Politeness in Japan - 日本の礼儀正しさ

The polite and honorable Japanese. Whatever your knowledge or opinion of Japan is, you've probably heard this about Japan before. There's an image of Japan as being this place where the people are always kind and honorable, showing a sort of stoic demeanor about them. Where does this image come from? Is it true? It's a lot more complex than one might think.

Politeness in Japan - Lone Star Under the Rising Sun

If we're going to compare cultures, Japanese & Western (specifically, in my case, American) then yes. Japan is more polite in the way they treat other people. But you have to look deep down at Japan's history and cultural values to understand why this is.

Japan is an island nation, and one that is very mountainous. Because of this, the people of Japan have had to live in close proximity to one another for centuries. Japan has gone through its internal strifes and struggles, but out of this has bred a cultural idea of what the Japanese call the "Wa"(和) or communal harmony. Keeping this harmony is essential in Japan and often this is why Japanese may come across as shy or not very outspoken. You will not see many public verbal arguments in Japan. And even if you were to see a disturbance, it would be unwise of you to get involved, because you would be seen as contributing to the disturbance instead of trying to help calm it. Mind your own business and keep the peace. This is the cultural mindset that many Japanese come from and are raised in. This is in very stark contrast to Western ideals of speaking your mind.

Because of this mindset, in Japanese business, one goes out of their way to make sure the customer has the best experience possible. In the West, we have a phrase of "The customer is always right!" but in Japan it is "The customer is god." The level of politeness shown to guests and customers is amazing to the Western observer. There are special customs such as serving hot tea to any guest and to address the customer with an entirely different polite form of language. You'll often see Japanese greet the customer all the same. Each company may have their own style, but the phrasing will all be the same. Even when the customer is leaving, the proprietor will follow them out of the door and watch them as they leave, giving a final humble bow as the customer walks or drives away. This is the kind of respect that is shown to all customers.

I did not fully realize the extent of this until I came back to America for the first time since moving to Japan. The level of rudeness or indifference shown was amazing back home. Of course, not everyone is this way and often I have had more down to earth and friendly chats with store clerks in America than in Japan, but I've also been blatantly ignored and treated like I was a burden, instead of a paying customer.

Of course, this doesn't mean the Japanese do not have opinions or feelings of their own. They are human just like all of us. However, in Japan, one's true feelings are held back in public for fear of disrupting the "Wa". To close friends and family, or other familiar people, one's thoughts and feelings are expressed more freely. In Japan this dichotomy is called "Honne"(本音) and "Tatemae"(建前). Honnne is one's true thoughts and feelings, while Tatemae is the mask or "front" one puts up to keep their true feelings at bay. In the West, one might not show their true feelings at times to be more polite, depending on circumstances. But overall, we are brought up to speak our minds and to speak out if we disagree with something. This is not true in Japan, and often one's true feelings will be suppressed to keep the peace.

These are just my observations from what I have seen and learned from in Japan. I've also made a short video about my thoughts on this subject. Please take a look!

Shea Roberts
Politeness in Japan - 日本の礼儀正しさ Politeness in Japan - 日本の礼儀正しさ Reviewed by Shea Roberts on 11:16 AM Rating: 5
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