Japanese Politeness

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How courteous is the Japanese:
He always says, "Excuse it, please."
He climbs into his neighbor's garden
And smiles and says, "I beg your pardon."
He bows, and grins a friendly grin,
And calls his hungry family in.
He grins, and bows a friendly bow:

"So sorry, this my garden now."
—Ogden Nash

Japan has a very distinct culture compared to its neighbors, and one aspect noted by many visitors to Japan—especially Western ones—is the extreme emphasis on politeness. Although other Asian cultures often come across to Westerners as obsessed with confusing rules of etiquette, the Japanese have a reputation for being ridiculously polite even in other Asian countries. This is all a relic from the Middle Ages, when Japanese society was built around a rigidly hierarchical caste system. It's Truth in Television, but seems to come out in broad parody.

The general principles of politeness in Japanese culture involve avoiding explicit disagreement or refusal at all costs, never criticizing one's own in-group (whether that's your family, your company, your school club or whatever) in front of outsiders, being extraordinarily deferential toward others in general and authority figures in particular, and indirectly praising others while downplaying one's own accomplishments. These are all taken to such extremes that it's necessary to learn a drastically different vocabulary and even set of grammar rules for expressing degrees of politeness in the Japanese language.

The rules can interact in ways that are hard for foreigners to predict: for example, one consequence is that it is entirely polite to diss even your superiors when talking to an outsider, but not if they are present. That's because in this situation both you and your opposite are not your own people, but the representatives of your respective groups first and foremost, and the humility clause kicks in. If anyone else from either group is present, on the other hand, dissing them becomes a sign of the intra-group tensions, which is a big no-no.

The Japanese side of this (as in, everyone else is rude—especially Westerners and especially Americans) often comes out as Eagle Land. A Western equivalent to this sort of culture can be found in Minnesota Nice. Contrast Asian Rudeness.

Examples of Japanese Politeness include:


Anime & Manga

China: I'm China, aru! (...) Say, what's your name, aru?
Child!Japan: (bows) Hello China, whom the sun sets upon. I am Japan...
China: Wah! This kid is so rude, aru!

    • Truth in Television, this is practically how Japan addressed itself at their first diplomatic document to China (The Emperor of the Land of the Sunrise to the Emperor of the Land of the Sunset...). The Chinese Emperor—who considered himself the only person in the world entitled to call himself an emperor—was of course pissed off, saying "bring not those impolite states before me." And when the messengers returned to Japan, they claimed that the Chinese reply was lost to pirates on the way, probably to avoid a Shoot the Messenger situation.
  • On Neon Genesis Evangelion, Asuka, who was raised in Germany and is only a quarter Japanese, complains about Shinji and Rei being so polite.
  • In Ouran High School Host Club, the fact that Tamaki was raised in France and still doesn't fully understand Japanese Politeness explains a lot about his personality—he doesn't take hints, he's never learned to hide his emotions to avoid making a fuss the way many Japanese people do, and he's constantly suggesting harebrained schemes because he genuinely thinks people would just refuse if they didn't want to go along. This comes up most obviously in one of the last episodes, which flashes back to how he met his best friend Kyouya shortly after moving to Japan. His enthusiasm drove Kyouya nuts until he realized he could just tell Tamaki to shut up without having him take offense.
  • In Welcome to The NHK a group of people who just barely avoided committing group suicide get a stern lecture from the local janitor—for having been selfish and inconsiderate by not thinking of how much trouble they would have caused for those who would have had to investigate the deaths, clean up the mess, and fill in the paperwork.
  • The manga Hana Kimi has the main character, who was raised in America, attempt to make friends at her new school in Japan by marching up to people and literally shouting "HI I LIKE YOU LET'S BE FRIENDS!"—because that's pretty much how Americans' emotional expressiveness comes across by Japanese standards.
  • Sayonara, Zetsubou-sensei parodies this with Kaere Kimura, a Japanese-born transfer student who spent much of her childhood in the West before returning to Japan, and has a Split Personality as a result. In Westerner mode, she's a brash, loudmouthed, selfish and arrogant Jerkass. In Japanese mode, she becomes an Extreme Doormat who's constantly contemplating suicide in order to avoid becoming a bother to anyone.


Comedy

  • In one of his stand-ups, Robin Williams was talking about how different nationalities get drunk. When he gets to the Japanese, he mentions how polite they are normally, bows to the audience, and says a few words in Japanese. Then, he pretends to be a drunk Japanese person. The voice suddenly goes very low and very loud. The politeness is gone, replaced with rudeness and swears.


Films -- Live-Action

  • Played seriously in The Last Samurai, where Nathan does appreciates the incredible levels of politeness of the Japanese village—while forgetting the traditional punishment for those who fail to be polite.


Literature

According to the guidebooks, when two Japanese businessmen meet, they tend to be very formal, and each man tends to be self-effacing and apologetic, often for no apparent reason.
First Businessman: Hello, sir.
Second Businessman: Hello, sir.
First Businessman: I am sorry.
Second Businessman: I am extremely sorry.
First Businessman: I cannot stand myself.
Second Businessman: I am swamp scum.
First Businessman: I am toenail dirt.
Second Businessman: I should be put to death.

    • In the same book he describes an incident when his wife was talking to a Japanese travel agent. She wanted to book a flight, but the agent kept pushing the idea of using a train instead. Dave remarks that had they had this conversation after the trip they would've picked up on the message that the agent was too polite to say: the fact that there wasn't a flight available where and when they wanted.
  • In Interesting Times, the Fantasy Counterpart Culture for the Far East use revolutionary protest signs that are incredibly polite.


Live-Action TV

  • A similar scene to The Last Samurai above plays out in Shogun, where Rodrigues points out to Anjin-san how the Japanese are all about ceremony, and how breaking it has serious consequences, as a samurai beheads a peasant right there on the beach as they stroll by.
  • Hiro from Heroes exhibits this. He actually apologized to Tracy Strauss before knocking her unconscious.
  • An episode of F Troop had the boys protect a Japanese woman from "honorable bad man". When she's told "dishonorable" is the better word, she replies, "Must be polite to everyone."
  • An episode of Are You Being Served? featured a broad parody of a "cledit caa"-wielding Japanese Tourist who bows deeply and says "soooooooooooooo" at the least provocation.


Mythology

  • In Japanese folklore, many otherwise bloodthirsty monsters take politeness seriously, allowing humans to beat them by compulsion. For instance, a Kappa will always return a bow, forcing them to spill the water stored on their head which weakens them. The Kuchisake-Onna is a scissor-wielding ghost that slices up children... but if you tell her that you have an appointment to get to, she'll apologize for having inconvenienced you and let you go freely.


Video Games

  • In Irrational Games' Freedom Force Versus the Third Reich, Red Sun, an Energy X-infused Japanese army captain who reacted to the energy by turning into a lot of physically identical people who have a Hive Mind, follows this trope. He views Freedom Force as a Worthy Opponent and spouts phrases like "You are a most worthy adversary. Please die.". At one point he kills a Nazi Mook over a Back Stab on Tricolour and apologizing to the heroes for the Mook's rudeness. The game is an extremely faithful homage to Silver Age comics, which often featured well-meaning writers and artists perpetuating unpleasant stereotypes while attempting to be anti-racist (Red Sun is also a Third Person Person and spreaks, er, speaks, with a pronounced Engrish accent).
  • One of the bosses in Monster Party has been slain before you meet it. It tersely apologizes to the player for being dead.


Web Comics


Web Original

  • Hashimoto Daichi from Greek Ninja, is impolite even by Western standards, yet he seems to place some importance on politeness when it comes to other people addressing him casually.


Western Animation

  • Many WWII era cartoons featured the Japanese saying "Ah, so solly!" as they fired on Allied forces.
  • In one episode of King of the Hill, Hank visits Japan and it turns out that he has a Japanese half-brother. The two had to race to stop their father Cotton from spitting on the Emperor at an apology ceremony. Hank is impatient with the slow, measured pace of interpersonal interactions, while his brother criticizes Hank's rash, cowboy attitude. By the end of the episode, both of them see the value in each other's approaches. First, the importance of Japanese Politeness is shown when Junichiro's (Hank's half- brother) method of asking everyone he meets to call him if they see Cotton actually works. Then Hank's urging Junichiro to get in a subway ticket-taker's face in order to stop wasting time proves effective, much to both their surprise. Towards the end, while trying to push through a crowd, forgoes asking and just blurts out, "I KICK-A YOUR ASS!"
  • Mocked, like everything else, on The Simpsons. A Yakuza man is chucked through their front window because of a Mob War on the lawn, and he bows politely and asks forgiveness before rushing out the door and rejoining the fight.


Real Life

  • Masi Oka appeared on Regis & Kelly. He said that Japan has only just started watching Heroes at season one. When he was there to promote the show, he said his fans would rush up to him, shout, "YATTA!" bow deeply, and then scurry off. (Those were his words, scurry off).
  • After the largest bank robbery in Japan, at least up to that point, the crooks sent a thank you note to the bank. Snopes has it right here.
  • In the wake of the 2011 tsunami, Japanese politeness has been cited as a reason that the situation has remained relatively orderly. One news article mentions an injured woman who was rescued by paramedics apologizing for the trouble and asking if there were others who needed to be helped before her.
  • There's also an eyewitness account of a Japanese mall that was shook by the earthquake, everyone left with whatever they intended to buy, then returned to complete the purchases rather than just walking away with it.
  • During the time of Imperial Japan, and before, when assassinations were a more common way of resolving disputes, political and otherwise, the assassin would go to the victim's home and kill him. Then, he would apologize to the servants (and the family, if they weren't targets as well) for messing up the house.
  • Japanese audiences at concert venues and sporting events tend to be very quiet, which can be quite eerie to westerners. In concerts, audiences usually sit quietly until the song ends, then erupt in applause afterwards. Many Mixed Martial Arts commentators at Japanese venues will remark that you could hear a pin drop in an auditorium holding 100,000 spectators.
  • Japanese railways routinely charge the clean-up work after suicides to the families of the deceased—by Japanese standards, suicidal depression may be tragic, but it's no excuse for not thinking about how your actions are going to inconvenience others.
  • It's not unheard of for the Yakuza to call a press conference and make a public apology when their activities—such as, say, a gang war—have seriously inconvenienced the public.