Harmony of community above self

I have to admit, I really enjoyed the polite civility I experienced in Japan— the bowing and the apparent joy in every interaction. Even shopkeepers and workers seemed to be enjoying their work and their interactions with each and every customer. Employees are often reminded by their bosses “okyaku-sama wa kami-sama desu” (お客様は神様です), which means “the customer is a god.” On the shinkansen, the bullet train, the woman who rolled the car down the aisles, selling water and tea and snacks, bowed to the entire train car when she entered with her cart. She bowed and smiled after each transaction had taken place. When she left the train car she bowed to the entire car before her departure even though she was facing everyone’s backs, except for mine because I was curious to see if she would bow even though no one was looking.

In restaurants, stores, on the street, this politeness, though clearly prescribed, was incredibly refreshing. I noticed this first on our plane to Japan. The stewardesses handed us our cups of tea in a ceremonial way and bowed, with broad smiles on their faces. They were incredibly accommodating and seemed entirely devoted. Now I know inside they may have had huge complaints and frustrations about work, but on the surface they were incredibly pleasant, genteel, and formal yet genuinely gracious.

Riding with IB in his K car, I was astonished that the man working in the toll booth bowed and enthusiastically “arigatoued” us as we paid our toll. There was even a digital animated image of a man bowing as we got back onto the road. (There also was a small vase of fresh flowers attached to the outside of the toll booth.)

In the stores, each item purchased was carefully and cheerfully wrapped and then handed to us with both hands while bowing. This was followed by an arigatou gozaimashta. When paying for items, we placed our money in a tray next to the cash register, never directly into the hands of the cashier. The change was counted out carefully and handed to us with a bow and a smile. This was a consistent formal practice, whether we were at the Plasse (IB’s grocery store), a teahouse, gift shop, or food stand on the street.

I think I heard two cars honk the whole time we were in Japan and one of the honks was IB, a little frustrated with traffic in Kagoshima. He apologized to us after he honked his horn explaining that no one uses their horns in Japan. Finding a lost item on the street and putting it in an obvious spot where the person who lost it can more easily find it, waiting patiently in line, single file on escalators so those who want to climb them can easily do so, all are common and expected aspects of the culture. (JB and I were a bit stunned to see a literal and calm line gather on the platform at each train car door, as opposed to the mob rush onto subway cars in Chicago.)

The politeness even extends to how the environment is treated as well. There is no trash on the street. It just isn’t done. It is disrespectful to the community to litter. (And speaking of trash, the Japanese have a very complicated system of recycling which of course was clear to everyone but ourselves.) The trains and streets and stores are impeccably clean. (We saw only two incidents of graffiti in all the driving through the urban areas in Kyoto, Kagoshima, and Hiroshima, the largest cities on our trip.) In Japan, people even wear face masks if they have a cold so as to not to infect others (see photo of mother above, dressed formally, attending her child’s graduation ceremonies in Satsumasendai).

I know that a culture which places great value on community can more easily embrace this kind of communal etiquette. It would be difficult for me to imagine much of this to ever exist in our own individualistic culture. I also know that there is a downside to this politeness and subsequent sacrifice and repression of self. But I must admit, that when we came through american customs in Chicago, the brash and somewhat harsh shouting of orders from unsmiling customs and immigration guards about which line to stand in and what papers we needed to have ready came as a small shock. I missed the warm and gentle welcome we received in the Japan airport and the courtesy, the considerate thoughtfulness we were met with in every interaction throughout the entire country. Our experiences in Japan helped us to be more kind and well-mannered as well as teaching us how to bow, honoring those we met. Cultural behavior and tradition are powerful forces, even to tourists.

We were in Japan for only two weeks and we do not speak the language (though IB, who was with us for the whole time, has a pretty good working knowledge). I know a lot of nuance went over our heads and clearly, Japanese etiquette itself can be ritualized, formulaic, and prescriptive. But there was no mistaking the constructive spirit and energy of community and reciprocity (and I haven’t yet mentioned the practice of gift-giving- omiyage). It was wonderful to be reminded of the generous possibilities of how we might interact with each other, ways that are filled with great respect and civility. It was humbling to experience a culture which puts the harmony of community above self.

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2 Responses to Harmony of community above self

  1. What a wonderful summary of your Japan experience. How must it have felt to experience all of that and then return to “status quo” in the U.S.? Will you be able to identify which and continue some of those practices in your life now that you are back?

    Also wondering, what the TRUTH or REALITY behind experiencing a culture that is so different from ours. You alluded to this with: “I also know that there is a downside to this politeness and subsequent sacrifice and repression of self.” and “I know a lot of nuance went over our heads and clearly, Japanese etiquette itself can be ritualized, formulaic, and prescriptive.”

    I have experiences similar “unique differences’ in my travels in Mexico, Italy, Paris, and Spain. We should discuss them some time.

    Welcome home!

  2. Maybe sometimes ritual and proscription can actually begin to make one feel more generous, kind, and connected as the practice becomes a part of who we are. What we practice can become meaningful as we refine that practice. I know that this is a complicated subject, but it does seem that we could certainly use more generosity, kindness and civility. It does not have to erase our individuality, right? Thanks — I look forward to learning more in future posts!

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