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."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, often to the point of obsequiousness or just being annoying. Although other Asian cultures often come across to Westerners as obsessed with confusing rules of etiquette, the Japanese are impossibly polite even by Asian standards. 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 produced its own strange flavor of politeness. The general principles of politeness in Japanese culture are to avoid explicit disagreement or refusal at all costs; never criticize your in-group (whether that's your family, your company, your school club, or whatever) in front of outsiders; never brag, either about yourself or about your in-group (you do not use honorifics about people from your own group while speaking with someone outside your group); be extraordinarily deferential toward others in general and authority figures in particular; and indirectly praise others but always downplay 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, it's polite to diss your superiors when talking to outsiders, but only behind your superiors' backs. If you're present and your superiors aren't, you're a representative of your group, and talking about your excellent leadership would be bragging. If one of your superiors is present, you have to present a united front; intra-group tensions aren't just disturbing to watch in action, they're impolite. Contrary to what is sometimes believed, it's fine to say "no" in Japanese — to neutral questions. "Do you know Ben?" "Have you ever been to Tokyo before?" But turning down a polite request with "no" is rude; the right way to do it is to apologize, then trail off without giving full details, which is very common in general in Japanese. ("I'm sorry, that's a bit difficult..." — or even just "I'm sorry, but...") The Japanese will do this with all reasonably polite requests, but not necessarily with factual questions — which is about the same level of politeness as upper-class Europeans and Americans, but with an emphasis on different things. Much of this is unknown or at least unappreciated by Westerners, who are more familiar with two other stereotypes: the angry, screaming, bushidonote -on-steroids maniac (nourished by memories of World War II and pop-culture mainstays such as Saturday Night Live and The Simpsons), who always carries a katana and uses violence to deal with any and all situations; and the arrogant corporate executive or investor meeting with his more casual American counterparts, acting superficially polite but also disdaining Americans for being fat, lazy, uneducated and/or too individualistic and reminding them that their economy is in decline. Of course, both of these stereotypes are colored by anti-Japanese feeling. From the Japanese perspective, just about everyone in the world except for Western aristocrats is unimaginably rude. They do, however, have a lot of respect for the British due to shared norms of politeness, which tends to be reciprocated. Likewise with the old American South; Gone with the Wind is huge in Japan for its depiction of Southern Belles and Gentlemen who are similar in many respects to idealized images of Japanese behavior, and KFC owes a lot of its popularity in Japan to Colonel Sanders. By contrast, the ordinary American, especially from the Northeast or Midwest, comes across as epically rude even when they're not unleashing actual Cluster F Bombs. Western counterparts to Japanese politeness include British Stuffiness, Canada, Eh? (American stereotypes of Canadians often depict them as being impossibly polite), Minnesota Nice, and Sweet Home Alabama. See also Yamato Nadeshiko, who aspires to excel at this — and compare her Anglospheric counterparts, English Rose and Southern Belle. Contrast Asian Rudeness.
— Ogden Nash
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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.
- 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 the latter realized he could just tell Tamaki no 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.
- In Tokyo Ghoul, the ever-polite Amon brings his passed out partner home after a night of heavy drinking. He takes the time to greet and apologize to her cat for intruding. The cat, being a cat, couldn't care less.
- 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.
- 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.
- Invoked by Connors in Carefree (1938). Over the telephone, he pretends to be a female reporter named "Miss Satsuma Naguchi" from the Honolulu Daily Bugle. He ends virtually every sentence with "please."
- It verges on Stepford Smiler in Equinox Flower when a friend of Hirayama's is smiling broadly while telling him that she has a chronic disease which causes constant pain.
- Army: A badly wounded soldier staggers into the Takagi pawnshop in 1866. As he's getting bandaged up he says "Sorry to bother you, but can I have some tea?"
- 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.
- Yoko The Cat and her mother from Rosemary Wells's Yoko series are very polite with other people.
- A scene 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.
- 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.
- While famous for awhile for rioting when Big Van Vader beating up Antonio Inoki, over the years since, New Japan Pro Wrestling's fan base has built up a reputation for being among the most subdued and respectful in the entire world. Its wrestlers, on the other hand, have a reputation for being arrogant kung fu guys.
- Frontier Martial-Arts Wrestling fans tended to be oddly sedate, even during the garbage matches. They were actually at their most sedate during the most terrifying garbage matches, leading some to suggest it was less politeness and more Stunned Silence.
- Like New Japan which it split off from, Pro Wrestling Zero 1 fans tended to be pretty quiet as they watched matches. This didn't stop AJ Styles from screaming at them to shut up though.
- Pretty much Yoshi Tatsu's entire gimmick on WWECW, "THANK YOU!"
- Hiroyo Matsumoto apologized for getting injured in the Oz Academy and preventing Tomoka Nakagawa from retiring as a tag team champion.
- When Tajiri, Sakoda and Akio (later known as Jimmy Wang Yang) were a heel faction, they would sometimes subvert the trope - and gain Cheap Heat - by smarmily bowing to their non-Japanese opponents with sardonic grins on their faces.
- In Irrational Games' Freedom Force vs. The 3rd 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 the 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.
- In Dirge of Cerberus, Vincent uses the ritual phrase 'It's been a long time' when talking to the main party members over the phone. It's customary to do this when talking to someone you haven't seen in a while in the same way that the Japanese have ritual phrases for use before eating and on leaving and returning home.
- 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.
- Mass Effect: While not expressly Japanese, the hanar are large jellyfish who believe in politeness before all else. They believe speaking in the first person is rude, and any hanar expected to interact with other species has to take special classes so that they don't freak out at all the perceived impoliteness. 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. In the second game, Jack mentions that when she dropped a space station on a hanar moon, they called it "vandalism" ("They really liked that moon"). Much like Feudal Japan, they have a booming assassination industry, because killing each other face to face would be rude.
- Similar to the Hanar, the Quaggan from Guild Wars 2 never refer to themselves by name, instead preferring to call themselves "this Quaggan". In their case it's because they're extremely non-confrontational- although rather than being Actual Pacifists, it's because they're afraid of what they do when they ARE forced into confrontation.
- Parodied in Casey and Andy, where Lord Milligan manages to become prime minister and dictator of Japan through asking for it in the right way.
- In an early Starslip comic, Captain Vanderbeam and his crew visit 35th century Space Japan, which still fits this trope perfectly.
- Yuki in Ménage à 3 invokes this when politely and amiably accepting Angel's card while he insults the band she's currently in (with Zii, in front of Zii). Yuki explains this by saying "Zii, I'm Japanese and Canadian. I know how to be double polite!" (This is not really true, but oh well...)
- 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.
- Many WWII era cartoons, like Bugs Bunny Nips the Nips, Tokio Jokio and The Ducktators feature 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.
"Well, I say we ban Homer from our restaurants!""No, that would be impolite. I say we KILL HIM!"
- A yakuza man is chucked through the family's kitchen 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.
- 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. 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 reality is that the situation in Japan was extremely grave and chaotic, but the Japanese considered it rude to tell such things to the foreign press. That would be an example of criticizing one's in-group.
- 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.
- While cheering in the middle of a song in an orchestral concert is considered bad etiquette everywhere, Satoru Iwata and Eiji Aonuma were much quicker than their Western collegues to state their displeasure with fans doing just that during concerts held for the 25th Anniversary of The Legend of Zelda.
- As noted in the above Dave Barry Does Japan, Dave attends an eerily quiet baseball game and makes mention of the fact that each team has "cheer squads" who perform the exact same ritualized cheer only when their team scores and is otherwise silent. He made the mistake of drinking too many beers at the game, and when one of the players came out on the field, Dave said (not yelled, said) "Let's go, [player name]." He writes that it felt like the entire field turned to stare at him.
- There's typically a single section at a Japanese baseball game that's not quiet - the one with American visitors. It's also the dirtiest section after the game, since Japanese are trained to always clean up after themselves. Americans just figure it's someone else's job. Also, it's considered extremely rude to boo an umpire, as Americans are prone to do.
- 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.
- In fact, one interpretation of the law protects this act, as it is considered a form of free speech or protest.
- As mentioned in the literature section, Yoko and her mother who appears in Timothy Goes to School are very polite with people. Especially Yoko's mother who would give cookies to Timothy when he visits his best friend Yoko.