Politeness takes precedence in Japanese society, so remember to mind your manners—please!

P42_2I can still remember the moment it hit me: after a few months in Japan, I was observing two colleagues engaged in calm, quiet conversation and I took a slow breath as a feeling of peace washed over me. I couldn’t remember the last time I had seen a confrontation or been on the receiving end of rude behaviour. Don’t get me wrong—conflict and rudeness exist in Japan. However, being highly discouraged, they aren’t often apparent in everyday life.

As a pacifist, I’ve always disliked confrontation and sought to resolve conflicts whenever they cropped up in my personal life. Now, finding myself in a country where politeness, courtesy and formality prevail, I was hooked! Bowing is a prime example of a Japanese custom used to show respect—one that foreigners tend to find easy to pick up and difficult to lose. Months after return- ing to Canada, I was still bowing. The lower you bow, the higher the rank of the other person, or the more respect you aim to show. Still today, I occasionally catch myself bowing to people as I go about my daily errands.

It can be tricky to keep track of all the customs and formalities at first. Take your shoes off before you enter someone’s home or a department store change room. Always remember to bring your friends, family and colleagues a souvenir from your travels. Shower thoroughly before you enter a public bath. In a group setting, wait until after the first kampai (cheers) before taking a swig of beer. And, of course, stand patiently in line in an orderly fashion no matter what! These are just a few of the manners and polite gestures one must follow in order to fit into Japanese society.

In fact, the very way you speak is an important form of showing respect. I was coached ceaselessly by my Japanese tutor on the various levels of politeness when speaking to someone and how to use the most polite Japanese. In Japan’s impeccable service industry, using polite Japanese is a must. How you speak to someone is the key to avoiding conflict and keeping the peace, and this I valued immensely. I miss it very much, particularly when I go to a store and am rung in by a teenager snapping gum, talking on a cell phone and rolling his or her eyes while tossing my change to me across the counter.

Politeness and formality are at the heart of the Japanese language. Yoroshiku onegai shimasu are words spoken when meeting someone for the first time but also when asking someone for a favour, or when you expect something of them. It subtly implies that you are imposing on the other person in some way and that you are sorry for it. This phrase highlights the very essence of Japanese culture—a keen awareness of other people, the effect that actions have on other people and the importance of upholding the status quo. For me, Japan was like a safe, comfortable cocoon—a place where I could feel secure in the formality and predictability of politeness.


SHELLEY SUZUKI is a long-time teacher of English as a Second Language in Canada and Japan. She currently runs an English school via Skype and is pursuing a teaching career, or whatever other interesting opportunities may come her way. She appeared on the Japanese TV show Okusama wa Gaikokujin (My Wife is a Foreigner). She hopes to become a children’s book writer and illustrator when she grows up.

Illustration by Chieko Watanabe