Wednesday, March 08, 2006

Nihon No Etiquette: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly.

It is a common myth that all Japanese people are courteous and polite. Much the same as Japan is one giant city. By looking at my photos of the country you will see landscapes and country side of all the beautiful nature in Japan as well. As such, it goes without saying that Japan has different mannerisms, qualities, and traits which make it a unique and wonderful country. Of course, as far as manners go, Japan is one that is proficient in all forms of politeness. All the way from the procedure to properly introduce your self and exchange business cards politely down to ordering in a restaurant, one will find that in Japan --courtesy and manners are not a lost art. However, this by no means accounts for the numerous crude and or rude people you may encounter.

As far as Japan is concerned, it is the Etiquette capitol of the world. But here are some things foreigners may experience while living in Japan which break down the illusion of perfect etiquette 24/7. But before you make judgements about the situations I have listed (with the help of my Japanese friends and people still living in Japan) you should know that they are isolated incidences like any --and are not the normal behavior of people. Rather, these events are a common shared experience by a specific demographic -mainly the 3% foriegners living in Japan today. I highly recommend that anyone interested in going to Japan ---DO!!! It's the best experience you will ever have!


This is Sayaka's greatest pet peeve... cigarette smoke. I must admit, it is annoying when your trying to eat a nice piece of yaki-niku but all you can taste is ash and smoke in your mouth. Also, just the close proximity of everybody makes smoking EVERYONE'S bad habbit in Japan. For a people who stress health a lot, it's suprising how hypocrytical they are as they smoke their 200 million cigarettes a day.

1) Cigarette smoke in your face. 90% of the population smokes, and so they think they have a right to smoke up your space too.

2) When you open a door, men walk through like it’s their inalienable right to have such service-not even a nod of a head. Even hardened western women’s lib independents will find the timing alone is a jolt, as they get trampled by Japanese men rushing to wherever they need to be.

3) Personal space and privacy doesn’t exist. You want a quite booth to eat at, expect more smoke in your face.

4) Japanese who think it’s cute to take a quick photo of the interesting looking foreigner without so much as a smile or nod of thank you. Not to mention those who follow you around just to snap a quick shot of the gaijin and then run off to show all their friends. (The first week I was in Japan I counted 23 snapshots taken of me. There of course was probably more I missed, but after a while you get used to it and ignore it. However this doesn't excuse the rudeness of the action.)

5) English Paparazzi, or those Japanese people so enamored with learning English, that they will stalk you halfway around town just to try and corner you into a little one on one English conversation practice. (One Japanese girl followed me all the way back to my dormitory five blocks away from Uni. when she cornered me and begged to speak English with me. I had to politely reject her. Another time, a guy from a totally different campus was sitting in our building's lobby waiting to talk to the first English speaking foriegner that walked in.)

6) Old business men who look up school girl’s skirts and when you try to voice your disdain you are ignored or shrugged off –reminding you that you are a worthless foreigner and to mind your own business. In a patriarchal and man dominated society chivalry is lost even on those who should know better. (I had this experience, but the Japanese school girls explained the rules of the game to me. "Japanese men are perverts," one girl told me. Her friend chimed in, "Yeah, so we let them look. If they try anything we take a picture of their faces and report them to the police." It was an informative experience, and the girls were nice enough to make me feel welcome by sharing their time and explaing what just happened; even though the grandpa age man practically spit on me for questioning his public & moral etiquette.)


7) Japanese men that stare at MY Japanese fiance, and oogle her with their mouths gaping, as if I'm not even there. (Again, this happens all the time. I know my girl is beautiful, and I don't mind the glances or turning heads, because half the time it's people that are curious about US as a couple. It's neat to see a bi-racial couple, but many times I have had the rare privilage to experience a rudeness to both Japanese women and foriegners. When men stare at my girl like I'm not there, disrespecting her and me, I feel like stopping in my tracks, do a 180 spin, and stare them down. However, with how often it happens I would probably only spin in circles until I get dizzy and fall over. It's best just to ignore such rudeness.)

8) Its ok to sleep at one's desk if you had a long night or too many drinks. Just don’t let the boss catch you.

9) Your boss will take naps at his desk anytime he damn well pleases. Even after he has just scolded you for falling asleep at your desk.

10) Snobbish elitism and rejection when you try to get into some of the classier drinking establishments on your own. Sometimes even when accompanied by a Japanese friend, they will reject your entrance with no other excuse than: we don’t allow foreigners.


Frustrtrating if you ever experienced this. J-List (source of the picture) sells other amusing t-shirts which bring an outsiders perspective on some of the cultural tension one may experience in Japan. But things like this are only funny in retrospect. They're never funny when you're experiencing them.

11) Women who try to pay for their English tutoring session with sex because they want to have bragging rights that they slept with a foreigner. (God knows there is an unlimited supply of foreign men willing to take this advantage, but what's really uncomfortable is trying to convince the girl that you can't sleep with her, especially when she is an attractive Asian woman who is offering you something she wouldn't easily give up to any normal non-English speaking guy. It still doesn't make it right; morally or professionally. But take away the moral conscience, the sexual taboos of society, and everyone's fair game --it's practically free sex with no emotional comitment, right? No. The downside, I know a guy who got fired from his English teaching job because he was sleeping with his students. Which begs one to question, who's etiquette is really lacking?)

12) Japanese who very openly and blatantly move away from you while standing on the train platform. What’s worse are those who move their kids away from you as if you are some sort of dangerous criminal.

13) Japanese Hot Springs and Spas which won’t admit you because you are not Japanese. (My roomates joked that this was the dreaded "penis envy" excuse not to admit foriegners.)

14) Being refused more food at a tabehodai (all you can eat restaurant buffet, i.e. “Viking”) because you’ve eaten too much food already. Even when you pull out the bulging wallet with cash, they refuse you but politely ask you to come again.


15) Japanese who know full well you speak their language but who speak down to you using tatemae 建て前 (implied meaning) as if you’re too stupid to understand what they’re really saying. (Strangely enough older people my grandparents age often tend to talk under their breath about you within earshot. My roomate from Texas once got called a "stupid gaijin monkey" by two bitter elderly women. He politely ignored them. I still haven't figured out if this is just latent built up anomosity or if they are just marking their territory by letting you know you're not one of them. It NEVER happens with people my age. The worst I ever got from a Japanese youth was two middle school girls whispering to each other how cute I was when I passed by them. It's a cute way of flirting with a foriegner (assuming he knows the language), and one I like. It beats getting called a monkey practically to your face.)

16) People who make a meeting with you but break it off at the last possible minute. (Surprisingly it happens more often than you think. This makes joining clubs at a Japanese university challenging, because it seems that only the sports clubs meet with clockwork timing and any regularity. Meeting someone for tutoring? They'll most likely call you up 15 minutes after you've been waiting downtown to greet them and cancel on you; waisting your time, money, and patience. The myth that Japanese are prompt and timely is just that, a myth.)

17) Annoying moped & scooter gangs which ride around revving their tiny motors all night long making them sound like an angry pack of mosquitoes.

18) That one drunken businessman who uses his inebriation to gain enough courage to come over and put his arm around you, unwontedly inviting himself into your group, and not leave until you have him forcibly removed. (In some cases it's a drunken businesswoman. In one such case a classy looking drunken OL kidnapped one of my roomates and took him home with her. Although, I think he was hoping to get lucky, she just was drunk and wanted a free English speaking session. As far as I know nothing ever happened, but there is no end to the limit of romantically challenged and sexually frustrated single office ladies in Japan.)

19) That person who leaves their cell phone or mobile on in the theater (although this is more of a universal pet peeve, this occurs quite frequently in crowded Japanese theaters also. I've actually had this happen more in Japanese theaters than American ones.)

20) Corporate policies and stupid regulations that get in the way of living life to its fullest. (My Japanese fiance mentioned something that's not necessarily rude as it is a major set back for life as a woman in Japan. Companies always have age limits, often time 25 yrs. old, placed on women so that they ensure beauty and youth. Yet when girls want to become flight attendants with JAL or ANA they rush out of college to take the tests before they're too old. It's fierce competition, and with lack of female job employment, it really causes a problem for women who might be 26 and want to do that same job.) The lack of women's liberation makes this not only a pet peeve, but something that reall infuriates women like my Japanese fiance. As far as Japan goes, this is an outdated and antiquaited practice which forces women (not men) to be bound to stupid rules made by men. (Not to mention it makes no sense considering Japan's graying population. With an estimate that by the year 3000 only 23 people will be alive in Japan, shouldn't they promote the economy by offering jobs to anyone? Including vibrant 26 yr. old women?) School teaching is the ONLY good job a woman over 26 can get in the commercial sector. Although private jobs may be available there aren't enough that will higher women at all. How does that make you feel?

Well, these are some of the moments I have experienced in Japan which lack etiquette. I’m sure those who have lived in Japan longer than I have can find more instances in which manners are lacking. Yet, I must say that compared to my own American culture, the reverse culture shock of coming back to “no manners America” and “I can treat you however the hell I want because I’m the most important thing in the world” attitude was one of the hardest adjustments I ever had to make and re-acclimate into.

Needless to say, Japan is more polite on a day to day and moment to moment basis. So much so that I find Japan’s super strict adherence to politeness and manners, not only in the household but in public as well, something I miss daily. It is indeed one of the more enduring traits of Japanese society and says a lot about the wonderful people who DO take the time to treat others with dignity and think before they speak.

1 comment:

Tristan Vick said...

On another note: the Japanese manners list was derived from 2 Japanese people, 5 gaijin living in Japan, 2 ex-roomates, & myself. Two of the people who helped compile the list were female. Yes, Sayaka was one of them.

If a few Japanese people have read my list, and helped compile it, then I don't see the reason for unwarrented accusations that I am making fun of a culture that I love. On the contrary, my point is validated by the fact that other Japanese, such as my fiance, agree that not ALL Japanese are polite. There are in fact RUDE people living in Japan. But if you believe the myth is true, that all Japanese people are clumped together as one big polite demographic, and you've lived in Japan, then I can't argue with you.

If anyone thinks I have judged anybody still, then is was by the content of their actions, not by their color, creed, or ideologies.