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We all know the Japanese are “very polite.” But being polite goes beyond just saying excuse me or thank you or holding the door open for someone. Let’s start with the word “teinei,” or “polite,” in Japanese. Teinei goes beyond the English word “polite” because it applies to far more than just people and their actions. In Japanese, you can treat a fragile item “politely” meaning “gently” or “with care.” A birthday present should be wrapped “politely.” A friend recently complimented my cat, exclaiming how “politely” she uses her litter box (clean and orderly).

Politeness can also be synonymous with respect. Putting other people first: giving them the biggest piece of cake, the best seat in the restaurant, or the center position in the photo, are all part of everyday politeness in Japan. The traditional Japanese house even has a dedicated seat for guests — the one in front of the tokonoma, so that the guest is framed in a background of the beauty of Japanese art (hanging scrolls, ikebana, ceramics, etc).

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