June 12, 2004
The high price of melons

(Digging through my older writing, I’ve found some essays written for the mailng list that was a precursor to my weblog. For my long-time fan (yes, Mom, I mean you) the next few entries may be familiar. This one was written in June 2000.)

Have you ever bought a $30 cantaloupe?

Expensive melons are given as gifts in Japan. I might have selected another item to present, some French cookies perhaps or a decorative tin of seasonal tea, but the melon seemed appropriate. Tod & I, melon-headed Americans, had to pay a formal call on a neighbor who we had inadvertently upset.

It all started three weeks ago. The imminent arrival of my sister and her family spurred us to take on some tasks we’d left undone when we moved in in February. We bought a low, Japanese-style dining table and zabuton cushions to sit on. I finally moved my office a few feet vertically and set it up on a desk instead of the floor. And we took the initiative to build a deck on top of the triangular patch of mud and weeds that sits outside our living room and dining room.

A bilingual carpenter friend constructed the deck while we were away from Tokyo for a week. We had the fun of arranging the work with Eddy, leaving for Singapore, and returning to find a beautiful deck. We celebrated by painting the outdoor table and chairs.

It was when I was struggling to move the table back onto the deck that I had a hint things might be a bit touchy. Our table is wooden and lightweight, but tricky to squeeze through the narrow funnel of space between our house and the house next door. I’ve done it before, but this time I slipped and bumped the neighbors’ kitchen wall. Just a tap, nothing damaging. I didn’t even ding the new paint on the table.

But the neighbor, a balding Japanese man in his 50s, came out and complained. He didn’t yell, of course, but he looked at me and pointed to the table, then the wall and said “Don don” indicating the noise I’d caused. I apologized as well as I could considering I was still holding the table and he went away. I gave up on moving the table and when Tod arrived home from work, we successfully and silently put the table on the deck together.

Two days later, our carpenter’s wife gave me a call. “How’s the deck?” she began. I told her how much we were enjoying it and she launched into a story. “I think you may have a little problem…the noise from the construction upset your neighbors. A man came over and complained about Eddy’s saw. And he said he wants a fence put up between your house and his. He wasn’t very nice about it at all. I think you ought to know this because the Japanese will never complain to you, but they will go directly to your landlord. I know you don’t want to have any of that sort of trouble,” she warned. I agreed, thanked her for the warning, and started to fret.

What should we do? An apology was certainly in order. But my Japanese isn’t capable of much more than simple conversation, much less the rigorous grammar of a formal letter of apology! Miss Manners has nothing on the masters of Japanese etiquette, let me tell you.

There are numerous social protocols in Japanese life. We know some of them—how and when to bow, how introductions are made, when to refill someone’s glass—but our experience is limited by the casual social situations we’ve been involved in. Most of our Japanese friends have traveled and have international attitudes so they just laugh at (or are only slightly embarrassed by) our social gaffes. But a formal apology doesn’t leave much room for error. Screw it up and we could find ourselves alienated for a long time.

So we enlisted some assistance. Tod polled his office colleagues for advice. “Ah, you must begin with some set paragraphs about the weather and the season of the year before discussing the problem and apologizing,” suggested one woman. “Take them a gift,” said another. Two men on Tod’s work team wrote up sample apology letters.

I decided that I was not going to apologize alone; we needed to present a united front. I waited for a day when Tod would be home. Jenn & her husband & daughter arrived from America on Friday night. Saturday we went to the zoo. Sunday was The Day.

I sketched a little card and pasted in the letter that Koki wrote. It was brief and to the point—perhaps that was not in its favor it as didn’t chat about the weather but we understood what it said and it seemed profusely apologetic.

“Recently, the noise and dust from the construction at our house must have been very annoying. We have no excuse; we are extremely sorry.

“However, the construction is not finished yet. Before long, we plan to build a fence along the front of our house and between your house and ours.

“It will be very annoying, I think, but please bear with us. We appreciate your continued patience and goodwill.”

Message complete, my sister and I walked to the fruit shop and selected a melon from the gift shelf. The prices ranged from 1800 yen to 8000 yen ($18 - $80). I picked a beautifully round, ripe, evenly veined cantaloupe with a stem sticking off the top. The fruit shop man boxed it and gift wrapped it for me then placed it carefully in a shiny white shopping bag. It was lovely.

Armed with the right tools, we were ready. Tod wanted a few more minutes to procrastinate, but I insisted that we had to do this before my courage gave out. We had the letter and the gift. But how were we supposed to deliver it?

“We could drop it on the doorstep and run,” Tod suggested.

Good idea, certainly easy to execute, but maybe not as neighborly as we ought to be. We abandoned the thought and walked out to the street. Immediately we got lost trying to find the door to the apartment. There is a clothing shop out front (Sendagi Yashima—Sporty & Casual) and Tod noticed a door to the left. But the door leads into a small entryway with mailboxes and a staircase up to the second floor. No first floor apartment.

We dithered out front for a few minutes while we decided what to do. We even looked at the side of the building near our house to determine that there was, indeed, living space back there. The way in, we concluded, must be at the back of the shop. So we entered the shop and looked around.

Outfits of iridescent pastels and bright summery knits designed for bulky older women hung on hangers lining the walls of the shop floor to ceiling. Behind the outfits, I glimpsed plastic-wrapped stock piled on shelves. A center island displayed scarves and accessories—patterns and colors jumbled into an undefined mass. Floor space was limited to the area created by moving two racks of sale items to the outside of the shop. It was tiny and cramped.

And empty. “Oh, no,” we conferred. “Now what?” We called out a cheery “Sumimasen!” to alert someone to our presence. A woman came out through a hidden doorway. She wiped her hands on her apron as Tod asked “Excuse me, but do you live here?” She looked at him, then at me and called for her husband.

The balding man I’d met the other day appeared. Tod, his shaking hands betraying his nervousness, introduced us both and explained that we lived next door. “Our Japanese isn’t very good”, he said, “so we asked a friend to help us write this. Please read it,” He extracted the card with Koki’s letter.

The man read the note, then he lead us outside. He pointed to the deck, to his wall, to the deck again. He said that the deck was too close to his house—it was on his property (by about 2 inches, I think!). We’d have to fix that. He asked us where we were from—actually he guessed we were American (our reputation precedes us, I fear). He talked to us about the fence and mentioned our landlord. Unfortunately, I didn’t entirely understand what he said. Then we handed him our gift, awkwardly thanked him and it was over.

We don’t know if we did it right or not. He never gave us his name…maybe it’s Yashima, like the store name, and he assumed we’d know. Or maybe he was snubbing us. I am too dense to recognize a snub in Japanese culture. He tried to speak English with us—a word here or there when he knew one and we looked lost. We walked away with mixed signals and uncertainty.

Since we handed over our gift and apology we haven’t seen him or his wife. No more complaints, but no greetings either. I guess time will tell which side of the fence we’re on. We will tread lightly and be prepared to buy more melons as necessary.

Posted by kuri at June 12, 2004 01:17 PM


Yes, I remember the melon story. I admit to retelling it often. It is such a good example of cultural difference. I think of how undervalued cantaloupe is/are here. Think - Local Lopes 2 for $1 on roadside stands at the melon’s peak season. I am amused every year at the varied spellings cantaloupe gets on handwritten signs.
Cantalope, cantaloupe, cantalupe, cantelope…

Thanks for retelling your story.

Faithful Reader

Posted by: fran on June 12, 2004 09:18 PM

That must have been before Tod took all those steroids, got huge, and started trying to pick fights with everybody. Amazing how different Tod was before the ‘roids!

Posted by: ultrabob on June 13, 2004 07:20 PM
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