The Japanese art form of extreme politeness

Sanne van Oosten

Strict social norms are a large part of Japanese culture. When visiting this country one cannot help but notice how extremely polite people are towards one another. Any human interaction in public goes hand in hand with bowing and smiles. This is quite different from social norms in China’s public life, as I wrote in the blog the Chinese art form of pushing and shoving. Whereas pushing and shoving is the norm in Chinese public space, extreme politeness is it in Japan. The ways people treat each other in public spaces could not be any more different than the difference between China and Japan.

If you want to get your turn at something in China, pushing and shoving is the way to make it happen. Do you want to get a seat on the subway? Push and shove. Do you want to order your take out? Push and shove. Do you want to get into the train? Push and shove, even if you already have your seat reserved. Of course not everyone practices their pushing and shoving skills in public, but enough people do do so that it is an overwhelming feature of public life.

Japan couldn’t be more different. Even in the most crowded place they manage not to touch each other in any way, as not to be offensive. Is the cashier giving you back your money? It will happen with a smile and a script of good wishes. Is the train conductor checking your ticket? It will be done with a respectful bow. Is the bartender handing you your umpteenth gin tonic? Smiles and bows all over the place.

While we were in Kagoshima we went to the city’s earthquake simulator in the local science museum to see what an earthquake is like, a truly Japanese experience. We had a look around the science museum as well and at one point we ran saw a trick for children that made a ball bounce exactly through a number of hoops if the speed at which the wheel is spun is done at the exact right speed. Anyway, we thought this looked pretty awesome and reacted accordingly with a host of oohhs and ahhhhs. The child that was spinning the wheel heard us, looked up and automatically offered us to spin the wheel, since we were obviously so amazed by it. We declined and were even more amazed than the balls going through hoops amazed us in the first place. A child is giving up his turn at the wheel in order to be polite? That would never ever happen where we are from. Children generally have more trouble with giving up their turn than anything else and would never let a passerby take their turn because they were obviously amazed. Just imagine a culture in which even the children  are this polite.

Another example. I was walking over the street with my camera, thinking about what I was going to take a picture of. But while I was walking with my camera in my hand I noticed everyone was walking unusually around me. Every single person in front of me was crouching down to make sure they wouldn’t obstruct the picture I was going to take. Even though I didn’t even have my camera pointed at anything, they were still all crouching down. That’s Japan for you, endlessly considerate, even if it is completely unnecessary.

But all of this friendliness and politeness does go together with strict social codes. For instance, you are not allowed to attend a party if you have not formally been introduced to all of the people present at least three times. Formally introducing someone goes in the following way. If you are with someone and that person runs into someone they know, you will be introduced by way of exchanging names and subsequently you will be expected to excuse yourself to let the two acquaintances make a chat. Not until you’ve been introduced to that person at least three times does it count as “knowing” a person well enough in order to attend a party at which that person is present.

Just another example. People who live on the ground floor will always keep their curtains closed so passersby can’t look inside. This is not because they are ashamed of what the inside of their house looks like or anything like that. No, it is considered to be rude to bother passersby with the inside of their house. They don’t need to be bothered with it, so therefore you should not bother them with it either.

Thanks to all of this politeness it is much more pleasant to visit Japan than China. But I do wonder what would be a more pleasant place to live. A place where politeness is taken so far that there is a complicated web of norms to abide to? Or a place where you don’t have to worry about being polite to the people around you? Of course China has its own set of strict social norms and the concept and fear of losing face is just as ingrained in Chinese culture as in Japanese culture. But still I think I would feel more at ease in a place where I don’t have to worry about being polite all the time.

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5 responses to “The Japanese art form of extreme politeness”

  1. Inder lalwani says :

    Good artical

  2. Corrie Speelman says :

    Your picture of the correct angle of the bows, reminded me about how your grandfather, Opa van Oosten, would from time to time yell out a Japanese phrase that required the internees of the concentration camp to bow for their masters in a certain way. If not done absolutely correct, severe corporal punishment was meted out. My parents did not experience the Japanese politeness, I can assure you.

    • Sanne says :

      That totally shows the other side of the story! I can remember him reciting a lot of Japanese phrases that were engraved in his memory. Whenever we talk about the war with Japanese people they won’t talk about it a lot. They’ll just say something like, we don’t talk about that very much and the conversation will just peter out. It’s a completely different way of dealing with the war than the Germans have. We might still write a blog about that as well.

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