Monday, July 19, 2010

Japanese Politeness

You may have seen fun being made of Japanese people and the way they bow. I thought it was something of an exaggeration. It is not. I don't pretend to know anything about Japan's class system and who rates a higher or lower bow, but bow the people do.

My first example was just after we arrived and we were travelling on the Keisei Limited Express train to Ueno. A middle aged couple boarded the train after saying goodbye to a friend or relative still on the platform. There were low bows which lessened until they were just token bows but also with much friendliness, smiling and waves as the train left.

Will we be expected to do this? Not bloody likely. Japanese don't expect foreigners to know their social etiquettes, which is just as well.

But throughout Japan, young and old, they bow but perhaps it is lessening in younger people, possibly saved for more formal situations. I found myself just nodding in response to a bow.

We wanted to take a look around a department store in Ueno, but it wasn't quite open. A older managerial type was polishing the glass front doors. I knew and R knew what was going to happen. Sure enough, on the dot of ten the store opened and the first dozen or so customers who were waiting outside received the deepest deepest bows from the manager and the staff assembled behind. We thought it was quite embarrassing and hung back. The manager disappeared and we thought it was safe to enter but lo, there he was inside the store bowing away to us. I don't know why I get caught up in these foreign habits. I should have just said good morning and nodded but instead I followed everyone else's example and ignored him. I don't think shop staff rank very highly in the bowing stakes.

Bowing or not, the Japanese are very very polite, to foreigners and among themselves. They will take no end of trouble to help you if you ask, but they don't force themselves onto you.

Tokyo is not a noisy city as big cities go, because there is very little blowing of car horns. I think I heard car horns three times in Japan, and twice they were directed at me or caused by us. Once a bus wanted to park and I was in the way and the other time was the sight of a tall pair of fair haired male foreigners in Hirosaki caused a taxi driver to not notice the traffic light had turned green and after a decent pause, the car behind him gave him a toot. We tried not to laugh.

Yes, in Hirosaki (pop 180,000) and its surrounds, we did get stared at, especially by children. Adults would quickly look away if we caught them staring. Not so children. One poor toddler in the wrong side of the tracks department store ran to embrace his father's protective legs when he spied us. V, being dark haired and shorter, does not quite stand out as much as we do. I recall one woman really staring at us. It turned out that she knew V. Many local people in Hirosaki seemed to know V and it seems it gives them some kudos to be know and say hi to the resident foreigner or perhaps I am being too cynical. Well, they could actually like her.

Which brings me to hai. Essentially it is used as yes but also is a reaffirming word to add in conversation, much as would would keep saying yes to indicate we were understanding what someone was telling us. I am known to use the Scottish/Northern England aye at times instead of saying yes. I started using it when the first lot of R's relatives visited us from England and it is a hard habit to break. I don't do it all the time, mainly when R is around. It is a wonderful word for the lazy. Barely any muscles are moved to make the sound compared to saying yes. So for me to jump to saying hai was not hard. Hai is quite a crisp word compared to the lazy aye. I think I have stopped saying hai now after being back for a couple of weeks, but it was close to the fore for quite a few days.

The last cultural point I will mention is the dreaded shoes off thing. Now, I am not inexperienced in this. If I visit an Asian person's place, I note if there are shoes at the doors. If I have thought in advance, I will not have shoes with laces, but I rarely do think in advance of this. Even if the host insists not to bother removing my shoes, if they have or I see others have, I do.

But I never fully understood the proper way to do it. You take your shoes off and step straight onto the shoes off area in your socks or barefeet or whatever. You do not sully your socked feet by stepping onto the shoes on area. Your shoes should be arranged so that you can step into them straight from the shoes off area, and in my case flatten the heels until I stagger to a seat to tie my laces.

Our apartment building targeted Asian buyers when it was built, hence we have a space to remove our shoes. We don't.


  1. Hi Andrew,

    I agree the Japanese among other cultures are very polite to foreigners, sounds like you and V had quite an experience on your trip away... Was it hard not to bow back after so many people bowing at you?

    Did you notice other foreigners bowing back? I could see myself bowing back for some reason don't ask me why...

  2. Hello Andrew,

    I enjoyed reading about yours and V's experience in Japan... have to agree with Shane here, I think I would be a reciprocal bower... ha ha

  3. Hai Victor, hai.

    Not really Shane. I am not in the habit of bowing, in fact I haven't done it since a school stage performance and even then I couldn't really as my costume was an egg, made out of paper mache and I couldn't bend far. We saw so few foreigners in Japan, so I can't really say if they bow or not. V, who lives there, I was with R, my partner, I guess would bow in formal circumstances when appropriate.

    Hey Matthew, I think in time you would bow , but really it just didn't come naturally to me at all.

  4. Anonymous1:40 pm

    I do bow but not in the Japanese way. As a foreigner, I'm not expected to know or learn the exact angles of bows or when to perform them. Like most longterm foreign residents I either nod my head (casual encounters) or bow slightly from the waist (more formal situations). V.

  5. Vik, you better learn the lowest bow at least. What if you meet the Emperor?