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Today, this columnist has decided to adopt Japanese standards of politeness. You see, there’s ordinary politeness, and there’s Japanese politeness, a different thing altogether.
Last week, a Canadian was crossing the border into the United States when a border guard told him to turn his car off. Desiderio Fortunato asked the officer to "say please". The guard repeated his order. The motorist repeated his request. The officer blinded the motorist with pepper spray, dragged him out of his car, handcuffed him and detained him for three hours. This is how American border guards say, "Welcome to our country, honoured guest."
Compare Japan. In that country, everyone spends so much time saying "please" and "thank you" that it takes several hours to exchange even the tiniest bit of information, such as, "You are standing on my foot."
And you don't just use words. You bow. The more polite you are, the lower you bow. Losing your balance and collapsing onto your boss's wife's knees is quite common and is considered an extremely polite thing to do.
Take a ride on the Gomen Nahari Line, a railway in Kochi Prefecture and you'll find one station is called Arigato, which means "thank you", and another is Gomen, which means "sorry". Turning the pair into Thank You Station and Sorry Station was the idea of Takashi Yanase, 85. Mr Takashi is famed for his original thinking, being the creator of the cartoon superhero Anpanman, a bean paste-filled roll of bread which fights crime with superhuman (super-bakery-item?) powers. I’m serious.
The obvious question, at least to anyone non-Japanese, is: Why? Why do they have those names? What is Thank You station thankful for, and what is Sorry station apologizing for?
There’s no answer to this. Polite terms do not need a reason to be uttered. "Just saying 'sorry' and 'thank you' together makes you feel good," Yanase says.
The Japanese, like the British, scatter polite terms around like confetti to create a general feeling of positivity. Summit meetings between Japanese and British delegations often run out of time before the first item on the agenda, because of the sheer scale of pleasantries involved.
Last week, a US sports reporter attended a Tokyo baseball match. "At the end of games, the players bow toward the field, and even the losing team," wrote an amazed Bob Sherwin of the Seattle Sports Examiner. "That's such a wonderful tradition and I believe you will find it only in Asia."
But you can take the whole politeness thing too far. In Japan, people have bowed on railway platforms and had their heads hit by trains.
There have been cases where two individuals have met and bowed simultaneously, knocking each other out.
Escalators in Japan are REALLY dangerous places. People going down recognize someone going up, and they bow, losing their balance and causing fatal accidents.
But no one complains about it. That would not be polite.
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