Saturday, 13 June 2015

Turning Japanese: 7 Golden Rules of Social Etiquette

A prayer memorial at Gotemba Heiwa Koen (Peace Park), enroute to Mt Fuji. Also home to dog statues donated by Buddhist cities over Asia.

It'd be rude not to explain Japan's lesser-known, mind-boggling rules of social engagement.

Turning Japanese: Etiquette

Life in Japan is built on a historical foundation of etiquette and social conformity. It's impossible to not be impressed by the friendliness, helpfulness and politeness. It's not just their Ps, Qs and remarkable 90 degree bowing abilities either. The values of ensuring safety, honesty, community, humility, respect and responsibility are evident not simply in the behaviours and actions of the people, but in their products and built environment.

It's worth doing a bit of research on regional customs before your visit. It's not an exhaustive list, but as a guest in a foreign country, you'll save yourself the embarrassment, feel infinitely more immersed and appreciated for making the effort.

1. Honesty is often the only policy

Money does not necessarily 'rule' all in Japan. Tipping is not normally practiced. In fact, it's considered an insult to tip your taxi driver because it implies he didn't do a good enough job. On one memorable occasion I was chased down a station by a panicked sushi restaurant hostess who thought I'd left my purse on my seat.

2. And when not to tell the truth...

Most tourists are familiar with the phrase "Oishi" (delicious) and that it's polite to audibly let the restaurant owner/chefs hear your appreciation of their cooking. But for locals, "oishi" is what you exclaim regardless of what you're served tastes like. "Japanese people tend to say the negative things indirectly. Because they try not to hurt the feeling of others, and to avoid confrontational situations."*

3. Exact match

Quality assurance, food safety and accurate labelling are taken very seriously in Japan. It's common to see every ingredient and calorie declared on menus and outdoor signage. That includes the irresistible matcha ice-cream stalls you'll find everywhere.

Growing 'perfect produce' is a national obsession. In grocery marts you'll find two or more varieties of fruit and veg that look identical but cost differently - as prices are based on their specific level of nutrients and sweetness. "As with anything made in Japan quality standards are high, so if you want the very best you have to pay for it," said Fu-san, our wise counsel during the trip.

4. The 'preciousness' of children

The national societal concern to protect young ones can seem a bit extreme for visitors. For starters there are some ridiculously weird school regulations. Most primaries require students to wear Bob the Builder-esque 'pedestrian helmets' whilst walking to school. Why? To reduce the risk of head injury, even though evidence has shown they make little difference. However, in context of its ever-dropping birth rate it's a somewhat understandable measure.

Ironically however, schoolchildren travel to school unaccompanied. As for adults, speed jaywalking is widespread - Fu-san describes Tokyoite jaywalking as 'legendary'.

5. Knowing the difference between left and right

In the UK, you're expected to stand on the right side of the escalator as a sign of courtesy. For most of Japan however, people stand on the left. Confusingly, in the Kansai region (where Osaka is located), people stand on the right. A fascinating explanation for this bit of transport etiquette, which also applies to drivers can be found here. Hint: it's to do with samurais.

6. The Green Party

As natural energy resources are limited, society makes a point on everyone doing their bit for conserving the environment. The streets and parks are spotless. General waste bins are generally super-hard to find, unlike recycling bins. Every drinks vending machine is accompanied by a unit for plastic, metal and glass. "If you live here and consistently don't do your household recycling correctly, you are likely to be shunned by your local community." said Fu-san.

7. Wildlife and folklore 

Due to the active tectonic plates its 6000+ islands lie on, Japan's urban spaces are densely over-populated. Throughout history nature and humans have always had a curiously intimate and sometimes challenging relationship, which is also reflected in its culture.

For example, because they can only leap forwards, frogs are considered a good luck mascot that bring progress - you'll often spot decorative stone frogs in temples, urban parks, even on chopsticks. At the entrances of eateries and bars keep an eye out for a cheeky anthropomorphic creature which looks like the mole from 'The Wind in the Willows'. This is 'tanuki', the centuries old cult-famous Japanese raccoon dog/flying squirrel. "The legendary tanuki is reputed to be mischievous and jolly, a master of disguise and shapeshifting, but somewhat gullible and absentminded"**. And in the city of Nara, the T┼Źdaiji, temple welcomes deer as well as humans guests because the former are supposed to be sacred.

Making a fancy entrance - a family of Tanunki 

Do you know any traditional or modern rules of Japanese etiquette? I'd love to hear from you!

Up Next: Innovation

*Sources: JapaneseLesson**Wikipedia

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