Japanese manners are often remarked upon with awe and wonder by visitors to this country, but you seldom hear a word about Japanese courtesy.
If manners are the form and framework of ordained behavior within a society, courtesy is the street-level, day-to-day deference to and respect for the needs and rights of others. While the protocols of formality are admirable, if a culture does not also enshrine the quotidian compromises, small and large, that comprise simple courtesy, the former are next to worthless. And in this respect, Japan is woefully deficient.
Before going further, let me stipulate to a few objections from the gallery.
First, my home country is the United States, whose citizens are universally known as pushy, loudmouthed oafs. That characterization is not inaccurate. Indeed, no matter how overbearing Americans appear to be, when you really get to know us we are far worse.
Second, Japan is, on balance, the most courteous country in Asia. Her neighbors tend to fall far short, with one in particular having raised incivility to an art form, albeit one that will never have its own museum.
But being less objectionable than “Ugly Americans” or the obnoxious jerks who live next door is hardly something to brag about. Which is why the Japanese would do well to recognize that they have become contenders in the global discourtesy sweepstakes.
For example: I have been making extended visits to this country for more than 15 years, and in that time I have walked thousands of kilometers in cities of various sizes. Yet after all those years and across all that real estate, I can still count on the fingers of one hand the instances in which a pedestrian walking toward me has altered his or her course to allow me to pass by without having to step to one side.
It just never happens.
I have been forced to walk into busy streets and slosh through ankle-deep puddles. I have been elbowed into the sides of buildings whose rough exteriors scraped raw the material of my clothing. I have tripped, staggered and stumbled to avoid people who meandered in front of me like torpid streams, or charged blindly out of shop doors and into the flow of pedestrians, or cut in front of me from one side and then assumed the pace of a slug.
And why must bicyclists approach pedestrians on sidewalks from behind in stealth, rather than ringing the bell on their handlebars or otherwise announcing their presence? Would it kill them to slow down before severing the Achilles tendons of innocents in their path?
The unspoken message conveyed in each of these moments is “I’m more important than you are, and my rights supersede yours.” But making room for other people is a normal part of city life. I do it instinctively, and this is not a behavior drummed into me in childhood by strict parents because I was, to all intents and purposes, raised by wolves. It’s just something a conscientious person should do, and even a ruffian like me can be sufficiently aware of his surroundings to make adjustments on the fly. The Japanese? Not so much.
Perhaps the most egregious discourtesy present in Japanese society is the one that pushes me and many other Westerners to the threshold of murder. Leave aside for the moment free coughing and explosive sneezing unimpeded by a hand in front of mouth or nose — the nonpareil delivery vectors of every bacteriological horror. Above and beyond even those is the courtesy crime of crimes: incessant sniveling.
Be it in a restaurant, on a bus, train or long-haul flight, few circumstances are as maddening. Why blowing one’s nose is considered bad manners but hour upon hour of loud sniffing is acceptable is to me one of Japan’s insuperable mysteries.
And we’re talking here not just about common courtesy, but also about common sense. Ask a doctor how wise it is to retain mucus in your sinus cavities and you will get the look that is apparently taught in the first year of medical school — the one that wordlessly asks, “Are you stupid or what?”
I could go on, of course. Yet this is less a rant than a cri de coeur.
In Britain, merely jumping a queue is considered tantamount to a war crime, and the word “sorry” is applied liberally to all slights, real or imagined. In the Netherlands, where the cold wind off the North Sea can slice you to ribbons, tissues are employed without a second thought, and no one spends half his life sniffing like a bugwit.
I love Japan and I love being here. But while impeccable manners are a welcome component of any society, it’s courtesy that makes life tolerable.
So how about it, friends? Surely you can do better.
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