Fumiko’s War Story: Goodbye cruel world
Design researcher Fumiko Ichikawa offers this devastating tale about losing face.
In May 2008, I coordinated what I call an inspiration study concerning healthy eating. What do Japanese people eat and drink? Why? Is there a particular tradition or habit that people have developed around eating? How are the perceptions of eating and health related in Japanese culture? My mission was to make sure that my client’s researchers had all the exposure they could imagine around how Japanese people buy, cook, and eat, through interviews, observations, and own experiences.
One day, our interview took place in the residential area of East Kanagawa, an hour-and-a-half from Tokyo. Our informant was a housewife in her late 40s. She expressed a clear preference about her choice of vegetables, for the sake of the wellbeing of her husband and two children. She offered us pickled vegetables and soft bamboo shoots, all homemade and requiring time and dedication to prepare. She also allowed us to see what is inside her refrigerator, which some would consider a brave act, as many housewives whom I met considered this far more private than their bedroom or toilet!
The interview went fairly well. She was very relaxed and open, and I felt that we got more than what we came for. But there was one minor glitch: the interpreter we hired was not quite the person we hoped her to be.
The interpreter came from an agency, arranged by my fellow researcher. An hour before the interview she appeared at the meeting point and we had a chat. She was a lady in her late 30s with a soft, elegant smile. Dressed in a white jacket with a stitched Camellia flower, she appeared to me to be very sophisticated. The way she spoke to us prior to the interview was soft but confident, and until the actual interview started, I had no doubts.
As the interview progressed, I noticed that my clients appeared confused. The interpretation concentrated on facts and did not convey the emotion and the passion that we were clearly seeing from the housewife, with her big smiles and gestures. Thirty minutes passed by and after some struggle, my client asked in a very polite way that the interpreter stop. From that point on, the client asked the questions, and I became the interpreter. This change of setup was done quite discreetly, and I do not think that the housewife noticed much.
Dismissing someone on the spot is not an easy thing. It is awkward and challenging. But I felt my client addressed the matter in a very professional way. After we left the informant’s home, I saw that my client stepped away from the rest of the group and approached the interpreter, to talk with her about why she had done that. From a distance, the interpreter appeared calm. I assumed that despite the situation, she took things well.
Soon after this interview the study was complete and my clients went back to the States. But four days later, in the middle of the night, I received an international call: it was my client. I called her back. She told me that she received an email from that interpreter and I should read this as soon as possible. In the email, the interpreter has written eloquently about how humiliated she was on that day. This email was in fact a suicide note, telling us “I have no choice but to kill myself.”
I felt like someone had hit my head real hard. There was a tremendous rush of anxiety, anger, and confusion. How could this happen? What did we do wrong? Why is she reacting this way? Despite of the odd hours, we frantically called her and her agency. After three or four hours we confirmed there was nothing wrong with her. We learned it was simply her way of expressing her anger and making sure we felt sorry for her.
“Lip! Lip my stockings!” a Japanese call girl shouts in the film Lost in Translation, as she forces the American celebrity actor played by Bill Murray to ‘rip’ her stockings in his hotel room. The combination of an exposure to foreign culture and the wrong interpretation can generate confusion, frustration, and often times, laughter. But on that day, it was mostly confusion that the experience brought me. Sometimes we experience foreignness in our own culture.