Suddenly the sky darkened, the thunder rumbled and the rain fell. From blue sky to black slate in five minutes. I jumped into a doorway and watched as people hurried by. Well, most did. One man seeing me imprisoned behind a wall of rain stopped, gave me his umbrella, and then jumped back in to the deluge and disappeared. This was Kyoto a few days ago.
Was this umbrella donation just a random act of kindness; nice but without meaning? Well it didn’t feel very random after a week travelling around Japan. People were just so ridiculously nice all the time.
On several occasions I found myself stopping traffic in Kyoto. I’d raise my camera and out of the corner of my eye see a taxi or moped come to a halt and only move on after I had lowered it again. Ask directions and people would volunteer to take you there. Clumsily transgress some cultural tenet and you’d be smiled at and instructed on what you should really be doing. In hidden bars and busy restaurants everything would work out despite my lack of Japanese because people were, well, nice.
Being nice may be born of some impossible-to-break cultural heritage – ie be more instinct than thought-out response – but it’s certainly alluring to outsiders. Do I want to go back? Would I recommend it? You bet.
I am not saying I’d move to Japan (if they’d have me with my lack of onsen etiquette) but some people do move for this very reason. I just spoke with a woman who was moving to Winnipeg from Toronto because the people there “are so nice”. Never mind that most people would think the people of Toronto are also scorers on any niceness index.
And niceness isn’t just a winner for the old or pram-pushers. London’s biggest triumph during the Olympics was that, perhaps against type, the volunteers at the site and people across the city, behaved so well. We were nice to foreigners for a full two weeks.
There are already all sorts of people who try to measure the happiness and friendliness of various nationalities. In 2013 the World Economic Forum named Iceland the friendliest country. Maybe. But niceness is harder to measure and a bit deeper and more valuable than just friendliness. And if I was in charge of marketing for Japan, I’d be bottling it and selling it. Being nice is nice.
Andrew Tuck is editor of Monocle.