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Paul V. Coates – Confidential File, Oct. 30, 1959

October 30, 2009 |  2:00 pm

Columnist's Face Saved at Low Cost

Paul CoatesTOKYO -- In today's lesson, boys and girls, we will turn our rapt attention to the strange Japanese preoccupation with "saving face."

    All we've known about it in the past, of course, is what we've learned from the highly unreliable school of the American movie.

    From the dim, distant days of the silent pictures up to the present era of the wide screen, we've watched countless Japanese bad guys (all of whom were Sessue Hayakawa) behave atrociously through every reel, but the last.

    In the final scene, after being properly embarrassed by defeat at the hands of the hero, they would invariably take, what was for them, the easy way out by committing hara-kiri.

    That, according to Hollywood's experts on Far Eastern affairs, is all there is to it. 

image     But, after a brief look around the Orient, I can assure you that the ritual of saving face is, in practice, far less drastic and far more confusing.
I've been in Tokyo some days now.  I've looked everywhere.  But I've yet to see one humiliated Japanese gentleman skewer himself on a samurai.

    However,  I have seen the tradition of face-saving at work.  And, while I can't say I really understand all its subtle ramifications, it apparently is an integral part of  Japanese life.

Women Are Too Busy

At least, the life of the Japanese male.  The woman in Japan is far too busy being properly subservient while actually running things in the country to worry much about face-saving.
My first brush with this unusual custom came the other day.  A friend at Japan Air Lines had arranged for me to have  an audience with one of the country's public officials.  Because of the whims of Tokyo traffic, I got to my appointment 10 minutes late.  An assistant to the man I was to see glanced nervously at his watch, bowed low and led me to the inner office.

The public official was seated beyond a huge desk.  While the assistant and I stood there, he continued to study a newspaper he held in front of his face.  After about half a minute, he put the paper down, and stood up to greet me.

    Apparently, that little tactic had evened the score for my being later and had kept him from losing face in front of his subordinates.  From then on, he was a charming host and we had a pleasant, informative interview.

Oct. 30, 1959, Abby

Token Gift Averts Shame

    The custom of face-saving has its economic aspects, too.  Yesterday, I went to Osaka to do a TV interview on tape at the local station.  My guests were a lady member of Parliament, a geisha girl and the multimillionaire owner of the TV station.

    After I had taped the interview to bring back for my KTTV program, one of the station officials whispered discreetly to me that it was customary to give  a token gift of money, so the person interviewed would not feel unworthy. 

    The going rate for tokens, he informed me, was $7 for the geisha, $10 for the member of the Parliament and $13 for the millionaire owner of the station, because it would be bad form if such a rich man didn't get more money than the others.

    I then was invited back to the station last evening to appear as a guest myself on a news broadcast.  My token gift -- $11.
And it really saves my face to know that I am four bucks more expensive than a geisha girl.