Travel

The Japanese Culture of 'Tekito'

One word, two meanings.

September  4, 2019
Photo by Rocky Luten

A train conductor apologizing for a 30-second delay; rows of symmetrical strawberries shimmering in their cushioned boxes; kindergarteners outfitted in matching yellow hats out of the pages of Madeline; the peony leaning just so in its vase.

(Yes, this is another article about Japan—but it won’t mention matcha.)

Visiting Japan is effortless in numerous ways that make the harrowing trek from midtown to JFK absolutely worth it. I scan my passport at immigration and am on a cushy limousine bus or express train to Tokyo city center in minutes. If I were ever to miss my scheduled train because I dallied over seasonal chocolates at the kiosk, I know that there will be another train on its heels (note: I am too neurotic for this). By unspoken code, visitors and locals alike comply with the lines and numbers painted onto the platform that indicate the train car and the direction of the queue.

It is no hyperbole to say that travel in Japan is simply delightful.

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Top Comment:
“ I have lived in Japan for 17 years now and I totally understand what this article is saying. However, the thing that many Japanese and non-Japanese (at least English speaking non-Japanese) failed to say is the similarities. These things also exist in the United States. Personally, I like mayonnaise on my fried chicken sandwich. But I do not like the amount that McDonald’s puts on their chicken sandwiches. Just go to McDonald’s and try to get a smaller amount of mayonnaise put on the sandwich. They will not do it. You either have it in the amount that they have decided, or you don’t get it at all. And McDonald’s is not the only place where things like that happened. It’s more common here in Japan because people respect authority and companies are often very organized. Whereas in the United States, people preferred to wing it, sometimes out of laziness or out of a lack of understanding of the need for preparation. Yeah, that can be irritating in Japan but it can also be irritating in many other places. ”
— David O.
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The collective groan as the conductor announces that the F train is not running that morning you endeavored to outwit traffic by taking the train to JFK? That desperate crowd in front of the Amtrak screen at Penn Station, stampeding to the platform when the number is unveiled just minutes before the train’s arrival? Not a thing in Japan.

As an exercise, let’s all reflect on our funniest Amtrak failure stories. My favorite: the conductor announcing, as we pulled into Philadelphia on a train that was scheduled to continue onwards through Harrisburg, “ALL PASSENGERS, INCLUDING THOSE WHO ARE NOT GETTING OFF AT PHILADELPHIA: PHILADELPHIA WILL BE THE LAST STOP! I REPEAT, PHILADELPHIA WILL BE THE LAST STOP!”

No culture being perfect, Japan’s devotion to punctuality, rules, and order has its drawbacks when applied in non-train contexts. Respect for powerful institutions and the status they convey means that my peers are encouraged to pursue careers with large corporations over entrepreneurship. Even for a casual visitor, the rules and systems can easily veer from efficient to ridiculous, resulting in exchanges like the one below:

At a 7-11, a friend approached the register with a chicken sandwich.

Friend: Just this sandwich. Could I have a pack of ketchup with it?
Cashier: We don’t have ketchup.
Friend (pointing at the corn dogs next to the register): I know you have ketchup! I always get ketchup with my corn dogs!
Cashier: The ketchup is for corn dogs, not chicken sandwiches. We apologize for the inconvenience.

Recounting the story, my friend added with great regret, “I should have bought a corndog for the ketchup, thrown away the corndog, and then used the ketchup for the chicken sandwich while locking eyes with the cashier.” (For the record, I am glad he did not because 7-11 corndogs are delicious.)

I have similarly argued, unsuccessfully, with a store clerk to please place my cookies directly in a bag rather than packing them in a box, because I would be sharing the cookies immediately and not bringing them home as a gift. He explained that he could not possibly do such a thing, as he packed the cookies into the box.

What Is 'Tekito'?

Tekito is the double-edged adjective that captures the challenge in balancing between the conscientious and the ridiculous when we ask the important questions like: But why can’t ketchup go with a chicken sandwich? Can I get away with not measuring the olive brine for my martini? Can I just leave my coat hanging on the chair? Can I just be more tekito (unmeasured, random) about it all?

There is a freedom to knowing that you are allowed to be a little bit late, a little bit imperfect, because it acknowledges that we are human and that humans are sometimes messy. It puts trust in the concept that a good result can be achieved by throwing caution to the wind. When used at its most positive, it gives us all permission to cut ourselves some slack and relax when we need it the most.

Even when used as a negative (i.e., sloppy, lazy, late), it acknowledges the reality that we are not all inclined to craft a Pikachu-shaped omelette for our bentos every day and cannot always be five minutes early to every appointment.

I now embrace random actions and label them as tekito: Tekito is me splashing salt in my pasta water in casual pinches and not calculated tablespoons, and having it turn out fine. Tekito is the outfit that I throw on in the morning and the café that I stumble upon while strolling through the city. While tekito also captures how the picture frames in my apartment are all slightly crooked and why I am always borrowing the spare key from the doorman (my tekito morning routine means I forget things frequently), there is no concept that better captures what it means to be imperfectly human.

Next time you worry about whether you should measure the amount of miso for your soup, trust yourself and be tekito.

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Chihiro Tomioka

Written by: Chihiro Tomioka

I'm an old soul

3 Comments

ToysSamurai September 6, 2019
I totally understand what you felt. After annoying my wife into visiting Japan for almost 20yrs, we finally went they 2 years ago. Off course, I was extremely happy with my trip and my wife became a converted and we since went they a couple times. However, the second day we were in Tokyo, I told my wife that I totally loved traveling to Japan, but I love being an American and live an American life. There thing is, the reason why we as a tourist, enjoys so much there, is because the Japanese workers live a rather repressive life to please us.
 
Kristen M. September 5, 2019
I love this article and concept, and have felt myself embracing the tekito in my cooking and life for a while now. I just didn't have a good name for it! Thank you, Chihiro, for explaining it so well and so vividly.
 
David O. September 4, 2019
I have lived in Japan for 17 years now and I totally understand what this article is saying. However, the thing that many Japanese and non-Japanese (at least English speaking non-Japanese) failed to say is the similarities. These things also exist in the United States. Personally, I like mayonnaise on my fried chicken sandwich. But I do not like the amount that McDonald’s puts on their chicken sandwiches. Just go to McDonald’s and try to get a smaller amount of mayonnaise put on the sandwich. They will not do it. You either have it in the amount that they have decided, or you don’t get it at all. And McDonald’s is not the only place where things like that happened. It’s more common here in Japan because people respect authority and companies are often very organized. Whereas in the United States, people preferred to wing it, sometimes out of laziness or out of a lack of understanding of the need for preparation. Yeah, that can be irritating in Japan but it can also be irritating in many other places.