Chapter 1: Japanese Ettiquette and Soap Operas

Bel Canto had quite a dramatic opening and Chapter One did not disappoint. It surprised me at how quickly the events progressed in the first chapter. It began with a lovely party, gathering some of the world’s wealthy people for an evening of mingling, an abundance of food, enjoying the presence of opera’s renowned Roxanne Coss. Yet, it turned into an alarming invasion by a group of rebels.

The first chapter introduces Mr. Hosokawa to the readers as a highly sought-after, successful businessman with a love for opera music and great admirer of its great performers. He seems to be a simple man following his desire to keep reliving what he experienced as “true life” as a child when he saw his first opera. We also meet his translator, Gen Watanabe, well versed in numerous languages. His fluency in Spanish will be quite useful during the hostage crisis when communicating or negotiating with the rebels. I believe that language may become an integral part of this book because the party consists of a collection of guests from different parts of the world and this ordeal would compel them to later depend on each other. I predict that Gen will hold a very important role in acting as a peace-keeper between all the international guests and rebels. If he hadn’t interfered when the rebels mistook Mr. Hosokawa for President Masuda, confusion would have ensued.

The presence of the Japanese and their customs triggered my interest. I love how subtle Ann Patchett inserts particular gestures or behaviors for the Japanese to express themselves nonverbally.  I think it is important to understand their behaviors because it would contribute to the characters’ development and better explain the actions of the main characters.

I learned that the Japanese consider it rude and uncomfortable to make eye contact.1 We see this behavior in the chapter when Gen makes direct eye contact with Mr. Hosokawa and in return, Mr. Hosokawa feels uncomfortable and quickly looks away. This kind of social behavior gives me the assumption that when the characters in the book kissed, the Japanese action of averting their eyes not only shows that they thought it was rude to keep looking but that it is also respectful behavior not to intrude in such an intimate moment. I also found other interesting things that they found rude, such as excessive physical contact, pointing, blowing your nose.1 These are behaviors that I see all the time and consider normal here in America. I wouldn’t look back and wonder if the person near me must have thought it was rude or annoying.

Bowing is also explained as an essential in Japanese society. We see Gen bowing first to Mr. Hosokawa then bowing less deeply to the associates accompanying him when greeting them at the airport. In comparison, Mr. Hosokawa only bows from his neck and upper shoulder. Bowing has many different meanings behind it, as it is often used to express gratitude or apology and to show respect.1 The degree with which one bows depends on the status of the person they are bowing to. Depending on the situation, a bow must be done with the correct depth and length of time it is held.2 For example, it is proper etiquette to greet your superiors with a deep, slow bow to show utmost respect. The longer and deeper the bow is, the more respect you express.3 This is used for people with higher status. Status or economical standing seems to be a significant theme in this book. Amidst all the luxurious foods, decorations, and entertainment organized for this event, it should be remembered that this party is being held in one of South America’s poorer countries. They are in desperate need of change, enough to vie for Mr. Hosokawa’s attention by holding an expensive party in order to bring more industry and business into their country. They hope that with cheap labor, the taint of drug trafficking would lessen and improve their economical status. This situation would be comparable to the country of South America bowing to Japan for a helping hand.

It’s ironic how all their planning fell apart when the most important person they needed to capture, President Masuda, was not even present at the party. The reason behind his absence infers negligence which the people at the party, especially the rebels, did not expect. I believe that the soap opera being referred to in this chapter is Maria la del Barrio. It was a very popular Spanish telenovela showing between 1995-1996.4 The hostage crisis that inspired Ann Patchett to write this book occurred in from Dec 1996-1997 5 so it is easy to assume that this is the same show that President Masuda obsessed over. I have seen a Filipino remake of this soap opera and it shows how a girl from poverty finds herself in the world of the wealthy. 6 I can see why it is such a popular show because most of its viewers can relate to how she lived in poverty, but because of her hard work and perseverance, they root for her to succeed. She stood for the hope that one can climb the social ladder and that they are not held down by conditions they were born into.

Hannah Celemen

Works Cited:

  1. http://sharonpluralism.org/cultural-protocols/japanese-culture/
  2. http://www.shitoryu.org/heritage/bowing.htm
  3. http://www.jnto.go.jp/eng/indepth/exotic/lifestyle/bow.html
  4. http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0163464/
  5. http://www.cnn.com/WORLD/9704/22/peru.update.late/
  6. http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0163464/plotsummary
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3 thoughts on “Chapter 1: Japanese Ettiquette and Soap Operas

  1. Michael Pedersen says:

    Very intriguing look at the role of body language in the book. This was something that totally flew over my head when I first read over this section, very interesting.

    I can’t help but wonder, since these subtle, nonverbal, gestures you mention were a deliberate choice by Ann Patchett to emphasize the culture that came to shape Mr. Hosokawa, the inverse might also be true. The host government themselves, as embodied by the Vice President, have been shown throughout the chapter as waiving their own culture in order to accommodate the culture of their guests. They cleared the local forest and trimmed the garden to make the lawn immaculate just for the short distance from the cars to the door that the guests had to walk. From this perspective you could say that the country has no backbone to bow with. They even forwent any local music at the party and instead let Roxanne Coss be the only musical event of the evening.

    This lack of culturally defining features of the host country might serve as a way to further obfuscate the real world country the party is actually taking place. It may even be a way to express the desperation that has clouded the vision of the leaders of this country. You take note in your post how the soap opera the President is watching is about a girl’s rags to riches story. In some ways this opera expresses the idealistic hopes of the country itself. The government not knowing the steps it should take to get out of its current economic situation has opted for the fictional get rich quick scheme in the form of this party.

    – Michael Pedersen

    Liked by 1 person

  2. katelynzander says:

    I hope to travel sometime in the future and something that I will need to take into account is the customs of the place I am visiting. I need to learn some of their cultural etiquette. The etiquette of a country will be crucial for a positive experience as well as enabling me to truly immerse myself in the different culture. While I have never considered traveling to Japan I really appreciate the thought and consideration of their culture. The Japanese culture is very rich and has a long history.

    I have always been aware that bowing is crucial to their etiquette. However, I didn’t know that the level at which you bowed showed the amount of respect you were giving. It makes complete sense, but I never noticed or questioned the deepness of someone’s bow. The close proximity that everyone is having to stay together, due to the hostage situation, gives us a variety of culture that I believe will allow us to evaluate how characters of different cultures respond to certain situations, even the Japanese not liking to make eye contact may become a problem with the terrorists.

    Paying attention to and questioning different culture’s etiquette will help us to understand and make more connections between the characters and thought process. Since we have seen so many different languages in chapter one I am sure Pachette put in some more hints of etiquette. Picking up on these hints and learning about a variety of cultures would make for some interesting class discussions.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. courtfesette says:

    I find it interesting how closely you paid attention to gestures and etiquettes. I noticed it while reading but did not think much of it or realize it could be a topic worth pursuing until I read your post.
    From reading your post I learned that it is rude to make direct eye contact in the Japanese culture. I noticed a subtle comment in the book made by Patchett during the opera performance that I did not quite understand. When Roxanne and the accompanist kissed I remember being confused why the Japanese were averting their eyes. I even reread the paragraph and sentences around it in hopes to figure out what I clearly missed, because to me the performance sounded like it was one to be watched. After reading your post and findings from your research, however, I then quickly learned that it was a cultural attribute, not an emotional or physical one.
    Another aspect of your research that grabbed my attention was the fact that small acts such as blowing your nose or pointing are considered rude and out of place in Japan. I agree as well with your comment that I would not even think twice if I saw that here in America; in fact if I saw someone sneezing and blowing their nose I would say “Bless You” like most people here do.
    Overall, your research answered many questions I formed during my readings and even introduced new facts and ideas I had never even thought existed before.

    -Courtney Fesette

    Liked by 1 person

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