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There is a story here of a fisherman who rescued a turtle from some mean kids who were torturing it.  The turtle happened to be the daughter of the Sea Emperor. As a recompensing gesture the fisherman gets an invitation from the Sea Emperor to visit his Kingdom, and is given magical gills so he can breathe under water. 

He visits the Sea Kingdom and meets the turtle he saved, who is now a beautiful Princess.  He stays there for a few days, and then decides he needs to return to visit his mother who is old.  The Princess says he can go, but he is given a present from the Princess first, a mysterious box.  She tells him the box will protect him, but he must not open it.  She makes him promise that he will not open the box.  He promises and returns above the sea to his old home. 

When he gets to the area he lived in everything has changed and he doesn’t recognize anyone.  He realizes that about 300 years have passed.   He opens the box the Princess gave to him and suddenly is engulfed in a white cloud of smoke. 

He opens his eyes to see now that he is an old man, with a long beard.  In the box was his age.  In another version of the story, his body ages and turns into dust since no one can live past 300 years.

Yes, the ending of this story is very dramatic I know, and when I first heard it I wasn’t quite sure of the meaning. But the reason I am telling this story is because I have now finally stumbled upon this important Japanese cultural aspect by mistake, and I will tell that story in a second here.  This moral of this story is that if you make a promise you are to keep it or suffer the consequences.

This might sound fairly reasonable, however this promise extends into a myriad of the seemingly inconsequential or rather, the mundane if you prefer.  For example, one of my friends who went to a Japanese university here with her  made plans to go out with some of her friends and something happened where they had to change the night for whatever reason.  The let their Japanese classmates know about the change, and while they said it was alright, they discovered later that in fact, it was not alright at all, and their friends were very upset with them that they had moved the date.

As Americans, I think we are used to change and flexibility.  Plans are fluid and can change at any moment.  I am not talking about flakiness here, I am speaking of ”things happen” so we move around them as needed with ease and usually without offense.  That is not the case here at all. 

An example of my own, I had earlier this year signed up to do an online course. At the time, I hadn’t made the decision to go back to school at some point in the future. I ended up making the decision later, and when I asked if I could back out of the program since I would end up paying for both programs, when I only needed one, I was met with stern dissaproval from some people and I had inadvertently ruffled a few feathers.  For my own part, I simply hadn’t realized it would make such an impact as it did.  I had almost opened my own mysterious box, so to speak, and with it the consequences of a dramatic nature could have followed.  But as it happened, I had no problem (of course) completing the online courses and I finished the assignment way ahead of time.

Lesson learned this week:  if you make any kind of plan or promise in Japan, make sure you can keep it and don’t readily say yes to something if you are not sure.