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Japan Wonders Where Its Manners Went


Unswerving cyclist
14 Mar 2002
Japan Wonders Where Its Manners Went

Asia: Some decry etiquette erosion. Others say it's time to end the excessive formality.

By Mark.Magnier, Times Staff Writer

TOKYO--The Japanese are feeling under attack these days, less by a decade-long economic downturn or the threat of North Korean missiles than by the scourge of rudeness--a guerrilla hiding in their midst, infiltrating their institutions, kidnapping their children.

Young people have become an obvious target for people's ire at the insidious changes around them. Teachers complain that students refuse to sit, listen or stop their private conversations. And the media last month blasted the young when annual rite-of-passage ceremonies for 20-year-olds were marred by drunkenness, fistfights and taunts of "your speech is too long," "stuff it" and "go home."

"Are Good Manners a Thing of the Past?" blared a headline in the daily Yomiuri Shimbun. Although elders everywhere complain about young people, the etiquette erosion here is not confined to "space aliens," the nickname many in Japan have given to their youth.

Japanese airlines report a fivefold increase in highly inappropriate behavior by passengers during the past three years. Trains, restaurants and television stations have taken to lecturing the masses on how to be considerate. And parliament recently compiled a primer on decorum after one lawmaker doused another with water. "Don't heckle," the work advises. "Stay in your seat unless called upon."

By global standards, this island nation is still incredibly polite. Indeed, Westerners inured by road rage and soccer hooliganism may wonder what all the fuss is about.
For those brought up in one of the world's most refined cultures, however, the changes threaten to undermine a core value: the willingness to put aside individual differences in favor of group harmony.

At Tokyo's Seishikai finishing school, students face their kimono-clad teacher on tatami mats and practice their bows--a 15-degree tilt for routine greetings, 30 for entering a room or greeting VIPs, 45 for apologies or heartfelt gratitude.

Manners have been on a steady slide since the school opened 25 years ago, said Principal Tamami Kondo, but in the past few years they've hit rock bottom. "Japanese have been such nice people," she said. "What a shame."

A generation ago, most students enrolled to learn about such refined arts as the tea ceremony , but in recent years far more time has been devoted to basics once considered common sense.

"I got very embarrassed when I started working and realized I didn't even know how to be polite on the phone," said Kyoko Izawa, a 33-year-old advertising employee. "I suddenly realized just how much I didn't know."

Public Actions That Top the List of Offenses
High on the list of offenses in various surveys these days are people who eat or kiss on the street or openly discuss intimate details of their lives on cell phones.

For a culture steeped in form and the value of privacy, treating public areas like your kitchen or bedroom is highly offensive. And watching people kiss, in particular, can be as shocking to many older Japanese as seeing sex in the open might be for Europeans or Americans.

"I know it's a Western way to express yourself," said Katsue Tanaka, a 50-year-old restaurant owner. "But I always find myself thinking, 'Oh my God, isn't that disgusting.' "

Also not appreciated are young women applying their makeup on crowded trains. For Miyuki Okada, a 20-year-old college student with artificially tanned skin and dyed brown hair, however, it's natural.

"I'd do it at home if I had time, but I just can't bear the thought of meeting someone without my makeup," she said as she touched up her mascara between stops on Tokyo's Chiyoda Line one afternoon.

Nearby, 68-year-old Tokie Ishii looked on perplexed. "I just can't understand their behavior," she said. "Aren't they embarrassed? In my childhood, people learned how to behave."

The decline in social decency has prompted various countermeasures. Hirohisa Nemoto, a 46-year-old salaryman, said he tries single-handedly to exert social pressure. "I give them the evil eye," he said. Several rail and subway operators have banned cell phone use on their lines, with limited effect. And a series of campaigns tries to teach people how to behave in public, although sponsors concede that they're in a losing battle.

The 1,300-member Ad Council has launched a television campaign depicting animated insects--in Japanese the words for bug and egotistical rhyme--making annoying phone calls on trains, parking their cars illegally, throwing garbage and spitting. "The increase of bugs disguised as human beings has become a social problem," the narrator says. "Watch out for them!"

Companies, meanwhile, complain that recruits have no idea how to be polite, treat customers or make eye contact. Fast-food and other service industries with high employee turnover say even teaching basic skills can be difficult given ever-shorter attention spans. Some chains recently replaced written instructions with simple pictures of rude behavior, each overlaid with an X.

Along with a decline in basic courtesy, traditionalists say, is a deterioration in this society's subtle, complex and highly refined language. In one recent survey, 81% of respondents felt that Japanese was being corrupted, with most concerned in particular about the rapid erosion of polite language.

There are few swear words in Japanese. But the language's levels of formality are determined by increasingly complex verb endings. Simply using a lower form than is appropriate can be insulting. Many young people apparently don't even realize that they are being offensive.

"It has come to the point that teaching polite language to Japanese is like teaching a foreign language," management consultant Chieko Genma told the Yomiuri Weekly magazine.
Sociologists blame the loss of manners on factors such as economic pressures, the advent of cell phones, the emphasis on wealth and changes in the family structure that include more absentee fathers and indulgent mothers. A survey last year by the Japan Youth Research Institute found that only 27.4% of families stress the importance of politeness with their children, compared with 61.4% in China.

Although most fret over eroding social values, some analysts see a silver lining: a subtle rebellion by young Japanese against the excessive formality of past generations. In effect, they're saying that Japan can no longer afford in today's global economy to engage in highly ritualistic behavior based on complicated, unspoken rules.

A Culture Steeped in Unspoken Customs

In Kyoto , for instance, it was customary until recently for an unexpected guest to decline the host's invitation to enter at least three times before crossing the threshold. And visitors were expected to know that a serving of brown tea rather than green tea meant that it was time to leave. Subtleties such as these have terrified generations of foreigners afraid that they might blink the wrong way and insult their host's great-grandmother.
Many Japanese niceties--including the tea ceremony--originated in China and were subsequently refined by samurai elites during Japan's two centuries of isolation. The subsequent push to become a modern, culturally unified nation state after the 1850s arrival of Commodore Perry's Black Ships in turn saw many of these customs disseminated across the country.

Embedded in traditional mores and faux pas are values that may not match the times. Finishing school principal Kondo said that traditionally it was acceptable to be dismissive of those seen as below you socially, given this nation's past obsession with hierarchy. The practice of saying "yes" when intending "no" and relying on hidden meanings--sometimes known as tatemae--also is under pressure as Japanese increasingly come into contact with people from overseas, she added.
"Japanese hate to say 'no' because they don't want to hurt someone else's feelings," she said. "But foreigners have difficulty understanding this. We can't continue tatemae in the 21st century."

Women Expected to Be More Polite Than Men

Levels of politeness based on a Confucian hierarchy, with the emperor at the top, also helped control members of society, especially women, who were expected to be far more polite than men, said Ochanomizu University sociologist Katsuko Makino. The narrowing gap between the way young women and men use language and behave may therefore represent a positive development, said Makino, author of a study of Japanese manners.

Midori Okauchi, a 17-year-old high school student, is worried less about all that than the apparent hypocrisy when it comes to Japanese society. "Adults always criticize young people," she said. "But there are a lot of really rude adults out there as well."

* * *
Rie Sasaki in The Times' Tokyo Bureau contributed to this report.

Copyright 2001 ツゥ Los Angeles Times
Technology obscuring Japan's culture, calligrapher believes

Here's a related article published by The Japan Times: Technology = Japan minus Culture.

Technology obscuring Japan's culture, calligrapher believes

Staff writer

For many contemporary Japanese -- both children and adults alike -- everyday life is becoming unthinkable without personal computers and cellular phones.
But such devices can deprive people of their own words and expressive power, calligrapher Kyuyo Ishikawa warns.

"It's OK to use computers, word processors and cellphones to improve the efficiency of clerical work and other business," said Ishikawa, who is also a professor at Kyoto Seika University. "But these tools should be kept as far away from homes and places for expression and education as possible."

The 56-year-old calligrapher has never used a personal computer, word processor, or mobile phone. In contrast, he picked up the brush and embarked on the path of calligraphy at the age of five.

In 1966, while he was a law major at Kyoto University, Ishikawa took up the histories of Chinese and Japanese calligraphy as his lifework.

According to his studies, in East Asia, which uses ideographic "kanji," Chinese characters, the written, rather than spoken, language has played a core role in cultural development.

"(Japanese) children obtain words and build their own verbal worlds through writing by hand . . . (Japanese people) nurture their aesthetic senses by making efforts to write characters beautifully," Ishikawa said.

"Thus, losing (the power to) write using one's own hands is equal to losing words, which in turn leads to the stagnation of Japanese culture," he said.

In the West, the use of computers and typewriters has less of an impact on culture because languages have developed phonetically and writing can be considered closer to speaking, according to Ishikawa.

In the belief that Japanese people should have more opportunities to write by hand to improve their expressiveness, Ishikawa in 1979 started a calligraphy school which now has about 100 adult students in Kyoto, Nagoya and Tokyo. His publications over the past decade range from those on the history of calligraphy to critical essays on current social issues.

However, innovations in information technology and the mass consumption of products like personal computers and cellphones are moving society in a direction opposite to the one that Ishikawa envisions.

With the government trying to improve IT literacy at the elementary school and junior high school level by reducing the amount of time spent on other subjects, young people are embracing the Internet and e-mail with alarming rapidity and fervor.

"The social obsession with IT has made many people purchase PCs and cellphones," he said. "We've got to cut off the vicious circle to restore our own culture."

A number of heinous juvenile crimes in recent years furthers his suspicions that products which supposedly have made life convenient and fun, like mobile phones and computer games, seem unable to fill the emptiness youths often feel.

"Excessive convenience and comfortableness prevail in today's society," he said. "(But) I believe people will eventually come to be dissatisfied with things that don't give them any pleasure in life."

The pleasures of life, Ishikawa said, exist within a traditional lifestyle built on such mundane and time-consuming events as cooking, shopping, writing letters and face-to-face quarrels with friends. "Ten to 15 years from now, people will start distancing themselves from their PCs and cellphones, at least in everyday life, while IT will be further promoted for business use and occasions in which such technology is really needed," he predicted.

While Ishikawa's current works feature contemporary poetry, the calligrapher will head a research center scheduled to open at Kyoto Seika this summer whose aim is to take a new look at writing, culture and aesthetics.

"At a time when only information and technology seem to intrigue people, I want to start a movement to rethink our history and culture with writing at its center."

The Japan Times: Apr. 29, 2001

Copyright ツゥ The Japan Times
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