I’m a stickler for manners and in Tokyo I’ve found my nirvana.
I have to admit I was a bit thrown by all the bowing initially. But not for long. It just seems so dignified and appreciative. It makes you feel like you matter and because everyone is doing it, everyone feels like they matter. Like some kind of huge circle of appreciation and respect.
I love the etiquette of bowing. The lower you go, the more respect you are showing. For example, if a company makes a ‘balls up’, let’s put it, the most senior executives are required to do a very public and very long (and I mean looong) bow. Often, this must be performed on a stage in front of cameras for maximum impact.
Customer service here is second to none as it is absolutely expected that you should treat someone with respect if they are going to buy something from you. So, for example, when the department stores open their doors in the morning, staff line up on either side of the entrance door and bow on masse as the first customers enter. What a magnificent feeling it is when you walk in. It definitely makes you more amenable to buying something.
There is a Japanese reality TV show on Netflix called ‘Terrace House’ which is hard to describe but is a sort of mega polite and very low-key Big Brother. I have become mildly addicted to it. I love how the hosts all say ‘konbanwa’ (good evening) all at the same time at the start of the show accompanied by a bow. Such a nice way to start! No shouting, no bright lights and crazy stuff. Just good evening. So simple. So welcoming. Like nectar to the soul. And it’s not just the hosts…
…even the house mates say something polite when they enter the house along the lines of how they are looking forward to sharing this experience (accompanied, of course, by a bow) – and these are the cool, hip kids. Politeness, it seems, is universal here.
Now, being a stickler for manners, I kind of assumed I’d do ok on this front. However, I now realise there is an intricate code of conduct going on that, at first, I was merrily oblivious to. Most of it depends on the perceived place in the hierarchy each person is. I have to say I’m not really as keen on the hierarchy part but still, it remains pretty fascinating.
So, take the work place. There are certain things you say to those more senior when you leave the office which are completely different to what you say to your peers or someone less experienced. There is a place in the elevator where the most ‘important’ person should stand (centre back if you’re wondering) and a certain chair in a meeting room that is deemed the most important chair.
You can’t just say please and thank you here, you have to select the most appropriate way of expressing your gratitude depending on the person and the situation. I’ve lost count of the number of different ways you can say this. A casual “domo” (thanks) through to a mega polite “domo arigato gozaimasu” accompanied by a bow.
Before you go cancelling your dream holiday or business trip to Japan in the fear of offending everyone. Don’t panic. Luckily, we ‘foreigners’ are pretty much excused from all of this which is frankly a huge relief. We seem to be able to get away with a simple arigato with brownie points included for trying. Phew.
Of course, loving manners as I do, I’m always looking out for a little flourish to add into my (very limited) vocab. My favourite word was told to me by a Japanese lady who has dedicated her life to learning and practising the green tea ceremony – perhaps the most etiquette based experience going.
During the (2 hour long) green tea ceremony, participants pass around a type of matcha that is drunk from the same cup to symbolise unity. When passing the cup, one is expected to say “O-sakini” before turning the cup and passing it carefully to the next person. This means ‘please forgive me for going before you’. She told me this is also what well mannered people say as they exit the elevator before someone else and it goes down particularly well with the older generation.
Well, living on the 17th floor and taking the elevator several times each day, I can safely say I’m all over this word in an attempt to boost my brownie points further.
I just need to work on my bowing now. I seem to have this inbuilt ability to make it look like I’m doffing my cap. Like something out of Oliver Twist. Not sure this is quite the right look. But, hey, at least I’m trying right?