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.


My thoughts after coming back from Europe for the first time: 5 little reasons why living in Tokyo is awesome.

Long time no update! It has been a very busy last few weeks, partly because I was traveling across Europe. I actually went outside, lived life, and didn’t touch a computer or watch TV the whole time. I’m basically a whole new Johanna.

It's the little things in life.

It’s the little things in life.

Anyway, spending time outside of Japan is always good for reminding you of the reasons why you like living here despite it’s various foibles. I’m feeling pretty refreshed, so here is my quick list of why Tokyo is an awesome place to call home.

1. Trains are on time and easy to understand. (Germany, I’m looking at you when I’m writing this.) Most places in Tokyo will have coloured AND numbered diagrams for the subway and train lines, so figuring out how to get from A to B is not a huge ordeal. There are also usually station employees around to ask questions, and they will probably give you the right answer. (Again, Germany I’m looking at you.) If a train is cancelled, then expect to be showered in apologies. (Hi Germany, remember me?)


The red face in distress needs to have a more exasperated look in order to be more accurate, in my humble opinion.

2. 24 hour convince stores. Want 200 mL of milk at 2am, BAM. No big deal. Need to withdraw cash, buy a specific flavour of green tea, then pay your water bill? DONE. The more places I go to, the more I realise how unique these 24 hour beacons of convenience truly are.

写真 5

Not a Family Mart for miles. Sure, maintaining several hundred years of beauty is fine and all, but can you truly call that living?!

3. FREE toilets. I was prepared to pay for the bathrooms, but you have to drop .50 to 1.00 euro to use the facilities even in department stores and some bars (and that is just asking for trouble.) The toilets in Japan still reign an unwavering first place in my heart.

Toilets are one of the main reasons we can have civilization people.

Toilets are one of the main reasons we can have civilization people.

4. Very specific portion sizes. We tried to cook at home a few times when we were traveling, but it is hard to buy groceries for just 1 meal. Japanese supermarkets usually sell 食べ切り (tabekiri, eat up in one go) size selections of cheese, vegetables, meat, etc, so I was faced with figuring out how to deal with leftovers. I cannot eat 300 grams of cheese in one sitting. Total first world problem, but if you are just cooking for 2 people who only eat at home half of the time, excess food tends to go to waste more often than not. **Nerd Alert** I understand that the unit price will increase with the purchase of smaller portions, but I really hate wasting food and am willing to pay a “premium” just for the portion I need in most circumstances.

If you have excess cheese then you should pair it with excess wine.

If you have excess cheese then you should pair it with excess wine.

5. Your stuff will almost never be outright stolen, and lost items are highly likely to be returned in the condition it was found.

Everyone and everyTHING is apparently out to get your wallet. Stay on your toes.

Outside of Japan everyONE and everyTHING is apparently out to get your wallet. Stay on your toes.

The overlooked pitfalls of hanami: part 2

Hanami, the tradition of having picnics and drinking under cherry trees while they are in bloom, is something you will be invited to with a 99% certainty if you are in Japan during the springtime. It’s an institution. Part 1 was just the tip of the iceberg, so I’d like to share some more things that people tend to forget about hanami.

Cherry blossoms are only in bloom for around 2 weeks, so before the petals fall everyone will be out taking pictures.Everything just look so different compared with the rest of the year, it’s almost the trees are made of pink popcorn. Feels like Candy Land really happened.

From the serious photography enthusiast to the run-of-the-mill smart phone instagramer will be snapping dozens of photos trying to get their own best shot. The sheer amount of photography going around you can be pretty distracting if you happen to be sitting directly under a tea that is in full bloom. Some random guy you don’t know will come by to take pictures of the totally innocuous tree you all happen to be sitting under. 5 minutes later a completely different person will stop by and take more photos. It won’t stop.

What are all these close up photos of the tree for exactly? I don’t want to sound completely jaded, but the flowers usually look exactly the same as the previous year. I went through my person photo collection, and this is more or less what my album looks like:
As for the picnic part of hanami, a casual get together means that each person will bring 3-4 drinks and a variety of snacks to last the afternoon. However, after the first or second beer you will probably realise that you don’t have the combination of “enough” or “the right” snacks. This problem is something that I call dunger, drunk hunger.

That feeling where you want to eat, but you don’t know what you want to eat, especially when you are drinking. The snacks you brought with you? No. That isn’t going to fill that pit in your stomach. No matter how well you think you prepared your food, you didn’t. You will need something… more.

Dunger in the park is dangerous. There are several food carts of questionable legitimacy set up in the area during this season, and you will 100% lose out to temptation. Usually you have the choice of doughy or noodle things that are cooked on a griddle like takoyaki or okonomiyaki, or meat things on a stick like jumbo franks and yakitori.

Normal dunger is something I can deal with, but this hanami dunger is its own animal. It digs at you, and you can’t ignore it. You eventually have to buy questionable food on a stick because it starts to look enchantingly delicious. You feel a bit self-conscious after buying it because no one can feel attractive eating greasy things on a stick while squatting in the middle of the park. However, it is best to embrace this feeling and empower yourself in this moment of triumph over dunger.
I will never not be doing this during hanami.

I will never not be doing this.

Hanami all takes place around the end of March or beginning of April, so while the afternoons are warm and pleasant, it still gets a bit chilly near the end of the day. This is especially true if you are just sitting around and drinking. You will start to feel pretty cold around 4pm.

“Why didn’t you plan ahead and bring a warmer jacket?” You will think to yourself, but it’s already too late. We all lie to ourselves and say that we’ll  be done by 3pm. But nah… You never leave before it starts to get dark out. Time flows differently during hanami. You get caught up talking with your friends or watching the group next to you get drunk and dance to reggae music blasting from an iPhone. Time just simply slips away from you.
This is me by 5pm.

This is me by 5pm.

Just bring an extra jacket or a blanket. Once hypothermia sets in you chances of survival decrease substantially.

I’m totally planning to do hanami this year. Don’t get me wrong- I love going outside and doing the whole rigmarole, but it seems that no one really gets ready for the hardships of hanami. This year will be different. This year I’m finally ready.

The overlooked pitfalls of hanami: part 1

It’s creeping up to that time of year where the cherry trees will bloom, replacing the grey undertones of winter with the soft, pink glow of spring. The blossoms only last a short time before the petals fall to the ground, so you have a very small window of time to enjoy the flowers.

Japanese people really look forward to Spring. It’s the time of the year with the best weather, so that coupled with the pink cherry trees means that everyone will head outside and have picnics in the park. This is called hanami. It can also be used as an excuse to drink outside in the afternoon, especially students and salarymen who seem to embrace that part of the spirit of hanami.  Some parks light up the trees at night, and you can keep on doing hanami even after the sun goes down.

Hanami is fun and all, but I think people have overly romanticized the whole thing. I’ve been thinking about my hanami experiences, and it seems that there are a few critical hanami problems that are continually overlooked.

It all adds up now

I’m going to be prepared this year.

For one thing it is almost impossible to find your friends if you try to meet inside the park. On the peak days some parks are as crowded as Disneyland. There will be literally dozens of people on their cellphones walking around trying to meet up with their group. What do you say to figure where you are in a park with no landmarks to reference from?

Raising my hand. Surely no one else has thought of this!

Raising my hand. Surely no one else has thought of this!

“I’m under the really big pink tree.”

“To my left there are some guys drinking beer.”

“40 meters away there was some trash bins.”

It’s pretty futile to try to describe the area where you are to anyone. My best advice is to wander around until you randomly find your friends. If you can’t find your friends, join a group that is already drinking and make them your friends. It is probably easier that way.

It gets pretty ridiculous as people get desperate to find each other. There are just that many people in the park.  If it is really crowded people will start waving hands and jumping up and down, but even then there are at least 10 other people doing the same thing to get the attention of their friends.

Another thing that happens quite often is that someone will bring wine. A moderate vintage perhaps? How thoughtful… until you realize the bottle has a cork and no one brought a cork screw. Not so thoughtful.

This is a good example of a first world problem.

This is a good example of a first world problem.

At this point you will have to access your inner Macgyver. With a small selection of ordinary items, you must figure out how to open the bottle and save the liquid inside. Are you up for this challenge?

Of course you can ask around to see if another group brought an opener, but the odds might not be in your favor. Most people just bring cans of alcohol, so a corkscrew is not exactly something that people will have on them. Your best chance is to look around to see if anyone else is drinking wine, but there is also a chance that their wine had a screw-off cap. That wine might be trapped in the bottle forever at this rate.

After drinking for a while you will eventually have to go to the bathroom. Those 3-4 beers you sucked down? Well guess what…you have to go. NOW.

You walk towards the public bathrooms and see a long line. A very long line. This is going to take a while. Why weren’t you smart enough to go after the second beer? The women’s bathroom line is going to be at least 50 people long, so you will just have to play the dangerous game of holding it for 20 minutes. It’s a character building exercise.

I thought weren't going to treat each other badly anymore.

I thought we weren’t going to treat each other badly anymore.

Beer, what have I ever done to you?

I think what makes hanami different from any other picnic or BBQ in Japan is the fact that it is so crowded, it takes an incredible amount of effort to enjoy it. It’s not for the faint of heart.