Japan seems to be shrouded in stereotypes like no other country. From obscure vending machines to speaking toilets, from the shyness of Japan’s people to their eccentric subculture fashion. Amidst preconceptions and memes, we’re left wondering – what is Japan really like? As someone born and raised in Japan, I will try my best to share an inside perspective on the common stereotypes that people have about my home country. One of them is that Japanese people are incredibly nice and polite.
From anime to sushi, Japan leaves its cultural fingerprints all across the globe. It is known as a quirky, innovative country that is the source of many a trend and invention, some useful, others amusing. However, there is one aspect of this developed nation that has undergone an undeniably unique evolution, especially compared to other countries in Asia and Europe. I am talking about communication in a global world. And especially the often-lauded kindness of Japanese people has everything to do with this.
“Japanese People Are So Nice!” – Where Does this Stereotype Come From?
“Japanese people are so nice!” is a sentence that you’ll often read or hear from travelers, no matter where they’re from. Of course, meeting people with kind and gentle personalities plays a big role in this perception of Japan, but nice folk like that can be found all over the world. So, where does this stereotype come from?
One reason is the concept of “omotenashi,” a word that is often translated with “hospitality,” although that word falls short to encompass everything that omotenashi means. It’s more than genuine kindness towards guests, it’s also a sharp eye for detail, awareness for individual needs, and the effort to always go the extra mile.
Another factor is that no matter how crowded it gets, in a train, for example, Japanese people always strive to “abide by the rules,” which essentially means paying attention to social codes, etiquette, and manners – even if it is bothersome.
This mindset has very real effects. If you lose your wallet in Japan, the likelihood of it not being stolen but instead returned to the nearest police box is almost ridiculously high. These situations are often anecdotally told as a positive stereotype about Japan, but also are a prominent part of travel stories. This is the kindness that Japan is famous for.
However, this kindness is not tied to specific situations or people. Rather, it is an integral part of what being Japanese means. It is especially visible when someone from Japan interacts with someone from a different country, but looks entirely different between two Japanese people.
Communication between Nationalities
Imagine that you’re an international tourist in Japan and, say, you’ve lost your way. If you decide to ask a Japanese passerby for help, you’ll likely encounter a friendly, kind person that’ll try to help you as best as they can, disregarding language barriers. A positive experience like that surely is not unique to Japan.
Communication Between Japanese People
Things look rather different between two Japanese people, however. The mindset that a lot of Japanese people have when it comes to daily life in society is represented by thoughts such as “how can I involve others as little as possible” or “how can I limit contact to strangers to a minimum.” In other words, if a Japanese person wouldn’t find a tourist but another Japanese person in a troubled situation, the likelihood of reacting to it with the kindness described above is much lower.
Generally speaking, Japanese people try to involve other Japanese people as little as possible. If they see someone in trouble, at a train station for example, you will notice a lot of people passing by without reacting, whether they are in a hurry or not. This might be due to the mindset of not wanting to involve others and hence not wanting to be involved by others, either. The top priority is not to help but to not get caught up in anything, reinforced by the thought that “someone else will surely help.”
Don’t Bother Others – not Even Dogs
Let me explain this via a unique example that illustrates this mindset of not bothering and involving others.
Now imagine yourself in a park in Japan, where someone takes a walk with their dog. In most parts of the world, it would be perfectly normal to go up to the person, talk to them, and maybe even pet the dog, especially if you’re encountering the two of them regularly. Friendships are often born out of such small, friendly interactions.
However, the same scene wouldn’t happen like this in Japan. Speaking to someone who is a stranger, even if you encounter them daily on their walk, is a big no-go. If you’d still approach the owner for a friendly remark or casual chat, they’d likely walk away in mild shock. Even those who’d politely respond would probably make an effort to physically and mentally distance themselves from you, to achieve an absolute minimum of contact.
This sort of behavior is exclusive to Japan, I think – you wouldn’t encounter it in other Asian countries such as Taiwan, China, and all around Southeast Asia.
“Tatemae” – A Japanese Communication Tool for Kindness and Respect
You could say that being aware of the gaze of people around myself is part of the Japanese nature, as well as the ever-present principle of not causing trouble to anyone else. Especially the latter is a concept that every child growing up in Japan is taught right from the start. “If everyone does it like this, Japan surely will be a pleasant place to live in” is the idea behind it.
However, the effort to not cause trouble is accompanied by another one: the effort to look good in the eyes of others. This mix of principles creates the unique concept of “tatemae,” best translated as “public position” as opposed to private thoughts or real beliefs. Therefore, the famous Japanese kindness is a result of the desire of wanting to be seen favorably by others.
If you work in a Japanese company, you’ll participate in “nomikai,” big drinking parties that usually involve entire departments. In other countries, forming friendships with your colleagues over a shared lunch or beer after work is fairly common – Japan is a different matter, though. Because of the constant awareness of not involving and troubling others, as well as worrying about how others see you, forming honest, open friendships can be hard.
The drinking parties are a good example for this. With a large number of people, the atmosphere is relaxed and fun and you might have a great time with the person next to you. After talking for a while, you’ll probably suggest: “Let’s go have a drink sometime!” It sounds like the beginning of a new friendship and indeed, you might find yourself in a bar for a beer after work with your new friend some days later. However, if you’re talking to a Japanese person, their heartfelt “Yes, sure!” could also be a case of tatemae. Agreeing to something while actually having no genuine intent to follow through is a prime example.
Opposed to what you might think, this doesn’t count as lying. Instead, it comes from the same kindness that tourists note about Japanese people. The actual intention is not as important as keeping the conversation pleasant and making the other person happy. For us Japanese, it’s a nice thing to do, even if the drinks will never happen.
Globalization: Using Kindness as a Shield
Even after having looked at the stereotype of the “nice Japanese people” more closely, there is no denying that kindness is an inherent part of the Japanese mindset. Every person growing up in Japan carries it with them. However, the island nation of Japan is also under the influence of globalization, adopting and adapting to cultural influences from all around the world. Japan is historically known for rapid development and the last few decades are not an exception. However, human interaction and communication might not be able to keep up with those changes.
Modern Japan changes from one day another, both on a technological and a cultural level. The country is home to a plethora of personalities and while everyone tries their best to coexist alongside one another, the Japanese kindness seems to turn into a shield. Let me explain: Even if we see someone being in trouble, we tend to put our own feelings first and won’t approach because we navigate the world under the concept of not bothering and involving – for us, it’s a way to keep the balance and avoid trouble.
I believe that this is the key to communication on Japan. This shield of kindness always seems to come before any interaction, and getting through can be really tough.
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