On being polite

Being polite. We expect people to be polite. As Canadians we pride ourselves on being polite to the point of being silly (“I’m sorry … you first. No really … go ahead!”)

My recent trip to Japan made me stop and stare sometimes at the incredible lengths Japanese go to be polite … all without really realising it. Our tour guide in Tokyo laughingly explained that bowing to each other is so ingrained that you may often see a business man on his cell phone having a discussion and bowing at the same time – even though the person on the other side cannot see him. It’s a bit like how the Italians speak on the phone with all the gestures just to emphasise the point.

Spend a couple of weeks in Japan and you find yourself bowing to all and sundry – which can become quite a habit. It’s a great idea actually – in these days of colds and flu – much better to bow than shake hands! But some habits I observed in Japan were quite astonishing and I must confess made me stare all the more (not very polite of me I am sure you will agree).

We caught the bullet train from Tokyo to Kyoto. As on any long distance train you have the little trolley with snacks and drinks that comes through the carriages. By the time the young lady attendant reached the end of the carriage and was about to depart the carriage for the next one she stopped, turned and faced all the passengers and gave a deep bow – before carrying on with her job. Wow!

While on the train I also noticed the Japanese have great respect for others around them and show this by not talking too loudly (if at all). And my goodness, every single man on the train had freshly polished shoes … I couldn’t help but notice.

Even the cleaning crew who have only 7 minutes to clean the bullet trains are super polite. Before and after they job they bow to the train and to the waiting passengers.

But the saga continues ….. when checking in for a domestic flight at one of the airports we were sitting at the designated gate. I noticed the flight crew and check in staff arriving at the gate. Before they even started their jobs they lined in in front of the check in desk, facing the waiting passengers, and all gave a deep bow. It was all I could do not to applaud them all!

I started to notice other differences – such as the immaculate taxi cabs with lacy seat covers or the fact that every small (cheap) purchase was meticulously wrapped by the shop assistant – as Lee Tulloch in an article for The Traveller noted –

“The concept of omotenashi, or selfless hospitality, is a cornerstone of Japanese culture. It’s a privilege for a host to welcome guests and make sure all their needs are seen to. This applies in every aspect of life, in shops, restaurants and even helping strangers in the street.”

However the Japanese don’t think they are polite at all which is why in 2016 they launched an initiative called the Good Manners Project and they have opened a special venue for this education project in Tokyo called the Good Museum. Wow – I think they are doing a pretty good job as it is.

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