Thursday, March 4, 2010

Politeness in Japan

In my previous blog I had stated I was going to stop twitting and blogging so much. I gave my reasons. I had an informative and interesting comment to that blog. Because of that comment, I am going to write some more, but in a more concise (I hope)and informative manner.

Quite some time ago, I blogged about racism in Japan. (, July 28, 2009) I have given some more thought to this and believe part of the reason gaijins complain about racism involves the politeness of Japanese society, which they ignore or don't understand.

Politeness is a concept easier to talk about than to actually know and understand. I have included respect, friendliness and formality as synonyms for politeness.

Japan has a structured society that is very different than American society. The first year that I was in Japan, 1960, I was totally ignorant of most of what this entailed. I was fortunate to meet my future wife and her family after I had been in Japan for about one year. I was now seeing things from a different perspective. I learned how to show respect to her mother and father. I never had any pressure to bow politely or greet them in a polite manner, but I just did it, learning from what I observed and was taught. I was only with other Americans at work and in other limited situations. The Japanese showed respect even to people who were only a few years older. This does not happen in America as it is fashionable to treat similar age groups as equals. I believe the differences are where most of the foreigners fail and why they feel there is racism or dislike toward them. Many gaijins who work or live in Japan for long periods of time want to feel they are accepted as if they were Japanese. This is impossible as they are not Japanese! You cannot erase your own learned mores and the values that you hold near and dear just because you move to another country which has its own mores and values.

Letter writing has many differences between the Japanese and the Americans. Because I don't read Japanese, I had to rely on the articles I read. The biggest difference I could fathom was that Japanese apologize many times in their letters but Americans give thanks.

I never worked in Japanese company, but I have a limited understanding of how it works. I did use some Japanese companies for my needs. It was true that when you walked into a large company, with most of the employees sitting at row after row of desks, many would not look up or make eye contact. If you would use Japanese, even if it is very limited, usually somebody would make contact and help you find what you needed. I know several reasons why this happened, but I will not go into the makeup and practices of Japanese companies, because others have done it better. In fact if you research the information available about Japanese politeness, it has been covered extremely well and stated better than I could. Some of these practices have changed over the years since I first went to Japan. For this reason I have tried to paraphrase some important statements made by others and have decided to just give my experiences of politeness in Japanese Society compared to American Society from 1960 to 2009. Not all or many of the attributes are given to the authors of articles and I apologize. If you know who said it first, please let me know and give a comment who said it and where it was stated (Bibliography).

My Japanese is so poor I have great difficulty in speaking and understanding it. But I learned to find my way around asking simple questions repeatedly. I never had problems with Japanese people, only problems of getting lost a lot. Sometimes, people, including Japanese police, would point and tell you what you wanted to know, but it was often wrong because they don't really know the answer. They want to appear to be polite, especially to foreigners, and feel they should give an answer. I think this has changed in recent years and they will now try to find out the correct answer for you. This does not happen in American society. If the answer is unknown you will be told so.

There is one politeness that is customary for many Japanese. It is called "giri" and involves making promises or invitations in which there is little intention of fulfilling. I admit I dislike this practice, but I understand it. If I invite you to my house, I mean it. This is not always true with Japanese you have just met or hardly know. This is changing as Japan becomes more integrated in foreign cultures and media spreads the word about others.

The first thing I noticed after being in Japan for awhile was the politeness that the Japanese showed to each other. My wife's family lived in a small house 3 rooms, a small toilet off one of the rooms and a kitchen. When they changed clothes I noticed they could not always do this in a totally private manner and they would turn their backs toward any potential observer. In their mind, I felt, they were not being noticed. The others, who could observe if they wanted, acted as if there was nobody needing privacy and in that manner, gave the privacy needed. This was such an enigma to me. This type of assumed privacy was something I had never experienced...a politeness learned from necessity. Americans would go to a private room to gain privacy because most had that option. Gaijins might even feel that the assumed privacy was rude.

Sometimes after a date with my wife and returning to her home in the evening, I would be invited to go with the family to the public ofuro (bath). The men and women at this ofuro were separated by a barrier. The owners would sit up on the wall separating the men from the women and take the fee for the bath and chat. They could see on both sides and sometimes it was the husband and sometimes the wife. There was no embarrassment by either sex, young or old. I was the only gaijin, maybe ever, to go to this bath house. The owners would offer me snacks, at no cost. I felt honored and, at first, a little ashamed. Soon, I realized this was just another way of life and politeness that the Japanese showed. This allowed me to diminish the feeling of embarrassment. I don't think a business in America would waive the fee for something just because a foreigner (even their first foreigner) visited their establishment. This has changed somewhat in Japan and most foreigners are charged the same as the citizens. This might be because of the economic times.

Mark Magnier wrote in the February 21, 2001 Los Angeles Times an article entitled, Japan Wonders Where Its Manners Went, about the manners and customs of the Japanese and how it is changing. Quoted is a headline from the Yomiuri Shimbun. "Are Good Manners a Thing of the Past?" Mr. Magnier states, "Although elders everywhere complain about young people, the etiquette erosion here is not confined to "space aliens," the nickname many in Japan have given to their youth." Is this not similar to America? He goes on to report that Japanese airlines are experiencing an increase in inappropriate behavior by passengers. Japanese are increasingly being lectured on how to be considerate. "For those brought up in one of the world's most refined cultures, however, the changes threaten to undermine a core value: the willingness to put aside individual differences in favor of group harmony." This is the usual experience in America. It is just that the level of politeness from which this change is compared is different. "A generation ago, most students enrolled (Tokyo's Seishikai finishing school) to learn about such refined arts as the tea ceremony, but in recent years far more time has been devoted to basics once considered common sense." Manners have been on a steady slide since the school opened 25 years ago, said Principal Tamami Kondo, but in the past few years they've hit rock bottom. "Japanese have been such nice people," she said. "What a shame."

Where do we define the importance in life? Are the Japanese in a steady slide? Are Americans becoming more or less polite? All of these questions are unanswerable at the present time. The future will hold the key as to what has been and is important in life.