I have made the argument on several occasions that Japanese people are polite, but not friendly. And while I will freely admit that, like all generalizations, there are definitely lots of friendly and extroverted Japanese people out there, the reverse is also true: there’s also plenty of rude people out there (I know, crazy talk isn’t it: a county of 125 million people and there’s a variety in personality. Shock horror).
Now, I will immediately hold my hand up and say that by and large rudeness in Japan is way, WAY less prevalent and obtuse than in other countries (coughcoughUKcough). But there are some prevailing tropes of rudeness out there that would have even a loud-mouthed Westerner gasp. Here’s a classic trinity of rudeness:
People do not offer seats to women/children/the elderly.
A kindergarten student no higher than my waist gets on a train. She has a bag on her back that’s nearly as big as she is. The doors close. It’s ready to depart. The child looks around. Not a single seat is free. And not a single able-bodied adult has offered their seat to her. The train lurches forward, and the child falls over.
This was something that I witnessed on the Tokyo Metro (and before you ask, yes, I was already standing), and it is by no means a rare occurrence. As I write this, I am on a train, standing over three seated passengers. Two of them are guys who appear to be in their mid 20s. The two passengers standing next to me are an elderly gent in his 60s and a women in her 40s. The possibility that the young gents will offer their seats up? Zero.
To me, this is a massive faux pas of common courtesy. Call it chivalry, call it manners, call it social conditioning, whatever you want: the simple fact is that if I have a seat and there’s somebody nearby that looks as though they could do with a seat more than me, I’m going to offer it.
Ah, but therein lies the rub: it calls for a judgement on strangers as well as interacting with them, something which most Japanese people don’t like doing. So rather than risk being polite and ending up embarrassing themselves and the other party, most would prefer to stay in their seat, keep their head down and eyes furiously focused on their lap/book/phone/self-defeating shame. To be fair, a lot of morning trains are also so busy that it’s physically impossible to offer your seat, not until the day humans learn how to perform osmosis.
For a nation that is concerned about causing ‘迷惑’ (‘meiwaku’, a nuisance to others), it’s strange that the most extreme and obnoxious form of meiwaku is not only present but also hugely widespread – and that’s public smoking. And Japan is one of the heaviest cigarette users in the world – 41% of men smoke some 1,800 cigarettes a year (compare this to the USA where 33% smoke 1000 a year and the U.K. where 25% smoke 750 a year). Add to that the fact that smoking in restaurants is still totally a thing and you have a hell of a lot of secondhand smoke to suck up. Lovely. Oh, and let’s not discount those times when the guy walking in front of you decides to light one up!
For me this is probably one of the biggest ways in which Japan utterly fails compared to the rest of the modern world: eating out in Japan is the go-to way to socialize as entertaining at home isn’t really a thing, but when you do go for a night out you basically have to consign yourself to inhaling tabacco fug all night and enjoying the fragrance sticking to your clothes for the rest of the evening and the day after.
This is actually a by-product of what is, in my opinion, a great thing: drinking in public is very relaxed here. And while it’s largely nice to be able to enjoy yourself and see others enjoy themselves with a few drinks, some people have zero sense of self control. So it is very common to see people smashed out of their faces in the streets and parks, even in the middle of the day. Now that in of itself isn’t much of a problem – they aren’t causing harm to anyone else like smoking does – but a literal byproduct is the common occurrence of public urination.
Yep, you heard me right. Despite the massive number of public toilets scattered about the place, urinating in public on a Friday or Saturday night is not only fairly common but also accepted to an extent. Less disgusting or just as annoying are the ones who remain lucid enough to stagger onto a train home and then proceed to splay themselves across four chairs, take their socks and shoes off and go to sleep. I am not kidding nor pulling on a singular anecdote here.
Rudeness comes in many shapes and sizes and can be found wherever you go in the world – very much like politeness. The Japanese may maintain an overall air of genteel politeness, but they are just as capable at throwing that image right back in your face. Because, hey, we’re all human right? Now, somebody get me a beer, a cigarette and a train chair with my name on it…