Friday, August 13, 2010


In these humble chronicles I touch often upon the subject of civility here in Japan where, though still a strong part of the tradition, civility seems to be fading somewhat nowadays, when it is needed more than ever. And not just here. Which is all the more reason for me to do what I can to nurture civility and oppose the rationale for incivility, which is "Why me, who cares, nobody would ever do this for me... What's in it for me anyway, why should I be the only one," which is how all good societal things come to an end.

So if it's not one of the astonishingly rare times I'm feeling grumpy (like any other worthy emotion, the grumps are temporary; just hang around and I'll be sweet as cakes before too long), whenever I get the chance to perform an act of civility, I'll do it. Civility in its nature is a lot like those astonishing and encouraging mountains of pebbles by the long roadside, each pebble added by just one pilgrim traveling the sacred journey... Anyway, this morning I had another opportunity to practice civility so I did, and got a good measure back in return.

I was buying my morning train ticket at Umeda station in Osaka, the labyrinth of corridors crowded at morning rush hour with a compound of the usual office workers and chaotically rushing vacation mobs of families, tour groups etc. I went up to the only open machine, next to one being operated by what looked like the family horde of a grandmother and one, two or more married daughters with their five or six kids. It was just a glance I had in passing, but the feeling I got as they mobbed next to me was that they were not used to the big city and all these station choices, platforms, possible directions and fancy ticket machines; it all created a bit of a hubbub there among them.

I went to my machine and put the money in as their family bunch, bearing a complex of individual tickets, drifted searchingly off to find platform 10 or wherever, when I noticed on the shelf in front of their ticket machine a kid's new baseball hat. I was in a hurry, so at first it remained only a kid's hat who cares, and right away the dark portion of my brain that processes incivility said it's probably not even theirs anyway, but the brighter part of my brain immediately came up with the observation that on such a sunny day in a playland or anywhere outdoors, the owner of this hat would soon regret not having it; plus, on giving it a second look my civil self noted that the hat was of the stylishly raggedized type, no doubt carefully selected by the kid and prized accordingly. So after I'd gotten my ticket I ran after the family, tapped the grandmother on the shoulder and when she turned I said to her in Japanese "Did one of you forget a hat back there?"

She smiled and stared at me with that look I've seen many times on the faces of elder rural Japanese who are suddenly confronted with a foreign face speaking what cannot possibly be Japanese. She had not seen a foreigner in person this close for a long time, if ever, and he was speaking at her. She smiled on in friendly encouragement. I repeated my question more loudly in the station din, but her smile did not change, there was no sudden light of recognition. I was beginning to think that maybe my uncivil brain center had been right: it wasn't their hat.

After the appropriate duration for a pointless smile had passed, the grandmother turned, tapped one of her daughters on the shoulder and directed her attention to me. To the daughter I repeated my question, halfheartedly by now; but not only did she hear my Japanese, she knew instantly which of all the children had left the hat, and sent him running back after it. I bowed, satisfied, and headed off to work.

I had just gotten out of the station when I felt a tap on my elbow. I turned around and there was a boy about 10 years old standing in the milling crowd, holding the cap I'd found. He bravely looked me right in the eyes, said in Japanese "Thank you," lifted the cap, and bowed. His grandma and mother, after likely having to point me out, had sent the boy dodging through that densely hustling mob, all that way after me in that big intimidating station, then he had to go up to a big foreigner - likely the first such direct contact in his life - tap that alien personage on the elbow and address him with a loud "Domo arigato gozaimasu !" I could tell by the look in his eyes that he was doing what to him was a brave but necessary thing. A most heartening look it was, on a face so young. That look was the courage of civility. I smiled, gave him a thumbs up (likely a new sign to him), and we went our ways. Hope he gets the full joy out of his new hat, and never lets go of his courage.


DJ said...

A lovely snapshot of civility that is lacking in so many cultures these days. You were kind to find the owner, and he was brave to say thank you. You inspire me to perform an act of civility today. Thank you!

ted said...

While in Japan, I often found myself frustrated at the lack of civility, and my wife often teased about my position as self-appointed 'morals police,' bristling at perceived slights.

Now back in the 'United States of Me,' the situation is so depressing that I've turned in my badge.

I miss the delicacy, the subtlety of Japan...

Kalei's Best Friend said...

I know exactly the look u got from that lady.. I've seen it a million times here... and yes that little boy reminds me of me as well as any other child that was taught manners... It starts at home and carries on...

Anonymous said...

Civility does seem to be rare these days, but I suspect it's something that young man will not forget, having experienced it himself. You gave him something more important than that cap.

Martin J Frid said...

Better yet, you managed to convey civility not only to that kid but also to us readers. Thank you!

Hinenuitepo said...

I lost my link to your blog, but was delighted today to hunt you down!

Ah yes, my eyes welled up at this touching tale, from a land (America) where civility is similarly vanishing rare.

On Friday at a ballgame my son and I found ourselves having to walk the long way back round to our car, trailed by an elderly couple. Lost, we lead them on a rambling walk until nearing our destination, we found ourselves confronted by a 7 foot fence. Not concerned, I climbed over and reached down to assist my son. Then, noticing the couple, who milling uncertainly, seemed completely dismayed. I reached down twice more to assist the wife, then husband in reaching their vehicular destination. Tear welled too, in their eyes, surprised that the civility of a (somewhat) young man and his son.

Thanks for sharing.