I do not slurp. But I believe my Japanese yatai comrades that slurping displays a passion for cuisine and can improve the ramen’s taste. Hence, it is not an impolite deed. Nor is it when Japanese tell me, “Hana ga takai!” They’re actually complimenting me on my big nose. Truly, I am impassioned with Japan. The ever-changing seasons and their colors, delightful festivals; the healing onsen and timeless ryokan. Most of all, the people: their sense of aesthetics, their vitality, their warmth and sensitivity. And especially their consideration for others–that is, their politeness. Of the forty countries I have been to, Japan is by far the most civil. Where else in the world would a clerk come running down the street, shouting, “O-kyakusan! Forgot two yen change!” Or, when asking directions, where else would I be accompanied 20 minutes to my destination, warmly chatting along the way? And where could I leave a 50,000 yen camera on a bench in the city for two hours, returning to find it still there?
Still, Japanese graciousness runs deeper, and is more subtle than these niceties; the thoughtful omiyage, the courteous language. It lies in their listening closely, their focus on others’ needs, and in their willingness to create a genki atmosphere. We non-Japanese have much to learn from this graceful, refined dignity. So, why in such a polite country, do we come across some awful manners?
Perhaps there ought to be some common standards of politeness–a small handful of agreed upon international manners. I don’t want to create a world of sameness–I’m from San Francisco, which is a real cultural melting pot. And in my world travels, I’ve followed the code, “When in Rome, do as the Romans do.” So, without ethnocentricity, let’s set some simple benchmarks on manners, starting with the subway. Space is required to exit a train. So why is it that people don’t let others get off before they rush on? On elevators and in and out of doors, it’s getting better; the train is the challenge. And one more thing, let’s give up our seats to the elderly, pregnant, or disabled, even if politeness forbids them from accepting. Come on, take a load off!
And how about the drivers. Wherever I have been, including my home country, there are uncouth drivers. Japan is no exception. My theory is that the Japanese spend so much time being polite, harmonizing with each other, that when surrounded by steel, in a seemingly private world, a repressed callousness lets loose. There’s a lot of rude driving, dangerous cutting off, impatient beeping of horns, and double-parking that makes other drivers think they are entitled to swerve into oncoming traffic to avoid. Also, at designated crosswalks, let’s allow people to walk at a normal pace. When I see an oba-chan hustling across in front of my stopped car, I want to yell out, “Take your time!” And, what about the trash on the beaches? The Fukuoka area is blessed with a magnificent coastline, and yet, I know retired people who spend hours a day picking up garbage, mostly wrappers, and drink cans left by inconsiderate beach-goers. Hey, you keep your trendy clothes and car all spiffy, but what about the earth? It’s called responsibility!
Smoking. As a light smoker, it’s liberating to be allowed to smoke in most public places (unlike many Western countries.) But, c’mon, it stinks, and nobody wants it blown right in their faces. Fellow smokers, let’s be sensitive; ask permission of those around us before we light up.
Cycling–great for the environment. Cycling and using your mobile phone? No thanks. Why should I have to dart out of the way of you?
And, the dreaded sniffles. Instead of endless, grotesque gurgling and snorting, just excuse yourself, turn away, and blow.
This brings us to my prized ill-mannered experience. While gaijin body hair is sometimes stared at or discussed, what was really intolerable was having my chest hair tugged! Twice! Once by a teenager, who, in return, got a shove from me; and once by a middle aged man at an onsen, who received a gaze that was nothing less than “You’ve crossed the line, dude!”
Japan’s politeness, and some of the poor manners above, is truly one of the biggest paradoxes I’ve experienced. Still, let’s pause and remember, we Westerners have our own faux pas. We’re often too opinionated, selfish, or downright arrogant. We move suddenly and loudly, and speak in voices Japanese may consider thunderous. Certain foreigners have the habit of sloshing soy sauce over everything, or wearing their shoes inside. And, one I’m guilty of: eating while walking. This gaijin occasionally likes his maki zushi on the go!
By Jake Pass, Radio DJ & Media Guy
Illustrations copyright Shirley Waisman