Japanese Politeness?



Japanese Politeness
(source: Wikimedia)

During that first day in Takamatsu (May 19th 2009), I started to vaguely interact with Japanese people; and by “vaguely interact” I mean, “look at them interacting with each other.” Which brings us to our next topic: the world-famous Japanese politeness.

First of all, remember, I alluded to it when mentioning making noise while slurping Udon, I am fully aware that politeness is a highly arbitrary and cultural concept. What is considered very polite in one country will be considered rude in another one and vice-versa. That always creates interesting situations with foreigners abroad, regardless of whether you are the foreigner or the local. Japan is no different here.

For example, one thing that really surprised me is that despite the fact that Japanese people are always extremely polite with each other with they communicate, when they’re not talking, I sometimes find them extremely… I want to say “impolite”, but this is where cultural subjectivity intervenes. So, let’s say that I find them cold, almost rough with each other. For example, when people who don’t know each other are in a situation where they don’t have to talk to each other, they’ll do anything they can to avoid talking. To the point of pretending that the other person doesn’t exist when possible.

Even stranger, take a place that is slightly crowded, for example a store, when people are in the way of somebody else, whether because that other person wants to walk through or grab something; instead of simply saying something along the lines of “excuse me”, they’ll try to squeeze in, they’ll even wriggle around without a word. Of course, it is very unlikely that the people that are in the way will move or say something. Because of that I witnessed interesting situations that were this close to slapstick comedy. Especially when I notice that I’m in the way of somebody else. Usually, I notice when it’s already too late, as the person didn’t say anything. As a reflex, I’ll push aside. Usually in the same direction that the person is already trying to sneak through. Yes, a few old ladies almost ended up in my arms just like that.

The other option being to gently push the person who is in the way, still without a word. “Gently” being sometimes optional, for example when that old lady wanted to grab cucumbers behind me. I never could figure out if it was normal behavior, or if it was because she was old and such above the rules, or if it was because I’m a foreigner and as such “below the rules”.

Yes, that type of behavior really surprised me coming from a people who is usually so nice and so gentle (at least from my neophyte point of view).

Now, I understand better why those two Japanese women almost freaked out that day on Rue Saint-Augustin in Paris, when they were in my way, I was in a hurry, they were slow and I told them a strong (but gentle) “sumimasen” right from behind them (as it’s common practice in Paris, just replace “sumimasen” with “pardon!”).


The tale of what happened and my first impressions of that day is far from over and continues there.


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