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Etiquette

By Sara Aoyama

Last spring I left my little town in Vermont to take a trip to New York City. This is always an eye opener for me, as I rarely leave Vermont. But this time the most interesting thing I saw was just half an hour down the highway where we stopped for lunch.

First of all, I was really surprised to see that you can now get Kentucky Fried Chicken, Taco Bell, and Pizza Hut all in one restaurant, though my jaded kids just laughed at me for not knowing this. No more family arguments about where to stop for lunch. Everyone can get what they want. Sometimes this worries me. How are people ever going to learn to compromise and have empathy, when we get so many choices that we don't even need to consider whether the needs of others are being met or not? But this is probably a bit too philosophical a thought for one fast-food lunch on the road.

So, two of us had pizza and one of us had chicken. Anxious to get back on the road, I picked up the tray with the empty cups on it while the others were still eating, and brought it over to the trash can. I pushed open the swinging lid with one hand and dumped it in. Immediately the trash can said politely, "Thank you for disposing your trash." I almost jumped a foot in the air!

I went back to the table, where everyone was now finished eating, and told them to throw away their trash. My son headed for a different trash can, with me hot on his heels, but he veered away from it when a note on it said "Out of order." At the time, it didn't really strike me as odd, but how does a trash can get "out of order"? Only if it talks, I guess!

My kids dumped in their trash and got the same polite thank you in response. They laughed, but didn't seemed all that impressed. Wondering if I was once again behind the times, I asked if they'd ever heard a trash can say thank you before. They hadn't. And in fact, I asked almost everyone I met in New York City if they'd ever seen a talking trash can. They hadn't either. But nobody thought it was such a big deal.

Maybe it is a sign that I am getting old, but that trash can really stayed in my mind. And it made me think about etiquette. Because I had to fight an urge to bow to the trash can, and almost murmured "you're welcome" in reply.

This thought reminded me of being in Japan and seeing people bow while speaking on the phone, or to the ATM for its service, or to the back of a departing client. In none of these cases is the bow seen or perceived. And neither is the bow I do to the makiwara in my dojo after using it. It makes me realize that etiquette is not necessarily for the other party, but is really for us, maybe to keep us mindful of others and appreciative of the tools around us. This is not a new idea; in Japan there are kuyo (requiem services) for inanimate objects, such as the ceremony for broken sewing needles. It is usually done once a year at a temple, and is to express thanks to the needles. After honoring them for their long and faithful service, they are then put to rest in a block of tofu, wrapped in paper, and taken to the sea for burial.

It strikes me that etiquette in the martial arts can also be for others as well as for ourselves. And it is a good source of amusement to me, that a talking trash can reminded me of this. I guess a bow back to the talking trash can might not have been inappropriate after all.

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About The Author

Sara Aoyama is a 1974 graduate of the University of Kansas, majoring in Japanese Language and Literature. She spent over twelve years living in Japan where she dabbled in a number of other Arts such as Ikebana (flower arranging), Cooking, and Shamisen. While living in Kyoto, she was able to see many hidden aspects of Japanese society. Currently she lives in Brattleboro, Vermont where she started training in Shorin-ryu Karate at the Brattleboro School of Budo in May, 1998 after watching her son train for three years. She is a free lances as a Japanese-English translator. Most recently, she translated "The Art of Lying" by Kazuo Sakai, MD.


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