Japan’s conditioning worked

One of the first things you will probably learn about Japan, either when you attempt to study Japanese or when you’re trying to prepare for a Japan trip by using your ninja inconspicuousness skills to secretly read as many guidebooks in the bookshop as you possibly can because you’re old-school, is how it’s rather rare to hear a direct ‘no’ out of a Japanese person’s mouth, making you, the blunt foreigner that you are, question every second of hesitation you are met with after asking a simple question. Well, that’s not fully true; I have heard a few noes during the duck and my time living in Japan, be it because we almost exclusively communicate in English or because this whole polite refusal business does not really apply to a foreign duck (by the way, have you seen The Foreign Duck, the Native Duck and God in a Coin Locker?) and a foreign me who never had to deal with too much of the Japanese office etiquette. Anyway, this incredibly lengthy exposition does eventually lead to the question I want to address today: Can you get too used to Japanese politeness?
When you enter a store, even a convenience store (the love is real), you will probably be welcomed with an 「いらっしゃいませ 」and then, after you’ve finished your shop, thanked with a polite「ありがとうございました」 that, apparently, you are meant to ignore?! Of course, if you don’t know any Japanese past the basic ‘hello’ and ‘thank you’, such mandatory phrases can leave you feeling a bit intimidated when the cashier absentmindedly exclaims something without looking at you and you overthink your decision to browse for souvenirs because you have no clue what that person wants from you. Nonetheless you experience a general politeness pretty much anywhere you go. Wanna open a bank account? Be prepared for the most polite explanation of your account’s perks (in English, if you’re lucky) you’ve ever experienced. Wanna go for a walk in the countryside (Tokyo has a reputation of being rather cold and anonymous)? Your Japanese friend will most likely be best friends with the locals by the end of the day (depending on how deep in the country you are and how foreign you look you might encounter astonished stares or crying babies). Wanna take a train? Make sure to wait in line and board after all the passengers who could squeeze themselves through the mass of fellow passengers in the short amount of time allotted to do so (so that the train can continue to be super punctual and reliable) have gotten off.bag duck
Japan is a country that offers incredible customer service and has a general politeness ingrained into pretty much any aspect of everyday life. That can make it hard to imagine going back to a place that is a bit ‘rougher’ and features such delicacies as communal music appreciation featuring phone speakers and a crowded train. However, imagine my surprise when, just a few weeks in, I encountered a cashier who was pretty speedy but just a 4/10 on the politeness scale. I had gotten so used to everyone being super friendly that I felt personally attacked by a stranger’s indifference. Wow, Japan! You got me! Fortunately, a feathery slap in the face brought me back down to earth in an instant.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s