Many Japanese perceive themselves as being very, very polite. Even if a visitor comes here quite briefly, this can be the impression with which they also walk away. There is so much bowing and there are so many polite greetings. The streets, compared to those in many other countries, are very clean and people are dressed immaculately. Stay longer and you’ll discover a near obsession with anticipating the needs of others and “reading the atmosphere”.
Most of this comes under the definition of omotenashi. Omotenashi, already considered something of a unique trait, has become a big thing here since it was used in the campaign to get the 2020 Olympics for Tokyo Olympics. While it is originally intended as a way of describing how guests and customers should be treated, it can be summarised, as in the above link, as “to be treating others as generously as possible without expecting any favor in return.”
It’s a lovely idea, but the whole thing starts to sour a bit, though, when you perhaps eventually learn that you are less capable of these things yourself by virtue of just not being Japanese or, to try for a marginally less offensive stance, just not being educated to the same extent in these ways. Perhaps that sounds a bit harsh, bitter, and/or cynical, but there’s definitely something of an issue that gets considered in this article from The Japan Times about the whole concept of ‘omotenashi’ and the line that gets crossed between simply taking pride in one’s manners and a sense of arrogance and superiority.
The whole thing sours even further when you discover the lack of practical good manners.
After I discovered I was pregnant and the fetus grew large enough that a heartbeat could be registered (the requirement for this area, but not necessarily for everywhere else), I was required to go a department of our local ward and register the expected due date of the baby. As well as being given a lot of documents of varying degrees of usefulness and a special book in which to record mine and the baby’s medical information, I was given a tag like this:
The words translate to “there is a baby in my stomach”. It was intended that I affix this to my bag so that, when on public transport and the like, people would know I was pregnant even if I didn’t yet look it and let me sit down, especially in the priority seats.
Only after getting through the hazardous first trimester did I start to use the tag. The fact that first trimester is actually when I felt worst yet I wasn’t yet supposed to really admit to being pregnant is one of the cruel little ironies of the whole experience. Yet I waited and then, still not entirely convinced that this pregnancy would result in a baby at the end rather than disaster, I decided to start using it. While the symptoms of pregnancy were damn awful, I was still delighted by the existence of the baby at all and figured I would enjoy it as long as it lasted. Furthermore, I was still tired and occasionally nauseated by the time I headed into the second trimester, though, and starting to get subtly bigger, so I figured being able to get a seat was probably a good thing.
What happened after I started using that tag was an experience that I hadn’t had before in Japan. I became invisible.
People no longer wanted to gawk at the foreigner. Instead, I was a threat to their much-sought arse cushioning. If I stood on the train or the bus, the people around me would miraculously either fall asleep or become stunningly transfixed by their phones… except when they stole glances up to see if I was still there. Getting larger and larger until the pregnancy was undeniably obvious didn’t change matters at all. As I write this, I’m 39 weeks pregnant and I’ve been offered a seat a grand total of twice. In both cases, the people offering – a mother with a baby, and a wizened old lady – were both at least as entitled to the seats themselves. In both cases, as well as numerous others where nobody offered me a seat at all, there were other, healthier people also sitting in the priority seats who could quite easily have given up their seat. I accepted in the first case only because I was also lugging a bunch of work stuff with me. I declined the latter.
That’s just one personal example, but there are numerous others just from within my circle of acquaintances. There’s the panicked foreigners on the confusing trains to the airport whom everyone decides they can’t see and/or are too frightened to help. There’s the time I had a ridiculously heavy suitcase and several bags that I could barely carry, yet all I got were curious stares from passers by – my own fault, yes, but still upsetting. There’s the simple inability to make minor changes to a dish in a restaurant – in this case, wanting just the soda part of an ice cream soda (and not expecting to pay any less). Worst, there was the overt groping of a female friend on a not very crowded public train by a stranger that the other passengers just ignored.
All of these are instances where a bit of common sense and genuine willingness to just help because you can would go a very long way, and be far more genuinely helpful than any overly-ritualised carry-on of simply showing good manners.
Like everything in life, there’s a balance to it, I know. I’m not saying all the (sometimes surprising) polite rituals are bad or silly. I love that, for example, the train drivers are dressed and behave more like pilots than truck drivers like they do back home, I think bowing and nodding are simple yet effective communication strategies and a lot of the immaculately prepared dishes and arts and whatnot really are lovely.
Personally, though? I’d happily take a little less obsessive formalised needs anticipation and belief in the superiority of one’s taste in exchange for something a bit more genuinely helpful.