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the japanese dichotomy of politeness

16/09/2020 - Posted in cycling , philosophy , private , society Posted by:

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reading time: 2 minute

There is something about Japanese culture that has always struck me as odd. Generally, people in Japan are uber friendly and there are countless occasions where Japanese politeness has saved me when I was lost or when I did not understand something which then lead to some mistake on my part. However, on the street there are always encounters with Japanese people that I find puzzling. For example, people on bicycles on the sidewalk tend to stop in front of traffic light in a way that completely blocks the whole sidewalk. Or when you are in a river of people and you want to go faster than the steady stream of humans, there are inevitably encounters where it seems that people deliberately move in your way, seemingly blocking you on purpose.

A nice beach just next to Haneda Airport in the middle of Tokyo—who would have thought?

While I was doing my new cycling course today there where two women on their Mamachari, again blocking the full width of the path, and I was wondering, what is going on here? How can it be that the friendly Japanese populus can be so incredibly rude. As I rode away it dawned on me. What if Japanese culture, with its gazillion rules to live harmoniously together, actually only works well “natural contexts”? Natural in the sense that they are within the traditions and the history of Japanese culture. So, keeping your surroundings clean; check! Wait patiently until it is your turn; check! These are all things that are normal and I would say part of the day to day living together of society. Someone who is not following the natural stream of bodies on the street (and incidentally also looks weird—as in foreigner); that is a situation that is not normal. Extending your thoughts about the possibility that someone else wants to ride their bicycle where you just blocked the path? That is too much of an abstract thought and on top of that requires future predictions, making this exercise even more divorced from the immediate social reality.

So this is my new hypotheses. Japanese people are crazy friendly, and I really like that about the country that accepted me as a guest, but, as soon as Japanese people are in an abstract situation they will be lost and all these acquired cultural politeness goes out the window. I cautiously draw the limits of Japanese politeness where the immediate and the natural ends—it does not extend into the abstract, the “unnatural” and the future of reality.

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