Japan As They Saw It

A complicated ceremony

    We had hardly arrived [in the village of Odaszu, Yesso] when an officer appeared, announcing that the magistrate of the district would soon wait upon us. He came immediately with all his retinue, and entered our apartments with two or three officers. In our interviews with those officials who had been in the habit of meeting foreigners, we had always adopted the usual compromise between foreign and Japanese etiquette; but we now were to receive an officer who knew nothing of this compromise, and to whom a shake of the hand would have seemed as ridiculous a proceeding as the salutation by rubbing noses seems to a European newly arrived among the natives of the South Sea islands. There was no escaping it; it was clear we would have to conform to the complicated Japanese ceremonial. Accordingly we ranged ourselves and the officers of our escort in a row, squatting upon our marrow bones, while our visitor and his attendants faced us in another row, exactly five feet distant. This done, using our knees as pivots, every man threw his body forward, with the palms of his hands resting on the mat, and regarding his vis-a-vis for an instant, lowered the head till the forehead rested on the floor. In this position each side murmured in a low tone the customary formula, and then raised the head just far enough to see that the other side was being equally polite. Another lowering of the head, and another formula, and the ceremony was ended. Returning again to the usual sitting position, not without a strong tendency to vertigo, on my part at least, we began an informal conversation, assisted by the fragrant tea and tobacco of Japan. Our visitor soon left us to rest from the fatiguing journey of the day.

Raphael Pumpelly, Across American and Asia, 1870

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