On Being Polite

No matter where you go the area is guaranteed to be populated with some jerks. Maybe those jerks are being a different type of jerk than you are used to, but they are still jerks nevertheless.

The following question has come up in conversation a few times recently, and I’ve really been thinking about how to answer it because it isn’t really a yes or no question.

Are Japanese polite?

I guess it all depends on your definition of polite. Is saying please and thank you consistently polite? Is consideration towards others polite? Is it a combination of both?

While I can’t say the word never, you will probably not usually witness people in Tokyo go out of their way to hold a door or readily give up a seat for someone on the train or help carry a heavy suitcase for someone who is struggling with their luggage. It doesn’t really happen normally. It isn’t because people have some sort of deep-seated animosity amongst themselves, but rather that they occupy their own bubbles when they are outside, and rarely do they exit of their bubbles just to assist another person. It really isn’t expected to have random strangers do small favours for you, so it doesn’t really feel all that rude when someone will not hold a door, even if you are going through it right behind them.

In general you will see that most people will try to follow the rules or try to be as close as the perceived norm as possible. That means saying your aisatsu (挨拶 greetings), lining up and waiting in the predetermined spots with everyone else, and being mindful as for doing things that are not going to infringe on other people’s feelings. I these sort of things are what people are referring to when they talk about how Japanese are polite: bowing, constant thanking, and the use formal speech.

In America (and other places too probably, but I can only talk about what I have experienced!) saying “please” and “thank you” are drilled into you when you are kid as the necessary basic manners, which is not unlike Japanese children experience, but at the same time there is also a strong emphasis put on helping people whenever possible. I think that is why opening doors for others, giving up seats on a train, paying a quarter for the guy’s drink in front of you at Starbucks because they are a bit short and all of that are associated as a part of being polite.

I’m not saying that doing small favours for others in Japan isn’t taught to children, but being mindful of people’s feelings and not bothering others seems to be emphasised more. You’ll often hear moms and dads reprimand their kids with phrases like 迷惑かけないで!(don’t cause trouble for others). It feels like the average person in Tokyo will keep to themselves with everyday affairs, especially when out in public places.

However, I think this also has something to do with the fact that there is a conservation of kindness by trying to do a similar of “give and take” among the people around yourselves. If I do something nice for someone, then the party that received that favor feels obligated to do something in return so that we are even. If I buy the person in front of me a cup of coffee when they forgot their wallet, they will feel pressure to do something in return so that my kindness is repaid. There is actually a word in Japanese for having to be thanking for an unwanted favor: arigatai meiwaku(有難迷惑 thankful nuisance).

This kind of back and forth between people can sometimes start a vicious cycle of giving, and it will boil down into a contest of ultimate kindness.

I guess this is one of the reasons why Tokyo has so many faceless machines set-up everywhere to serve humans. You don’t have to feel obligated to do something in return for the automatic doors opening up for you, and it must relieve a bit of pressure from the cycle of obligated kindness.

These automatic door sensors really pick up a lot of slack and deserve more credit. Society would be a bit more crumbly without them.

These automatic door sensors really pick up a lot of slack and deserve more credit. Society would be a bit more crumbly without them.

If I were to make a blanket generalisation, than I think rather than outright saying Japan is just polite, it might be better said that it is, relatively speaking, incredibly organised and homogenized from a social standpoint. Tokyo lacks the chaos of places like New York City, despite being more crowded and moving at a faster pace. If you can sync to everyone’s wavelength in Tokyo, then you’ll feel very comfortable keeping to yourself and following the rules, albeit you’ll also probably stop holding open doors for strangers because that is just not a thing you do.


2 thoughts on “On Being Polite

  1. sakimi says:

    As a fellow 東京人, I have to say: excellent observation!
    I will refer people to this article when confronted with the usual “all Japanese are so polite!” response.


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