It doesn’t matter how long I’ve lived in Japan. I’m still struck by the level of civility here. Every encounter, whether it’s on a crowded train or a busy street is transacted with a degree of quiet courtesy that continues to surprise me. Passing through Tokyo Station recently, I was aware of the dense crowd moving in a fluid, almost choreographed way. Thousands of people heading in different directions and nobody running into anyone else.
Passengers on rush hour trains will wordlessly jam in together and stand in such close proximity that it startled me when I first came to Tokyo. Fresh from London, I still had sharpened elbows and an expectation of personal space. Now I can see that my fellow commuters weren’t interested in invading my personal space. Without any whingeing or eye rolling, people just know to budge up. Standing close together allows more people to get on. Nothing needs to be said. Nobody needs to lose their temper.
Without being told explicitly, people seem to know what to do, even which side of a crowded pavement to walk on. It’s as if the sense of behaving correctly and not inconveniencing others has been internalised.
It’s only after all this time that I’m finally getting to the bottom of it. Ever since my daughter started at nursery. The Japanese hoikuen or kindergarten is the incubator of good manners. From the word “go” children are expected to remove their shoes when they walk into the building, then wash their hands as soon as they enter the classroom, and generally behave in a respectful, public-spirited way.
Everything is carried out meticulously. The nursery requires parents to send their children to school with what seemed to me an excessive supply of hand cloths and face towels. Now it’s clear – no activity can take place without being followed and sometimes preceded by a round of hand-wiping.
Meals are cooked every day in the school kitchen and displayed in the lobby for parents to inspect. Forget all thoughts of semolina and turkey twizzlers. This week’s offerings included white rice with seasonal chestnuts, grilled chicken, miso soup and slices of fresh Japanese pear. No wonder the teachers are eating the same meal. I’m tempted to ask for a bento box to take home myself. Every meal begins the correct way, even for toddlers, with an “itadakimasu” and a bow of the head and ends with a thank you for the food, “gochisousama deshita.”
I thought I’d cracked the rules – and there are many – but I was politely taken aside last week and told that while one pair of outdoor shoes was good, two would be even better. One pair for playing outside in the playground, one for going home. There’s no point in asking, “can’t one pair of shoes do the same job?” To everyone else it’s obvious.
There are some who say that Japanese education prioritises collective good manners over individual creativity and that may be true but for now at least, both seem to be co-existing quite comfortably. It’s worth noting that today is an appropriately considerate public holiday in Japan – Respect for the Aged Day.