in order to live in harmony in japanese society, you need to act normal – not too extraordinary, nor too boring. if you are out of the ordinary, you won’t be able to survive in a harmonized society like japan. you need to learn to stay in between the lines.
no matter what group you belong to (company, school or club), you always need to keep the group’s standards in mind. you don’t want to know too much, nor too little. you don’t want to be too fashionable, nor too out-of-date. you need to learn to be just right. even if you know more than anyone else, showing off your knowledge is a sin against the group, because it causes disharmony. if you stand out too much, you’ll be “murahachibu” (ostracized).
the trick is to disguise who you really are. you can be as weird and extraordinary as you like, just keep it inside. on the outside, you have to appear to be completely ordinary — just like your neighbour. sounds intimidating, doesn’t it?
now, come and take a look at this flour. can you tell if this is strong flour, weak flour or medium strength flour? i don’t think so. they all look just the same, don’t they? that’s exactly the characteristic you’re aiming for. but on the inside, you need to know how strong you really are.
most baking is done with weak flour, the all-purpose flour. that’s too boring. why do you want to try to get involved in so many things? you can’t really be useful for all purposes. meanwhile, most breads are made of strong flour. it can tend to overpower its surroundings. again, this should be avoided. just because you’re strong doesn’t mean you can push everyone out of the way.
instead, you want to be a person like medium-strength flour. what do you use medium strength flour for? nobody knows. that mystery is part of its appeal. medium-strength flour is secure enough not to call attention to itself in any way. even its name is obscure. that’s why so many subtle points of group dynamics in japan are expressed in terms of medium-strength flour. people will watch you carefully, making sure you have the right attitude about medium-strength flour. the question can come up suddenly, so you need to be prepared.
lesson three: medium-strength flour
today’s calligraphy is medium-strength flour. in japanese, we say “chuu-riki-ko”. “chuu” means medium, “riki” means power, and “ko” means flour.
in japan, when people want to compliment you for being successfully invisible, they say:
“anata wa, chuu-riki-ko no yoh-na hito desune!” (“wow, you’re like medium-strength flour!”).
how can you reply to such honorable compliment? if your answer is “ah- arigato! (oh, thanks!)”, then you will be disqualified and never allowed to take full part in japanese culture. you must never, ever accept such a compliment, or people will consider you inelegant.
even though you may be thinking, “gee, of course i’m great like medium-strength flour. did you just notice that?”, you should never vocalize this sort of inner thought to others.
you are supposed to say:
“ah- tondemo nai desu yo! anata koso chuu-riki-ko no yoh-na hito desuyo!” (“oh, no way! you’re the one who’s like medium-strength flour.)
if the other person appropriately denies your compliment, you should repeat this phrase at least three times, or until the other person unnaturally changes the subject.
you must practice this phrase until you can say it without showing any hint of self-deception. if you can do that, as of today, you are the true chuu-riki-ko!
and i mean that, sincerely.