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Why are Japanese so polite and yet so lonely?

sanblvd

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It seems Japan is the most orderly society on earth, where everyone is extremely polite to each other no matter if you are friends or strangers, and especially strangers.

But I have often read of stories where Japanese elders found died alone, or people committing suicides.. or basically just feel very lonely. I know many reading this want to say it happens in other societies too, but from my impression it seems this is a much bigger issue in Japan.

So I wonder why is that? It seems this is a contradiction, because people are so polite to each other and acknowledge each other's existence, but yet so many people feel disconnected from one another.

In Japan, Lonely Deaths in Society's Margins - NYTimes.com
Japan: 'Lonely Deaths' Rise Among Unemployed, Elderly - TIME
 

nahadef

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I think you're reading into the accuracy of Japanese politeness too much, and also its overall meaning.

People are polite here. For the most part, they avoid any sort of public conflict. But there are Japanese who know this is the case, and ride the system because of it. They are utterly rude, since no one else will step up to tell them off.

At the same time, the politeness is a form of distance. Like in the West, more and more Japanese never acknowledge the people living around them. I've never talked to my neighbors in a decade here, and when I run into them, they put their heads down, more often than not. I have a child, so occasionally, while carrying a baby, I've had polite chat with another parent in an elevator.

But politeness and respect is very different from love and closeness. As a relatively healthy person with a family, I'm happy with the situation, but if I were lonely/single/ on the second half of life, I could see why it could be isolating, and exacerbate the problem.

The issue of suicide is also a little peculiar to Japan, where traditionally it was an honorable thing, whereas in the West, it was a sin. That makes the perception of it different. Not to say it's okay, but I think it's considered sad and regrettable in Japan, compared to the West, where I'd say it's considered a cruelty to those left living. Japan Rail tried to institutionalise this idea by charging families of people who killed themselves with their trains. I don't know that it worked.
 

zoomingjapan

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Japanese people are polite??

At first sight most Japanese people might seem polite. Many have to be very polite to their customers, but that doesn't necessarily mean that they're all nice people!
After living in Japan for many years, I wouldn't say that all Japanese people are polite or considerate!
Taking away seats in the train from older people or pregnant people, talking on the cellphone in the train although they shouldn't, being loud in their apartment until late at night and little devils when on bicycles or in cars.

Of course there are also very nice and kind people here in Japan - just like in any other country!

I don't know for sure why so many people feel or are lonely in Japan, but I certainly feel it, too!
I think a lot of it has to do with their work. People are so busy and often have to move far away from their friends and families for work. There's a lot of overtime and basically NO time for friends, going out, family etc.

There's also a lot of bullying, especially among school kids leading to suicide.
 

Mike Cash

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Why are Japanese so polite? And yes so lonely?

Japanese politeness is like a soap bubble. It is pretty to look at and has a clearly defined and universally understood form, but very little substance.
 

sanblvd

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Ok thanks, I think I understand, being polite in Japan is a social norm, this is what is expected to be normal. So this is not connected with other aspect of the society.
 

Mark of Zorro

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If politeness is described as making a show of pre-determined formalities, Japanese are extremely polite. Japanese pat themselves on the back for this all the time.

But if politeness is described as genuine niceness coming from the heart and crafted to fit special and unique situations, I am afraid the Japanese are less than average.

For example, it is considered polite in some places to compliment the chef or cook by pointing out that something is delicious and maybe even describe why. Japanese are notoriously horrible at coming up with explanations like this from the heart because they are so used to just saying "Thank you. It was delicious.", the same thing, each and every time, rather than saying something like "The apple pie was amazing! The crust was just the right texture, not to soft and not too flaky!"

I exaggerate a bit for understanding, I know. In private and very comfortable settings, Japanese are better about being clear and specific. But in less than familiar settings they rarely stick their neck out and say anything clearly, and that can be worse than being rude sometimes, like when you really need to know something right now.

For example, if your fly is down in Japan, I would prefer to hear "You *****! Your zipper is down!" so long as its not shouted, than to have people I know just walk by without saying a word, allowing me to be shamed all day long, and only realize when I get home. To me, that is not polite at all. And that should explain why Japanese can seem, and often are, very cold. And that should explain why we often hear of people dying alone and remaining undiscovered for months. It also explains the suicide rate a little.

The Japanese can get so wrapped up not going too far, that they sometimes forget to move at all. In not wanting to appear nosy, they fail to even get to know their neighbors.
 

khamsulv

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I don't think the Japanese are lonely at all. And old people die alone in many parts of the world as well.
 

GaijinGolfer

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Id agree with the others in that Japanese politeness is more an accepted societal norm than it is a genuine expression of being a nice person and caring about other people.
In the case of suicide, a lot of it has to do with pride and saving face. For some people, if you are living a life in what you feel is shame and failure, doing away with yourself is the honorable thing to do. Also, admitting weakness is just not something that is acceptable, so seeking help with your problems simply isnt something that happens very often. A lot of Japanese take pride in suffering in silence, so they eventually reach the point where they dont know how to deal with their problems, to the point where death looks like a pretty sweet deal.
 

Mike Cash

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In the case of suicide, you shouldn't overlook the fact that Japan lacks the restraining influence of any sort of religion which forbids it.
 
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"I've never talked to my neighbors in a decade here, and when I run into them, they put their heads down, more often than not."

Did you bring them all gifts when you moved in?

When I lived in Japan, the neighbors all ignored me too. I learned later that the custom there is for the newly-arrived person to knock on the neighbors' doors and give them all small gifts.

The is exactly the opposite of the US, where friendly neighbors bring gifts (usually food) to the new arrival to welcome them to the neighborhood. (This traditional custom isn't always observed these days.)

This shows how different cultures can be. I thought my Japanese neighbors were unfriendly from the first because they didn't at least knock on my door and say hello. They probably thought the same of me.
 

nahadef

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"I've never talked to my neighbors in a decade here, and when I run into them, they put their heads down, more often than not."
Did you bring them all gifts when you moved in?
When I lived in Japan, the neighbors all ignored me too. I learned later that the custom there is for the newly-arrived person to knock on the neighbors' doors and give them all small gifts.
The is exactly the opposite of the US, where friendly neighbors bring gifts (usually food) to the new arrival to welcome them to the neighborhood. (This traditional custom isn't always observed these days.)
This shows how different cultures can be. I thought my Japanese neighbors were unfriendly from the first because they didn't at least knock on my door and say hello. They probably thought the same of me.
I blame apartment buildings. I've lived with my wife for five years and two apartments, and she never gave gifts, but she's been pretty obsessive compulsive about making me follow Japanese manners elsewhere (like, writing down the name of all people giving me farewell gifts at my last job in order to send a hand-written thank you card). I had neighbors move in last spring, and have seen them once in six months.
It's probably a lot different if you buy a house or something, but I've found most Japanese living in apartments nod their head in agreement when I've said I don't know my neighbors.
 

Zlarp

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Japanese politeness is like a soap bubble. It is pretty to look at and has a clearly defined and universally understood form, but very little substance.

That sounds very cynical. I won't press on this point if you don't want me to, but if it's okay with you, could you tell me what experiences made you come to this conclusion? It just seems like there are stories behind this and I'm interested.
 

Mike Cash

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That sounds very cynical. I won't press on this point if you don't want me to, but if it's okay with you, could you tell me what experiences made you come to this conclusion? It just seems like there are stories behind this and I'm interested.

Japanese politeness is strongly attached to "manners" (words, actions, customs) and is driven by them in an almost "auto-pilot" way, with no real sincere substance required to get it started or keep it going. That isn't to say that no one is ever sincere in their politeness. But most of the time when you see acts of politeness or polite speech going on it is just pro forma for the situation. Everybody knows what is expected of them, actions and words....so like the soap bubble it has a clearly defined and universally understood form. Genuine, sincere, personal politeness is not called for nearly so often as situational politeness, determined by the person's role in the situation rather than by how inherently polite he may or may not be as an individual. You'll see this a lot more as your studies progress, as a lot of the form has to do with set expressions and certain styles of speech. Sincerity is optional. You can see people who in a given situation where they are in a role where they are expected to be polite play the game perfectly then go into a situation where they aren't expected to be polite and the good manners disappear like they were never there to begin with. People are polite due to situational circumstances rather than to personal character.

A former coworker once summed it up in the most apt and concise manner I have ever heard. He said, "The Japanese are polite in their sock feet".
 

Zlarp

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But isn't that how politeness always works? I mean, grammatical polite forms, that is. I guess English doesn't actually have this all that much, come to think of it. Things like "thou art" are archaic and most polite forms are something you do by calling people "sir" or "ma'am" or something. I think I'm kind of pre-primed from my native language here. We don't come close to the politeness levels of Japanese, of course, but we already have a grammatical distinction of politeness levels of "Du" and "Sie", both of which are just "you" in English.

I just always felt that even though it's more of a mask you put on than something sincere and deliberate, it still somehow colors your way of thinking in a way. The phrase "you become what you pretend to be" comes to mind here.

Anyway, thanks for elaborating, it helps put some of the things I've seen in a bit more of an explicit context.
 

nekojita

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There's actually a word: 慇懃無礼

東野圭吾 has some short story collections that often tackle the whole 本音・建前 thing. There's one that's about a group of salarymen from various publishing companies, meeting to (supposedly) support an author who has been shortlisted for a literary prize while he waits for the results. Not one of them wants to be there, or thinks this guy will actually win. While they're making small talk, one's more worried about the results of his son's university entrance exams than anything else, and another is quietly fuming at his boss, who took the opportunity to spend the evening with another (young, pretty, female) author on the shortlist and sent him to deal with this old guy instead. They gossip about who they think will actually win before the author gets there and then turn about and try to convince him he's got a chance this year when he does turn up.
 
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