While I am reticent to make generalizations about the personalities of an entire race, I must concede that the stereotype of Japanese people being extremely polite has always rung true in my experience. It’s extremely striking to see a nation so organized, with rules (both written and unwritten) so readily obeyed.
Many tourists are taken aback by the politeness of the locals when they visit Japan. In this article, we’ll explore whether a personal attribute such as politeness can conceivably be attributed to an entire nation, and what common behaviors led to the politeness stereotype.
It goes without saying that there are, of course, rude people in every country – for the purposes of this article I am referring to my own experience of Japanese people and the many stories I’ve heard from others about traveling in Japan.
Japan isn’t exactly what you’d call a melting pot – despite the presence of foreigners, it can be notoriously difficult for a person to truly incorporate themselves into Japanese society if they aren’t a native. This is a subject that needs an article in itself – for this one, let’s just look at the effects that a homogenized nation might have on perceived politeness.
Different cultures bring with them different sets of behavioral norms – and in a society where people come from all sorts of different backgrounds, we see all sorts of different behaviors. In a culturally homogenized nation, we see people who all come from very similar backgrounds and carry similar values. In the case of Japan, the value in question is politeness.
Japanese philosophies are informed by a number of underlying beliefs. Confucian teachings encourage respectfulness and living as a community, while Shintoism encourages group harmony (read more about Shintoism here). These teachings have been passed down through generations of Japanese people, and heavily influence the polite behaviors we see in Japanese society.
Most Western countries practice a culture of individualism. Japan, and many other Eastern countries, have a collectivist philosophy that can be alarming for foreigners when they first witness it in action. While individualist cultures value qualities such as uniqueness and autonomy, collectivist cultures emphasize the importance of acting with the good of society in mind. This collectivist philosophy lends itself well to the idea of being respectful of other people.
Status of Different Members of Society
In Japanese culture, there is a very clear hierarchy within society. This is seen explicitly through the different language used to address various groups and rituals. For example, the polite tense is always used when addressing elders, and in a business situation, the more senior staff will leave a room first. These constant explicit reminders of status reinforce the idea of politeness as a social norm in Japanese society.
Politeness is taught to children at a very early age, both inside and outside the home. For example, in the school system, there is a big emphasis on respect for teachers. There are explicit classroom rituals for even the youngest students that focus on the value of politeness – for example, rising when the teacher enters the room and serving your fellow students their lunch. You can read more about the Japanese classroom experience here. Emphasizing the importance of politeness at such a formative age is likely to have a huge impact on the psyche of Japanese children, and instill polite behaviors that last into adulthood.
The aforementioned Confucian teachings that underpin Japanese ethics place huge importance on rituals. Much of Japanese social behavior is based on the importance of ritual – many interactions are scripted to an extent. Take, for example, a job interview – the entrance and leaving of the room is choreographed to the extent that candidates might lose out on jobs if they put a bow in the wrong place.
Many of these rituals involve profusely thanking people (such as service staff) – which to Western people comes across as extremely polite.
Though many of Japan’s societal rules are unwritten, there are many places where you will see them written down also. Illustrated lists of rules are commonplace in many public amenities – including hotels and trains. These lists explicitly outline how consumers are expected to behave – and the Japanese are excellent at following rules to the letter. The constant physical reminder of how to behave in public reinforces polite behavior.
Cultural Avoidance of Conflict
Conflict in Japan exists but is not dealt with as it would be in a Western country. If you wanted to make a complaint about the service, for example, you would not directly make a verbal complaint to the person you are unhappy with. The complaints process would likely involve lengthy correspondence with a third party as a mediator.
You are therefore unlikely to see a Japanese person becoming visibly annoyed – even in situations you might perceive as frustrating. It can also lead to awkward situations, where a Japanese person is at such pains to appear agreeable – you might end up making numerous social mistakes without correction because your Japanese peers are so reluctant to offend. This lack of explicit conflict is often interpreted by foreigners as extreme politeness.
Emphasis on Reputation and Public Image
How one is perceived by society is extremely important in Japan. If a person is seen as a negative influence in some way, others must show self-restraint (jishuku) by declining to associate with that person. As such, being seen as different or a societal rebel can lead to exclusion.
Understandably, Japanese people, therefore, place huge value on reputation (tatemae) and the easiest way to be perceived as a decent person is to behave in a polite and upstanding manner. This leads to a sense of trust within society – Japanese people will often do things like leaving a bag or phone unattended at a restaurant table when they go up to order, so harsh would the societal ostracising be for a person who stole said items.
Again, this can lead to awkward situations – a Japanese person may not want to be seen to not understand something you say, for example, and could be happily nodding along with your conversation completely oblivious of what’s being said.
Many foreigners are blown away by the hospitality they receive when visiting Japan. There are many stories about local people going completely out of their way to assist with directions, and foreigners being baffled that they expect nothing in return for their kindness.
This is because of the Japanese culture of omotenashi, which translates roughly to selfless hospitality. Omotenashi emphasizes the idea that to receive a guest is a great privilege, rather than a burden. This translates into a culture of helpfulness and friendliness towards tourists, which is a large part of where the Japanese stereotype of politeness comes from.