View from Mt.Misen, Miyajima

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Common Courtesy and Politeness in Japan

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Hondori Shopping Area in Hiroshima.

I recently went to Miyajima to get out of my apartment and take advantage of the gorgeous weather. Going there alone and being a foreigner, I continuously became the photographer for many travelling families, couples and individuals. I’ve no problem with being asked to take pictures. But what I do have a problem with is a lack of respect and politeness. About sixty percent of those that asked said “Thank you” or something similar. Yet the remaining forty percent merely took their camera back and fucked off. Did they forget? Was it something I said? Or were they “just a bunch of fucking bastards”? My conclusion was the latter.

I’m a stickler for politeness and common courtesy. And while I’ve certainly slipped up my fair share of times, I’ve still made sure to say “thank you”, “sorry” and “please”. My parents are to blame for my strict compliance to the norms of social etiquette. My mother in particular, instituted a stringent regime all the way until my fifteenth birthday, and I think I’m a better person for it. I still curse like a Yorkshireman, but only when understanding the atmosphere, for instance; a football match or with friends. Yet my friends, Japanese teachers, and previous bosses have often commented on my civility, stating that I’m almost too nice. But the fact of the matter is that deep down, I’m a bit of grump and an unfair judge of character, another nod to me being British. But don’t tell anyone.

Living in Japan, arguably one of the most polite countries in the world, manners and courtesy are an integral part to its history, culture, politics, and social framework. When it comes down to it, Japanese society is very different from that of America and Britain. While America and Britain have increasingly become infatuated by the strength of the “individual” and the social freedoms that come with that, Japan chooses not to flaunt those freedoms to a similar degree. Instead it’s a society that takes pride in acting appropriately and fitting into its surroundings, unless alcohol is involved. I’ve witnessed my fair share of hushed muttering and unnerving glares from morning commuters towards obnoxious or immature individuals. It’s clear that respect and integrity are key principles to life in Japan, and they should for other countries too.

The notion was brought up in a recent conversation with a Japanese teacher. She was complaining about a group of noisy Americans on the train from Iwakuni, where the Marine Corps Air Station Base is located. I’ve had my fair share of frustrations and tension with a number of Marines at various restaurants and clubs, probably not a smart move. Consequently, my teacher asked me about Britain and whether this sort of ignorance was the same over there. I responded that “it depends on the situation, and where.” Coming back on the train after a football match is it’s own unpredictable experience, but in the quiet hamlets of Yorkshire there’s a genuine sense of geniality. But after the recent pursuit of Brexit, the social climate of Britain seems to be a tenuous one, so I’m not a hundred percent sure at this time.

Funnily enough when talking with Japanese people, I get the impression they believe us Brits to be much more considerate and well-behaved than other nationalities, especially the Chinese. I went to Koya-san last year in October, and had a friendly, short conversation with an English-speaking, volunteer guide. She asked if I needed her services which I politely said “Thank you for the offer, but I think I can manage. Have a nice day.” An instant smile came over her face, and she immediately responded with “You must be British. British people are always so nice”. I laughed and said “I’m sure that’s not the case”.

In our temperamental society where we’d rather stare at screens than have real conversations, it’s refreshing to be regarded with decency. When I offer my seat for a mother with kids or when I go to a doctor’s clinic, there’s a level of respect and gratitude that isn’t commonly present in western hospitality, especially back home. While it may be superficial at times (my experience in the retail industry), it’s still pleasant to be treated like an individual rather than a nuisance. Japan clearly deems politeness and consideration with incredibly high-regard and that’s why it’s garnered its reputation as being one of the most polite countries. I wish some of us Brits and other nationalities would take some of this onboard. However while I may create an image of Japan being a nation of benevolence and purity, it’s very conformity to it’s ideals of social behaviour is one that has proven to be a frustration to both foreigners and Japanese citizens. But I’ll discuss that another day.