato, and carrot, cook until vegetables become soft, about 20 minutes on med-low heat.
2. Turn off the heat, add the soup mix and mix thoroughly, turn the heat back on and cook a little longer until the flavor penetrates the meat and vegetables.
3. Pour the flavorful oil onto a plate and pour the finished curry on top.
4. Add a desired amount of the spice flavoring.

the spice flavoring is fairly spicy, so please use caution when adding
please cook the chicken thoroughly before adding the soup mix
-to make a double portion, double the meat and vegetables, and increase water to 700ml.
-the black things in the soup are basil

To make a dish like the picture on the box: Add sauteed japanese eggplant, shimeji mushrooms, green peppers, and hard boiled egg to the dish. Use boned chicken meat.

How to eat: Using a spoon, scoop rice and add a small amount of curry to the spoon.  Please keep the curry and rice in separate dishes to prevent the rice from getting soggy.

Caution: Please use the entire contents of the packets after opening.  Cannot be preserved for later use.

I have bolded the interesting parts: 1. The use of please. 2. The explanation (“the spice flavoring is fairly spicy”). You won’t find them in the instructions on most American products. I became aware of this aspect of Japanese life when I read T. R. Reid’s wonderful book Confucius Lives Next Door: What Living in the East Teaches Us about Living in the West, which was based on six years Reid spent in Japan as a correspondent for the Washington Post. At one point Reid quoted from a sign in a park. The sign had a list of prohibitions: No littering, no music, and so on. But instead of saying, as an American sign would, “no littering”, the sign said something like: “So that others can enjoy the beauty of the park, please put your litter in the proper receptacle.”

A few years ago I taught a class called Psychology and the Real World in which students did some sort of off-campus work of their choosing. (An example of my teaching philosophy.) One student volunteered in a hospital. One day he told a story about being treated rudely by a nurse. I said, yeah, we live in a pretty rude culture. Japan is different, I said, and told the class about Reid’s Japanese park signs.

My student was impressed. He had a part-time job monitoring parking in front of a San Francisco hotel. People would often try to park in an area that needed to be kept clear and it was his job to get them to move. His method — pre-Reid — had been to go over to the offending car and say “sorry, you can’t park here.” Post-Reid, he was elaborately polite: “Please forgive me for disturbing you, but we need to keep this area clear so that taxis can pick up and drop off passengers. I’m sorry for inconveniencing you, but would you be kind enough to move your car?” Something like that. Pre-Reid, about half the time the driver would argue or cause some sort of difficulty. Post-Reid, there were no problems.

Thanks to Pearl Alexander.

5 Replies to “Everything I Know I Learned from Japanese Curry Instructions”

  1. Interesting. I noticed the polite nature of public signs in use in Hong Kong. Since the signs are all written in both Chinese and English, I wasn’t sure whether it was Chinese politeness or British politeness (or both). The British also seem to be more polite in these matters, too. Perhaps its the tea (as opposed to coffee drinking Americans who are more direct and gruff).

  2. Some of those things might be so formulaic as to have lost their politeness in the original language. I stayed with a French family as an exchange student. Their daughter had missed a few days of elementary school to go to the doctor. They received a letter from the school that started “I have the honor to inform you that your daughter, Sophie, has missed three days of school…” They said “I have the honor to inform you…” is just how the school starts all letters.

    I’m a technical writer now. We routinely edit out any words like “please”…the goal is to make the prose as squeaky clean as possible. People read documentation as a last resort anyway. We figure extra words waste their time.

  3. Maybe we should slap emoticons on street signs.

    No Parking 🙂

    On a related note, some phrases in English strike me as formally polite, but are often aggressively used. “Excuse me?” “Do you mind?” “Thanks a lot.”

  4. Japanese grammar has a lot of do with it…There are basically 4 different levels of formality (1-you absolutely better not park here, 2-don’t park here, 3-please don’t park here, 4-you are higher on the social scale than me, and I beg you, please don’t park here and you can even go higher than 4 in some cases). Level 3 the default.

    Level 1 is reserved for when you intend to scold someone. It’s often heard when you have cranky mother punishing a kid. Otherwise, it’s usually the stuff of movies and comic books. The rest are pretty polite and going from 2-3 is really simple (1 word tacked on the end) so most people do it out of instinct. In English we usually stick please on the front end as if we’re explicitly trying to be nice about it. For Japanese, everyone just tacks it on the end.

    Anyway, I’d be curious to see how this compares with the stuff in Robert Cialdini’s books on influence. He cites research that if you can give a reason (even an illogicial one) for anything it’s much more effective than having no reason. So “No parking” fares much worse than “No parking because it’s not allowed.”

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