One of the first things you notice when you visit Japan is how nice and polite everyone seems to be. Shop staff bow to you, people greet you in the hotel lobby, even the guy at the "combini" sprints across the store to open up the second register when there’s more than one person waiting to be served.
But spend any prolonged amount of time here and you’ll realise that there are plenty of rude people here too (just like in the rest of the world…). And there are even a few niceties we in the West generally perform as a matter of habit that just aren’t part of the Japanese way of doing things.
So just how are Westerners unintentionally schooling the Japanese in manners?
According to controversial blogger Madame Riri, who often has something to say about foreigners in Japan in general, there are three things that foreigners (for the sake of argument, let’s say Westerners, since that’s who Riri is really talking about here) do that make us even more polite than the Japanese. As always, we should take Madame Riri’s words with a pinch of salt, but she might be on to something this time…
1. Foreigners hold doors open for strangers, Japanese don’t
It’s true that people generally don’t hold doors open for strangers here. It’s not like they let them slam in anyone’s face or anything like that, but there isn’t such a culture of door-holding being a way to show politeness. Often, in the Western world, we’ll hold doors open for people who aren’t actually anywhere near the door yet. This gesture is unmistakably kind, but can also lead to awkward situations where people feel obliged to trot towards a door so as not to further inconvenience the benevolent soul is holding open for them – it’s all terribly embarrassing, especially if you’re British and wired that way. Still, because my parents raised me to be hyper-vigilant about manners and stuff, I hold doors for people here in Japan. (It’s more of a reflex, and I really can’t help it.) I’m usually met with a grateful, but slightly bemused smile.
Madame Riri claims that the reason Westerners have this odd door-holding culture is because we consider it the height of rudeness to let a door close on someone who is in our vicinity. She might have something there…
2. Foreigners say “thank you” to shop staff, Japanese people don’t
Another thing you may quickly come to notice upon visiting Japan is just how few customers acknowledge convenience store staff at the register. This actually isn’t considered all that rude in Japan – the staff aren’t expecting a “thank you”, they’re just doing their job, and part of it is to greet (usually in a very loud voice) and be unbearably polite at all times. But in the UK, the thought of not saying “thank you” to a cashier fills me with cold dread. In fact, I advise you to never forget your “thank you” in the UK (or a simple ‘cheers’ if you’re not feeling especially vocal), otherwise the shop staff are likely to look at you with disgust and question whether you were raised by wolves the second you’re out the door.
Strangely considering how much effort they put into greetings and thank-yous, small-talk with shop staff isn’t really a thing in Japan. In my homeland, you can often expect a brief back-and-forth about the weather and a “see you later” at the end of the transaction, even if you’ve never seen the person before in your life and are likely to never see them again, so I feel compelled to at least say thank you to shop staff here in Japan. I usually get a surprised smile in return, which I suppose is a good enough reason to keep doing it.
Riri claims that the reason people in Japan often don’t offer a single word of thanks to shop staff is because, unlike the English phrase “thank you” which is quite snappy and can be fired off easily, “arigatou gozaimasu” is a bit of a mouthful. It’s purely for the sake of brevity, she suggests, that thanking shop staff isn’t a custom in Japan. Hmm…
3. Foreigners help out people with baby strollers, Japanese don’t
It’s true that you’re likely to see strangers helping people with baby strollers up and down train station steps back home in the U.S. and the UK. In fact, what kind of monster would just walk past someone struggling with a baby and a bulky buggy? But in Japan, you don’t really see this. Since taking trains is such an integrated part of Japanese lifestyle, lots of parents carry their babies in pouches while they’re still small to avoid having to struggle with a stroller. And Japanese stations are also quite accessible, with plentiful elevator access to platforms. Riri concedes that it’s not unheard of for a kindly Japanese salaryman to help carry a lady’s luggage up the platform steps but in general this seems to be something that happens much more often in Western countries.
Of course, this is all generalising, and there are probably people in Japan who do all of these things, and plenty of monsters in the West who don’t bother with any of them. Lots of Riri’s readers seem to agree with her, though, with one claiming: “Japanese people tend to mind their own business and keep to themselves a lot more in public than foreigners do, especially in crowded cities.” Another stated: “This is just a difference in culture and customs, not levels of politeness.”
Source: Madame Riri
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