Japanese people love telling foreigners how peaceful Japan is. I’ve heard it so many times. Well I gotta admit, it’s true. Japan has one of the lowest crime rates in the world. You could leave your wallet somewhere on the street and it would still be there the next day. And it’s hard to come across somebody rude. Japan’s culture is all about that: The japanese way of avoiding conflict. It’s such a big part of Japanese culture, but for foreigners like me it’s quite difficult to understand. That’s why I’ll today try to explain the Japanese way of avoiding conflict.
The Japanse Approach to Manners
No matter where you go, every country has it’s own manners. In most of Europe it’s seen as impolite to talk with food in your mouth or slurp your soup. But people don’t care that much about manners. People might look at you for a second. But that’s it.
Then you have Japan, where even the angle of your bow has to be correct. And when you talk to a superiour, you have to use special honorifics. For somebody like me it’s hard to even keep track of all of those rules. And then you also have to follow them…
And that’s the hard part. Because for the Japanese manners aren’t just manners but rules. And breaking any of those would be like commiting a crime.
Let's Follow the Rules!
Following the rules is really important in Japan. I spent one year going to a Japanese high school. And none of my classmates even considered the idea of skipping class. When I said that we in Switzerland often do that, they all looked at me as if I had just shot somebody.
So rules are pretty important in Japan.
And maybe the most important rule in Japan is avoiding conflict and not bothering others.
If you do break a rule in Japan, people won’t get angry at you. They’ll just look at you as if you had just murdered a child. If you break a rule in Japan you lose face. And for a Japanese person that’s one of the worst things that could happen, as I’ll explain later.
But why don’t Japanese people get angry at you when you misbehave? Well the most important thing for a Japanese person is to avoid any kind of conflict. Thus Japanese people would rather stay quiet then telling somebody to behave. Because doing so could cause even more conflict.
The Japanese Way of Formulating Rules
In Japan nobody tells you how to behave because that could cause trouble. That’s why the Japanese came up with signs like the ones above.
In Japan you don’t say: “DON’T DO THIS!”. That’s way to direct and could cause conflict. You have to say things as nice and as indirect as possible. JR-East (Japan’s railway company) resently started what they call a “manner campaign”. In many of Tokyo’s subway stations you will now find posters like the ones above telling you how to behave (in a Japanese way).
In Japan, if you want somebody to behave differently, you have to somehow make him realise himself that he is in the wrong. JR does that with sentences like: “Maybe the people around me are annoyed by the volume” and “It might be good to be a little quieter if you are speaking loudly.”
The Japanese way of avoiding conflict: being as indirect as possible.
No Conflict in Japan
In Japan everything goes as expected. After meeting somebody for the first time you have to say “I’m looking forward to working with you.” When you return from vacation you have to bring a souvenir and when you give it to somebody you have to say: “It’s nothing special, but please take it.” Then when the other person says “Thank you” you say: “No, no, no. You don’t have to say thank you”. And when somebody does something bad you just say: “No problem, it’s ok :)” When everything goes as expected, Japanese people feel comfortable.
But when things don’t go as expected Japanese people get nervous. They don’t know what to do, say “It can’t be helped” and give up. I saw that a lot in Japan. When Swiss students think the teacher has made a mistake, they tell him. Sometimes it can get pretty loud. But Japanese people would never do anything like that. Never would a Japanese person criticise a person that has a higher rank in the hierarchy.
Japan's Culture of Fitting in
The worst thing that could happen to a Japanese person is losing face. Japan isn’t a place of individuality. The society as a whole is way more important than a single individual. That’s why uniforms and also dress codes for office workers are as common as they are. Japanese people don’t want to stick out.
This is also shown in their way of talking. When Japanese people talk, they don’t say what they want to say but rather what the other person wants to hear/wants them to say. It’s called 気を遣う (ki o tsukau) and it means to pay attention to another’s needs.
Japanese people always think about others. You could almost say that they think more about others than they think about themselves. Before they do something they always ask themselves “What will others think about me?” and “How will this affect others?”. They then adjust their actions so that they don’t stick out and avoid causing any conflict.
That’s the Japanese way of avoiding conflict. And I find it beautiful. Don’t get me wrong. I like expressing my own opinion and I really struggled with that in Japan. But there is something to learn from the Japanese: Sometimes it’s just better to be quiet. Our world would be much more peaceful.