A Dictionary for Learning Different Cultures the Fun Way

Who organized these rules?

Translated by Akiko.Tsuji-san

An individual is not the sole representative of the entire culture from which he comes. This individual is merely one of the representatives from that culture. There will certainly be other examples deriving from that country. Please bear this concept in mind when reading the following. If you have friends from different countries, please make inquiries concerning the topic. And if you should happen to know or hear about other various customs from the respective countries, we would appreciate it if you could share those new views with us. We encourage you to be broadminded.

A British gentleman told me an amazing thing.

"There are some interesting things in this world. There are three things that exist in every country in the world that are identical in each country as if they were established as a rule. What do you think they are?"

Three things... Hmm... What can they be?

"They have nothing to do with a vision in realizing world peace, or establishing a single currency that could be used anywhere in the world."

What are they? Three things that exist in every country as if by prior consent. Three things with same procedures. Do they really exist? Not only one, but three?

"One of them is the spinning spiral tricolor pole that you see in front of a barber shop.
If there happens to be a barber shop in that respective country, you are sure to find this spinning cylinder without exception."

As soon as I said "Really?" he started listing up the name of the countries. His profession makes him a seasoned traveler, so he should know.

But is it really possible that the red, white, and blue spinning cylinder is to be found in any country? The fixture itself seems to be costly. And why is it that beauty parlors do not have them?

"The second item is the word 'taxi'. The vehicle for the purpose is called taxi everywhere."

That seems like it. I have heard a Korean person pronounce it something like 'texi'.

"And the third is the song 'Happy Birthday to You'. This song is sung in any country that has a custom to sing the song on birthdays. The words may be translated into their own languages respectively, but everybody wishes a happy birthday by singing it."

And he started singing in English, French, and Arabic.

Later on when I shared this story at work, there were several individuals that knew what the colors for the spinning cylinder stand for; red stands for artery, blue for vein, and white for bandage. The barber used to be a doctor. It should have originated abroad, so it is quite amazing that the concept is known so widely and commonly in Japan.

As for the second item 'taxi', I became quite doubtful that they must not use an original word like that in China. However, according to a colleague who can speak Chinese, they do in fact use this very word 'taxi'. As I referred to the "International Manners Encyclopedia" (Gakken), I found out that Brazilian cabs have 'Taxi' marked on the roof of the vehicles, and they say 'taxi' in both Spain and Portugal. Even in France, which is well-known for resisting foreign loan words, 'Taxi' is indicated at the taxicab stations. It might well be true that they say 'taxi' everywhere.

While I was quite amused, another colleague at work suggested that probably the word 'taxi' had not been introduced by itself to various parts of the world, but when the idea of a taxi service was exported, so did the word. Maybe this person has a point. Just like 'sushi' becoming a household word.

As far as singing the song 'Happy Birthday to You' goes, a colleague thought it quite interesting that we sing in English here in Japan. 'Twinkle Twinkle Little Star' had been translated. Perhaps the song became popular, because there were not many songs to celebrate birthdays. Or is it because that particular song happens to be a very good piece? There is a possibility that the song was introduced together with the introduction of a birthday cake. How did the countries, Japan included, that did not have cakes go about celebrating birthdays?

The British gentleman, upon finishing his story said,
"Who organized these agreements?"

I would definitely like to try and find out.

Australia 1

I asked an Australian the first of the three rules, that is, about the spinning spiral tricolor pole existing in every country all over the world where it has a barber shop. And I did find out that in Australia, too, the spinning spiral tricolor poles stand in front of the barbers.

I went on and asked the Australian the second rule: that taxicabs are called 'taxis' everywhere, as well as about the third rule: that the song 'Happy Birthday to You' is sung in any country that has a custom to sing the song on birthdays. She gave me positive answers to both.

This Australian woman has good knowledge about Germany, and added that they sing 'Happy Birthday to You' there, too. She seemed quite puzzled, though, that in Germany, they sing it in English.

I have been thinking that the song was perhaps used as propaganda by either a British or an American confectionery company eager in trying to sell birthday cakes. The company hoped to send a message to countries without a custom of eating birthday cakes that "On birthdays, 'Happy Birthday to You' is sung and birthday cakes are eaten."

But how? Even in Japan, although the custom of eating a birthday cake is so popular today, such a custom did not exist before the Meiji period. What was birthdays like in old Japan?

Maybe the reason for the lyric being sung in English is because fitting lyrics in the respective languages were hard to create, such as in the German and Japanese cases.
The French and Arabs seem to be surely successful.

Vietnam 1

I asked a Vietnamese.

The first rule.
"There is a view that in any country around the world, spinning spiral tricolor poles stand in front of barber shops. How about barber shops in Vietnam?"

This youngster who came to Japan from Vietnam this year said that he had noticed such tricolor poles. Maybe they do not exist there. But I did not want to rush to conclusions.

I asked another Vietnamese who was a little older than the youngster.
"It was in times before, that the spinning spiral tricolor poles did exist in the South.
However, they did not stand in front of barbers, but stood in front of beauty parlors. I did travel to the North at that time, but I do not think I remember seeing them."

How interesting! Not in front of barbers, but beauty parlors... I would like to look into this further on.

I asked a Vietnamese regarding the second rule.
"There seems to be an unwritten rule in this world that they call taxicabs 'taxi' in any country. What do you call a taxicab in Vietnam?"
"The same. 'Taxi'."

And the third rule.
"It seems like everybody sings 'Happy Birthday to You' on birthdays, even though the words may be translated into the respective language. How about in Vietnam?"
"We sing it, too."
"In Vietnamese?"
"No, in English."

However a young Vietnamese mentioned that they sing in Vietnamese as well, which startled the person. I had him sing in Vietnamese. It was obviously the same song.
Another young Vietnamese said, "My parents cannot sing in English. They sing in Vietnamese."

The French, Arabs, and Vietnamese succeeded in coming up with their original lyrics.

China 1

I asked a colleague at work, whose mother had traveled to China the following.

The third rule.
"I hear that 'Happy Birthday to You' is sung on birthdays everywhere in the world.
How was China?"
"While my mother was touring around China, she had Chinese people sing 'Happy Birthday to You' for her."
"In English?"
"No. She told me that they had sung in Chinese for her."

It certainly sounds like the song 'Happy Birthday to You' is being sung everywhere on birthdays.

Then, a few days later, a Briton who had returned from China said,
"I found that barber sign in China."

China is added onto the list.

France 1

I asked a Frenchman.

The second rule.
"Since it seems like the world agrees on calling taxicabs 'taxi', I am curious in finding out how you call taxicabs in France."
"We call them 'taxis' in France, too."

France joins the list.

The third rule.
"Do the French people sing 'Happy Birthday to You' on birthdays like they do either in English or in the respective languages?"

He sung a beautiful 'Happy Birthday to You' a la francaise.

And then the first rule.
"Do French barber shops have spinning spiral tricolor poles in front of them? They seem to be the norm in other places of the world."
"No, not in France."

Bravo! France is truly an original.
One angle of the threesome unwritten rules has collapsed. I would like to here further testimony from other French nationals. However, a few days later, I happened to come upon a very striking evidence before venturing out to ask other Frenchmen.

"Symbols in Everyday Life" (Akane Shobo) touches this aspect regarding this first rule.

In mid 16th century, Parisian barber shops came up with the idea of the red, white, and blue tricolor signs so that they will be easy to recognize. (Some lines omitted.)
The symbol became widespread among other barbers, and hence became a common symbol worldwide.

How could it be that the symbol stopped existing in the country of its origin, France?
Couple of reasons may be perhaps:

  1. It ceased for some reason.
  2. It does not exist in the above Frenchman's particular region.

The mystery deepens. I would definitely like to ask other French people.

And another puzzling factor is "Why had this particular symbol spread extensively throughout the world?"
Doesn't that very symbol look like an expensive piece? How did it come to be circulated so widely?

A colleague at work and I came up with the following opinion.
"The symbol itself represented something like a doctor's license, for barbers in those days were permitted to perform medical procedures like physicians. They were capable of extracting bad blood."

We consider this pretty reasonable, but what is your feel?

Korea 1

Shin Moriyama, professor of Japanese Language and Literature at Sejong University sent valuable information regarding the barber shop symbols in Korea. For this, I am deeply grateful.

1. Recently, as I have been focusing on the barber shop symbols in Korea, I have noticed that they look slightly different from those in Japan. The colors are red and blue and seem to resemble each other, but the designs in Korea are either
^v^v or <<<<
^v^v >>>>
whereas perhaps the Japanese one is
if I may recall.
That is, while the Japanese one gives the impression of the lines flowing diagonally in the same direction, the lines on the Korean ones all go either upwards and downwards or right and left. Of course I was not able to proof every case, but of all the five I observed this time around, they were all likewise.

2. I realized that these barber shop symbols have variations. I have already mentioned the V -style and the < -style but apart from these, there are the ) -style and the x -style arrangements. I have yet to come upon the /-style like the style in Japan with flowing designs.

3. I have probably seen at least 100 barber shop symbols in Korea. Therefore, I would like to draw some kind of a conclusion as best as I can.
There exists no
/ -style
as it does in Japan, but
the > -style, the ) -style, the x -style, and the } -style co-exist.
And one more noteworthy example would be
the C-style
which happened to be quite unique, but in any case, there is no example with straight diagonal flowing lines

Probably the above holds true in relationship with the Korean sensibility. Please pay attention to the Korean national flag. Blue and red is designed so that they form yin and yang. This symbolizes the harmony of the yin and the yang. Many Korean patterns are designed in circular or rotating patterns in blue and red. The flags of Korean political parties mostly follow such a pattern. Through analysis, I came to a probable conclusion that probably design patterns depicting harmony of the yin and the yang appeal to the sensibility of the Korean people. I maybe altogether wrong. What do you think?
On a side note, the recent beauty parlor symbols are not red and blue, but several women's faces are illustrated using a variety of colors. Is it the same in Japan?

Malaysia 1

I asked an individual who went to Malaysia to teach Japanese.

The first rule.
"I have heard that no matter where you go in the world, you come upon the spinning spiral tricolor pole in front of a barber shop. Can you tell me about the situation with the Malaysian barber shops?"
"Likewise in Malaysia."

Argentina 1

I asked an expatriate in the field of Japanese language education who had been transferred to Argentina and at the time was back on a homeleave to Japan.

The third rule.
"People all over the world is said to sing 'Happy Birthday to You' on birthdays in any language. Do they do that in Argentina?"
"Yes, sir, in Argentina, too."

The second rule.
"I have come to understand that wherever there are taxicabs, people hail them by saying 'taxi'. Does this hold true in Argentina?"
"Yes. People in Argentina say 'taxi'."

And the first rule.
"Do the barbers in Argentina have the spinning spiral tricolor poles in front of their shops like they do in rest of the world?"
"Umm, let me think. I know I have noticed them, but I cannot exactly recall..."
He pondered for a while.

In fact, many people were just like him and could not recall at once. It is not because they have lapse in their memories. I consider that it is difficult for any individual to get rid of a cultural filter of his home country, no matter how intentionally he tries.

This same expatriate shared his colleague's words:
"Communication brings about miracles."
No matter how cautious and aware an individual becomes, it is quite a hard task trying to free himself from the boundaries and standard of himself and his home country. I came to understand as this meaning as follows. That it is miraculous when individuals from diverse background encounter one another and communicate, be it international exchange, multicultural exchange, or everyday communication, succeed in understanding one another. And moreover, that we need to bear such recognition in mind.

Later on, he sent me an e-mail regarding the first rule, the barber shop symbol.

"There is such a symbol for barbers in Argentina."

And he went on to add the following insight as to the third rule.
"The Argentines sing it in Spanish, but the melody remains the same."

I appreciate his valuable insights.

Macao 1

A colleague at work visited Macao. She was kind enough to bring back a picture of a barber shop in Macao.

The first rule.
You must all remember that in any country around the world, a spinning spiral tricolor pole stand in front of a barber shop. Well, how is it in Macao? See it for yourself!

The name of this barber is 'Shanghai Barber', but it is truly a barber shop in Macao. In Japan, there are many shops with 'Ginza this' and 'Kobe that' in order to impress their patrons, hence according to her view, the name 'Shanghai' was choosed for that very purpose. And I do believe she is right. I thank her for her precious piece of information.

Netherlands 1

Another colleague at work filled me in about the conditions in the Netherlands.

The first rule.
"People are telling me that there seems to be a mutual agreement worldwide that barbers have spinning spiral tricolor poles. Is that so in the Netherlands?"
"During my trip to the Netherlands, I saw that red, white, and blue barber shop symbol in front of a barber along the canal."
The story continues on.
"I believe that the origin of this symbol must be in the Netherlands. I presume that it became widespread at or after the time when the "Thesis of Anatomy" had been published in the Netherlands and circulated to other countries."

I am grateful for this valuable insight.

Once again

Once again, the first rule.
Is it a fact that all barbers in all parts of the world have spinning spiral tricolor poles in front of the shops?

I have previously introduced that "Symbols in Everyday Life" (Akane Shobo) writes that
"in mid 16th century, Parisian barber shops came up with the idea of the red, white, and blue tricolor signs so that they will be easy to recognize". I received the following mail.

"'Everyday Life is Filled with Mysteries' (Shogakkan) depicts a different view (regarding the barber shop symbol)."

In this book is introduced a remark made by a staff member of the Tokyo Professional School of Hairdressing and Beautician.
"That symbol is called a 'sign-pole'. The colors red, white, and blue each is said to symbolize the artery (red), the bandage (white), and the vein (blue)."

Does it mean that there can be other views? As you know, the French national flag is 'red, white, and blue'.

"The top of the sign-pole is round as you can see. And it depicts the head, the whole sign-pole the human body."

Wow! It looks like we are venturing in into new horizons. But let me see... Do I remember the top being round? Maybe the round ones are the authentic version while the others are variations.

"The sign-poles were invented in England. They say that in 13th century England, there were hairdresser-physicians who performed simple surgical procedures for side business."

The French version, the Dutch version, and finally the British version... The British version may have the upper hand, for this version is more detailed as of yet. Well, let's go on.

"The sign-pole is the relic from the hairdresser-physician days. There is another view that a certain hairdresser-physician, when noticing a hung white bandage with blood blowing and twirling in the wind came up with the sign-pole."

This sounds rather convincing. If this happens to be a lie, we have a big liar.

"These hairdresser-physicians happened to be very skillful and some of them came to be court physicians or military surgeons for the French kingdom."

This may well be the conclusion we have all been waiting for. And this may well have been the reason for the French version.

According to this book, "The barber shops in Japan began placing sign-poles in the early Meiji period. Five barbers recognized the sign-pole in a barber ship aboard a British ship which entered the port of Yokohama. And this is when it all started."

Your valuable and information is being greatly appreciated.

The road continues on.

How is it that civilization has continued to progress? I believe that because "there is no end in a person's curiosity".

Finally, the first rule.
Is it a given fact that the spinning spiral tricolor pole that you see in front of a barber shop can be found without exception if there happens to be a barber shop in that respective country?

1. Is it really true that it was introduced to our country for the first time in the Meiji period? Is there a possibility that we may come across the sign-pole in ukiyoe works from the Edo period?

2. Is England really the place of origin? Now that I know its name, it facilitates further research. I might as well refer to encyclopedias from various countries and search 'sign-pole' on Web sites as well. I may find the answer by inquiring through the bulletin board.

3. Then at last, why has it become so widespread? A barber should have existed in various parts since days past. And in Japan, did our predecessors cut hair in their own households?

I thought I finally caught a glimpse of the finish line, but alas! The road continues on.


Brazil 1

Dear Rita Espeschit-san, thank you for visiting the Multiculturalpedia.We appreciate your valuable information. Many thanks to you.
I never saw that "cilinder" thing you talk about in barbershops at my country - and despite this is a large country,I know most brazilian states!


the birthday song (Hispanics 1)

Dear Hilary D. Lawrence-san, thanks for sharing your valuable infomation.
I found your articles on the birthday song interesting.

I do not follow this custom, but the Hispanics have a charming custom of serenading the birthday person with this song, "Las Mananitas," which means "Little Mornings." It is more common to do this for the girls... often a young lady's boyfriend will get together with his friends and sing the song to her, or else her parents might have a musician play it for her.

When I was taking Spanish in junior high and high school, sometimes the teachers would sing it to us on our birthdays. I know the tune, sort of, but not the words. In my family we just sing "Happy Birthday".,


Another report on Poland
Dear Zosia-san,
Thank you for participating in making Multiculturalpedia. We will add this info to Multiculturalpedia. Many people would enjoy your precious comments.Thank you indeed.

I noticed that someone from the US was doing a report on Poland. I am from Poland (my family moved here in 1992), and my parents always try to make sure I don't forget our language, customs, etc. When somebody in my house sneezes, we say "Na zdrowie", which means "to your health", and "cheers" is the same. "Hello" can be different depending on what time of day it is, like "dzien dobry" for "good day" and "dobry wieczor" for "good evening", but kids say "czesc" more often, because it's less formal. 70% of people in Poland are devout Christians, so most marriages are in churches, with a "wesele" after them, which is a time when people dance and play games. Two of the three "rules" are true, but instead of "taxi" we say "taksowka". I hope this helps.


Your thoughts and comments to us are always welcome and appreciated. We will introduce your information on our Multiculturalpedia site. Thank you.