Thursday, May 17, 2007


One thing I have always admired and appreciated about Japan is its underlying current of general civility, which is so deep as to have an almost competitive aspect, i.e., who can be polite first, or for the longest time, as in bowing deeper and longer. (This politesse excludes rush-hour train-boarding competitions, when civilized niceties are suspended until all seats are claimed). This kind of multilayered, extended civility, almost unknown in the west, is second nature to me now; there is a genuine and transcendent pleasure in being kind to others in this way.

As an example, yesterday morning when I went to the dentist I got there early so as to be first served of the early appointments, but early as I was, when I took my shoes off (yup, just like at home) and entered the waiting room, there was already an elderly gentleman there ahead of me; we sat there in our socks, waiting. When the assistant opened the door and called both our names, the gentleman kindly deferred, to allow me to enter first. But since he had been there first, I demurred with thanks, and said "Dozo," gesturing him on ahead of me with a wave of my arm. So when he entered the clinic itself, which is when you put on the house slippers provided, he put on the second pair of slippers in the arranged row, leaving the first (and easiest) pair for me to use. Each of us was thus both thanked and thankful.

This civility is everywhere, and surprisingly even extends to driving. On my way home from the dentist, as I drove along the narrow, tree-lined, generally empty and peacefully greened mountain road I take in preference to the charmless noisy highway down on the flatland, the morning's civility continued, even in such an isolated place.

As I approached a narrow bridge, another car from the opposite did also. Thus it became a question of who could first reach the pulloff on either sides of bridges on narrow roads, so as to allow the other driver to continue on. We both reached our pulloff(s) at about the same time, but I was slightly ahead and so came to a stop first. The other fellow therefore kept on, crossing the bridge with a bow of his head and a small beep of thanks. 

Happens all the time.


Chancy said...

Oh, to have some of that civility bottled up and sent to us here in the US.

Bob Brady said...

Yes, I suffer the throes of acivilemia every time I visit the homeland...

Maya's Granny said...

In Juneau, most of the streets downtown are not wide enough for two lanes. From Fourth Street down, they are officially one way. From Fifth Street up, they are unofficially one way. Who ever gets to the corner first gets to go down that block first. People just accept it, waiting patiently, trying to judge the distance between oncoming cars and figure out whether to pull over to the curb or speed up.

Michael said...

Hi Bob,

Yes, I, too, was amazed at the degree of civility I witnessed during my years in Japan. It was very humbling and, compared with the ways of many of my compatriots back home in the United States, very refreshing.

And most of the time, the civility was genuine, heartfelt. But there were instances when the politesse was done -- overdone, actually -- in such a way as to be a form of rudeness, a way of highlighting and reinforcing racial differences instead of bridging them.

For example, there was the time a fellow expat and I tried to enter a cafe near the rural part of Chiba prefecture in which we lived. The owner was effusively apologetic and deferential as he explained to us that foreigners were not served.

Such instances were few, especially compared with the number of instances of genuine hospitality and warmth. My experience, though, was that I generally was treated more kindly when people thought I was a tourist. When they found out I was a long-term resident, the kindness sometimes came down a notch or two.

Don't get me wrong: I loved my time in Japan -- it was nothing short of magical and life-transforming -- and if it weren't for health concerns, I likely would've returned by now. But there were aspects of that experience that were a little off-putting, which goes to show that nobody's perfect.

Winston said...

With all the imports we've had from Japan over the years it is so unfortunate that we failed to purchase at least a sampling of the civility. We have many Japanese here in the Nashville area, transferred in by Nissan and a few other Japanese companies located here. Running into them in the grocery or bank or where ever, we see signs of this civility. Most locals are not quite sure what to make of it.

sdh said...

In much of Scotland, the roads are all single-lane, with spots for sitting idle so that traffic can go by.

The example of road-civility you touched on was quite common when I was there.

But then, during my childhood in the south, it didn't matter who was at the four-way stop first--you always made sure to give someone else a chance to go ahead of you, in case they were in a hurry.


Trace said...

Yes. Civility is a novel idea here in the US.

The place where you are always sound like a paradise to me.

As always, I thank you for sharing.

Perkunas said...

Not like LA, where I grew up and where they had an epidemic of freeway gunfire a number of years ago -- that's how Angelinos say hello to each other when they're driving.

Annette said...

In Paris people taking the metro have developed the skill of making "pardon" sound like "get out of my ******* way!!!"

And on the manifest of the "You know you're from Paris when..." group at number 25 we find:
"Putain", "bordel", "merde" or the ever famous "putain de bordel de merde" are not considered "bad words"; I mean, you use them every day, and sometimes it's affectionate.

Such a romantic city... :)