Only In Japan

Friday, April 27, 2007

Politeness

"I'm an alien, I'm a legal alien..."
Some friends invited me to a karaoke party last week-end, and as usual I sang my favourite Sting song, "An Englishman in New York". I think that song is particularly funny when sung by a foreigner in Japan, but apparently the irony was lost on my friends; still they waited patiently for me to finish so that they could go back to the Morning Musume.

If "manners maketh man" as someone said, then the Japanese are the heroes of the day.

Or are they?

While it is true that the Japanese are probably the most polite and best mannered people on Earth, their attitude towards etiquette is certainly a bit different from Westerners'.
In the West, manners are quite equalitarian: everyone expects more or less the same level of politeness from everyone. Sure, senior citizens and pregnant women get a bit more attention, but basically everyone else has the same rights and duties.
In Japan and other Confucean countries like Korea and China, society is fundamentally unequalitarian. Confucianism is the social doctrine upon which East Asia was built; it is a school of thought that clearly defines each individual's place in society and his/her rights and duties based on age, gender, rank in society, order of birth among siblings... All these clearly define who is "junior" and who is "senior" in any relationship, as well as what behaviour and manner level are appropriate.

In concrete terms, this means that the level of properness you can expect in Japan varies much more considerably than in the West. For example in a public place, a woman in her early 20's has to have impeccable manners to almost everyone; but a male executive in his 40's will think nothing of leisurly picking up his nose in a crowded train (a common and thoroughly disgusting feature of commuting in Japan, unfortunately). But a lot also depends on context: if a punk teenage girl goes shopping to a department store (also a common occurence), she is a customer and behaves as such: she isn't required to show any deference to the sales attendants, whereas all said store attendants have to show her the utmost respect - even men who could be her grandfather. That always cracks me up!

Another important factor determining how politely a Japanese person will behave is how close he/she is to the other person. The uchi/soto paradigm has the Japanese behave very formally with people from outside their circle or in public settings (soto), but with little restraint when with people from their group (uchi). Since most foreigners only see the Japanese in soto situations, the cliche of the Japanese as always polite has become deeply ingrained in the West; but actually, the Japanese can be very harsh and rude to each other when no "outsider" is watching.

If you are a foreigner travelling in Japan though, fear none; unless you do something really stupid, everyone will be exceedingly polite to you; and there is even a good chance that someone will behave warmly to you eventhough you're soto, just because they're glad to see a foreigner showing interest in their country.

There is also a good chance that at some point during your trip, you will get to know the feeling of being a "legal alien"...

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