Consideration for Strangers from the English Heart of Tradition

If you have just gone through a swing door in a public place such as a shop, do you generally hold the door open for the next person behind you, though a stranger? Most British people do so automatically, and according to my observation most Japanese do not.

In Britain we think of a stranger in the street, or in a shop, as a fellow human being to whom we should be courteous. Looking at Japanese behaviour in public places, however, it seems that they think of strangers as obstacles, who must be pushed aside if one is in a hurry.

Again, in an electric train, Japanese young men sometimes sprawl across two seats. No one dares to protest. In Britain it is very rare: I do not say that it cannot happen, but it is rare. Here there is no need for posters such as the ‘Spreading Peacock’ poster which was widely displayed in Japan a little time back. It showed a magnificent peacock sitting in an electric car, spreading its tail over the next seats and inconveniencing the people on each side.

In an electric train in Britain, if some people are standing because the carriage is full, those sitting will always adjust their position, so that they take up as little space as possible. In this way they create some spare room, and a few of the standing ones can now sit down. In such cases, Japanese tend to disregard the convenience of others. A few years ago I saw in a full electric train in Tokyo an elderly man standing, and a young man sprawled across two seats just in front of him. The latter could easily have sat up straight, and made room for the old man to sit down, but he did not move. The elderly man was holding himself very upright, and I could see by the way his chin was drawn in that he had probably been a soldier in the Pacific War. Finally he said to the youngster: “You should make room for a senior man.” The young man replied angrily, “I am a passenger and you are a passenger. I am in this seat and I shall stay here”. The elderly man said something sharp to him, and the other jumped up in a fury and caught him by the arm. The train was just coming into a station, and the young man shouted, “We’ll go and ask the stationmaster”. He pulled the old man out through the open door. I do not know what happened after that, as I remained in the train on my way to an appointment. Later I asked one of the editors of a big newspaper for his opinion about the incident, and he told me that the stationmaster would be able to smooth down the ruffled feelings on both sides. He added that stationmasters in Japan have considerable experience in settling such little quarrels.

There is one big exception to the indifference and even discourtesy shown by many Japanese to strangers, and that is the case of children. In these same electric train carriages, we see people giving up their seats to let small children kneel and look out of the window. In Britain there is far less interest in little children. Women often smile at them, but men tend to think of them as rather a nuisance. This has always been the case, perhaps; over a hundred years ago, one of the characters in Dickens, Mr. Jagger, was summing up the opinion of his fellow-countrymen when he said: “They’re a bad lot, boys.” Children were thought of as animals, which must be trained by fear at first, because they cannot reason; afterwards they can be trained on a basis of love and affection. That was the idea of education for quite a long time

In Britain. Probably it was based on a half- understood idea of Darwinism. Before that, children were thought of as being filled with sin—like little devils, in fact (especially the boys). The only hope of controlling their natural tendency to sin was by severity. Things have changed now, and we have a much more lenient attitude towards children, but even so, it is not to be compared with the Japanese fondness for them. There are not nearly so many children in the television advertisements in Britain as there are in Japan.

There are other cases where what one might call ‘public manners’ are different in Britain and Japan. For instance, in both countries there are historic religious buildings; we have churches and cathedrals, and in Japan there are great temples and shrines. In both cases many visitors come from a distance to see these places, and often not for religious reasons at all. It may be because the churches or temples are famous for their architecture, or for their historical associations.

Though the circumstances are similar, there is quite a difference in the general behaviour of the visitors. In Japan, they sometimes talk loudly and laugh, and some are even drunk. No one protests at all. In Britain, even an atheist would talk softly in a church, in order not to disturb genuine religious worshippers. He himself does not believe in God, but he recognizes that this is a place of worship for those who do believe, and he is courteous towards them. He has come to this place, and he must behave properly when he is in it. Perhaps he thinks of himself just as a man at a concert who does not care for the one particular piece of music which is at the moment being played. He has no right to interrupt it just because he does not like it; there are others who do like it. A noisily drunken man in a church here would soon be removed; the other people would insist that his friends, or if necessary the church officials, must take him out. And he himself would feel ashamed.

One of the worst case of discourtesy I have encountered was at the Kabuki, when the actor was making the final speech. A number of the audience in the front rows began noisily gathering up their possessions and hastening out of the theatre. I suppose they wanted to be first in getting a taxi. It was appallingly inconsiderate of them, and such behaviour would be inconceivable in a London theatre. Most Japanese, I imagine, would not think it good.

There are cases, however, where there is a genuine difference of feeling, and that difference of feeling shows itself in the conventional expressions which are used. Take for example: lateness. It is always unpleasant to be late for an appointment, because it is a sort of social sin. When we arrive late, we have to apologize. But I have come to realize that the method of apology is entirely different in Britain and in Japan. The difference became clear to me through a personal experience.

Recently I gave a lecture to the students of a university about an hour’s journey from Tokyo. The university made the arrangements for my transport, but there was an unfortunate mistake in the time. I was waiting at my hotel for forty minutes, and only then did the guide come who was to take me by car and train to the lecture. I do not know who made the mistake; but the result was, that we arrived at the university only one minute before the lecture was due to begin. I wanted to go straight to the hall and give the lecture on time, but the President insisted that I should rest for a few minutes. Then we went together, where there were about 800 students and some of the staff—professors and lecturers. I suppose some of them had come to see the Japanese-speaking foreigner; even today, it is perhaps not very usual. The President introduced me and said that it was not my fault that we were beginning late; he explained about the mistake, and that I had wanted to come directly to the hall to begin on time, but that he had insisted I should have a rest first. He then introduced the subject of the lecture, which was to be about differences in attitudes and behaviour in Britain and Japan.

When I began to speak, I mechanically said: “ Moshiwake arimasen deshita.” As I came out with it, the thought occurred to me that there is no English translation of the phrase. ‘I have no excuse’ would not mean the same thing at all: no Englishman would say it. So I began my lecture by pointing this out. In England, just to say that there is no excuse would be a very strange way to apologize. To English ears, it would sound very careless, happy-go-lucky, even a bit contemptuous. ‘There is no excuse’ or ‘I have no excuse’ could mean: ‘I have come late, but there is no definite reason. My appointment with you was not very important to me. I just did not notice the time —I was watching a programme on TV; that was more interesting than coming to see you.’ If we said in English that we had no excuse for being late, it could give the impression that we did not much value the appointment. To say, “My lateness is inexcusable”, would always be a joke, or perhaps sarcastic. So we never say that we have no excuse.

 What then do we do when we are late? The short answer is: we must always give some reason, some excuse, why we have come late. Moshiwake ga arimasu. There are good reasons, and bad reasons; the best reason is that something quite unexpected happened, which caused a delay. A man might say: “Normally it takes only half an hour to get here, and today is Sunday, so I thought I could drive here in twenty minutes or so. But there must be some exhibition, which I didn’t know about, at one of the exhibition halls on the way: the roads were jammed with cars waiting to get in to the car parks. We had to wait nearly a quarter of an hour. “Awfully sorry to turn up so late.” A mother might say: “My little boy, Tommy—you’ve met Tommy, haven’t you?—fell down and cut his knee: I had to put some plaster on it. I knew you’d understand if I was a bit late.” Or again: “Just as I was leaving, the electricity man came to check the meter, and then he explained (he took so long, just like these officials) that they would have to come round soon and examine the wiring in our house. They are going to make an inspection of the whole neighbourhood. Do forgive me.”

This kind of excuse means: ‘My appointment with you was, of course, tremendously important. But owing to these unfortunate accidents (which I could not possibly foresee), I have come late. I am very sorry.’

Now it is a fact that sometimes these reasons for being late are not quite true. Most people realize that they are just a form of politeness. All the people I have mentioned above did in fact set out late for their appointment, and on the way they were thinking what they would say when they arrived. Often in such cases the speaker simply exaggerates something that really did happen, so that it can become an excuse. For instance the car driver did have to wait for two or three minutes in a little traffic jam. He turns that three minutes into nearly a quarter of an hour. Of course, if he is half an hour late, the traffic jam story would be too unlikely; he might have to invent a business telephone call. However, British people generally do not like an outright lie; an exaggeration is permissible, because both sides know what it is, and so no one is deceived. In the same way, ‘ Moshiwake arimasen’ sounds very humble, but it is often just a kimari-monku or standard phrase without real meaning. It is worthwhile, however, to know that in most Western countries a late-comer is expected to produce some reason.

 I explained this point at the beginning of the lecture, and then said: “Kyo wa okurete kite, moshiwa- ke arimasen deshita. Honto wa, moshiwake ga ippai arimashita ga, koko wa Nihon desu kara, moshiwake arimasen.”

 The students burst out laughing, and I hope that you readers will have enjoyed this too. If not… moshiwake arimasen.

©Trevor Leggett 1987

Index for this series of articles
1 Foreword
2 Consideration for Strangers
3 Social Conventions and Surprises
4 Cruel to be Kind
5 Losing to Oneself
6 North-South-East-West
7 It Likes That
8 Warukuchi
9 Japanese Logic


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