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Japanese Politeness
"Greetings, goat-san!" "Greetings, human-san!"

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. It's Truth in Television, but seems to come out in broad parody. This is all a relic from the Feudal Era, when Japanese society was built around a rigidly hierarchical system of aristocracy, just like Medieval England, which makes the stereotype of Japanese Politeness the equivalent of British Stuffiness for the East.

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—but do not be boastful about your group either (you do not use honorifics about people from your own group while speaking with someone outside your group), 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 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.

Contrary to what some people, article and books say, it is perfectly acceptable to say "no" in Japanese — to a neutral question. "Do you know Ben?" "Have you ever been to Tokyo before?" However, turning down a polite request with "no" is rude. "I'm sorry that's a bit difficult..." or just "I'm sorry, a bit..." is the correct way. Incidentally there are several situations where occidentals do the same. If you apply for a job in Europe and you are turned down this is almost never stated directly "no, you are not good enough" but with a roundabout phrase "the vacancy has been filled by another applicant". The difference is that Japanese do this with any reasonably polite request.

The Japanese side of this (as in, everyone else is rude — especially Westerners and especially Americans) often comes out as America The Boorish. A Western — particularly Midwestern American — equivalent to this sort of culture can be found in Minnesota Nice.

While Japanese etiquette in Real Life is Truth in Television, the stereotype where it became the eastern equivalent of British Stuffiness is because of the cultural divide between Japanese and American culture.

See also Yamato Nadeshiko, which aspires to excel at this.

Contrast Asian Rudeness.


Examples

    open/close all folders 

    Anime & Manga 
  • Japan from Axis Powers Hetalia acts like this, even at his rudest:
    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 America and is only a quarter Japanese, complains about Shinji and Rei being so polite. She particularly hates how they refuse to admit their feelings. This is rather ironic considering she does the same in regards to Shinji.
    • This is ironic because Asuka's English and Japanese voice actors once met each other and her English actor was amazed by how (paraphrased) "polite in the Japanese way" her Japanese Actor was unlike the character and they quickly became friends.
  • 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 N.H.K. 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 out 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.
  • Puni Puni Poemi parodies this when Poemi meets the Aasu sisters and bows so enthusiastically that she cracks her head on the coffee table.
    Mutsuki: Oh, you don't have to bleed over everything just to be polite.
    Poemi: It's just the Japanese etiquette!
  • In Tari Tari, "Wien" tends to accidentally parody this trope because he's been away from Japan for most of his life. While introducing himself to the class, he nearly planks on the floor instead of doing a normal bow and speaks excessively formally, thoroughly perplexing his classmates.

    Comics 
  • In The Loners, Mickey, who is of Japanese descent, employs Japanese Politeness to save her team from an ass-kicking after they run afoul of Fujikawa Industries.

    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 appreciate the incredible levels of politeness of the Japanese village, though as a 19th century career officer he should be extremely versed in etiquette. And at this time he is technically their prisoner and killed one of their best warriors before he was captured.
  • Played for laughs in Mr. Baseball as Jack Elliot is initially rather confused and put off by the fact that unlike American ball players, Japanese ball players don't spit, swear or engage in brawls on the pitcher's mound, at least not at first.

    Literature 
  • Dave Barry Does Japan:
    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.
  • JAG: Harm and Mac faces this trope in the episode "Innocence", which is set in Japan.

    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 and precedes her slaughter by asking prospective victims if she's beautiful. A "No" will unsurprisingly inspire a murderous rage. A "Yes" won't exactly lead to a better outcome because the Japanese word for "pretty" sounds almost exactly like a word meaning "to cut" and she apparently has a terrible sense of humor... 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.

    Professional Wrestling 

    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.
  • An interesting variant of the "maybe means no" rule appears in Katawa Shoujo. After Hisao loses the game of Risk, he will be asked if he wants to join the Student Council, to which will essentially say "maybe" (with his answer being more reluctant if he makes the choice Shizune disapproves of). Misha says she hopes he isn't merely saying it so that they don't feel bad, hoping that he'll come around if his answer is "maybe" rather than "no". However, Hisao does not join the student council in any of the routes besides Shizune's, and even in Shizune's route, he once reflects that he was initially unwilling to do so.
  • While not expressly Japanese, the hanar in the Mass Effect series are large jellyfish who believe in politeness before all else. They believe speaking in the first person is rude, and in the first game a hanar religious zealot can be convinced to leave quietly by pointing how rude he is being to those around him. Also, much like Feudal Japan, they have a booming assassination industry, because killing each other face to face would be rude.

    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.
  • Not Always Working has this story, about a Japanese-American working at a Japanese restaurant, and is criticized by the manager for telling a customer that they do not serve the dish (kimchi, a Korean food) that the customer wanted. Although as it turns out, the restaurant's owners were more in tune with American standards of service and thought the manager was the one out of line.

    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 (who got his legs shot off by a Japanese machine gun in World War II) 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, Junichiro 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.
    • Also mocked in the episode where Homer becomes a food critic and gives negative reviews of all the restaurants in town. The restaurant owners meet around a conference table and discuss how best to seek revenge on Homer. One of the chefs at "The Happy Sumo" (a Japanese restaurant that infamously serves fugu, or Japanese blowfish) is concerned about the conspirators appearing rude, and suggests that the most polite course of action would be to simply kill Homer.
    "Well, I say we ban Homer from our restaurants!"
    "No, that would be impolite. I say we KILL HIM!"

    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."
  • 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.
  • David Sedaris notes the politeness of the Japanese in one of his articles about his visit to the country. One day, he witnessed a woman walking her dog. When her dog peed on the sidewalk, she bent over and poured bottled water to rinse the urine off the pavement. Never any traces of dog poop.
  • In the wake of the 2011 tsunami, Japanese politeness has been cited as a reason that the situation has remained relatively orderly, in contrast with how things played out in New Orleans and other cities hit by natural disasters. 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. Of course, the very same people probably also made a point of stating that white people found supplies in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, while black people looted stores...
  • There's also an eyewitness account of a Japanese mall that was shook by the earthquake where 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-suicidal depression may be tragic and in many ways motivated by Japanese honor culture, but it's no excuse for not thinking about how your actions are going to inconvenience others on the railway. In addition the charge is affected by the proximity to busy traffic areas; kill yourself in the center of town in rush hour and your family will be charged a lot more than if you killed yourself out in the countryside off-peak.
  • 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.
  • After their team lost its opening match of the 2014 World Cup to Ivory Coast, Japanese fans stayed behind in the stadium to clean up their section, an occurrence that is actually rather common in Japan but came as a pleasant shock to other international visitors, earning them much praise on Twitter.
  • Japan has a law against desecrating foreign flags but no law against desecrating its own flag. See here for details.


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