I Lived In Japan And Their Approach To Kindness And Manners Changed My Life

Dostoevsky once said, “Beauty will save the world.” I have seen this beauty first hand during the three years I lived in Japan, and being witness to it has filled me with beautiful stories. Stories not about the countryside or the art, but about the Japanese people. People who have forever changed the way I think and behave due to their manners and kindness.

By Alicia Bittle4 min read
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I am not alone in this sentiment – almost every American who has lived in Japan comes away feeling the same. We all carry similar stories. This is why I believe such beauty will save the world and why I am giving you five simple ways we all can enact Japanese etiquette and politeness in our lives today. 

Having grown up in the South, where classic American etiquette is law, I’ve always taken a personal pride in my manners and social graces. Always say please and thank you, yes ma’am, no ma’am. Always offer anyone who steps foot in your home a refreshment, and always bring a gift for the hostess. Then, at 22, I moved to Japan with my husband and the U.S. Navy. We chose to go for the adventure and novelty but what we found, and what we fell in love with, was much, much better.

As newlyweds fresh out of college, we strove to “live deep and suck out all the marrow of life.” Just simply living in a foreign country, within the walls of the military base wasn’t good enough for us. We wanted to submerge ourselves in the fast-flowing river of a culture and life that was not our own. We wanted to be assaulted by the sights, the smells, and the sounds of Japanese life. We wanted an immersive Southern Baptist baptism into Japan. So we lived out in town, in a “cho” (Japanese neighborhood) right between a middle school and an outdoor, stall market. The house we lived in stood as the first testament of Japanese etiquette. 

Be Mindful and Observant of Others

Every Japanese home is built with a small, recessed entryway and a single stair leading up into the rest of the house. This foyer also has a small set of shelves, typically on the right-hand side. Why? So that everyone has a place to take off and store their shoes upon entering the home. This way, dirt and germs don’t get tracked into the house. What we consider a nicety here in the U.S. is a matter of etiquette so foundational to Japanese culture that it has influenced their architecture. 

So, how can we apply this to our own lives? Look for cues from your host and take off your shoes before entering their home if appropriate. If you’re not wearing socks that day, bring a nice pair along with you. To more deeply adopt this principle, think about ways you can attend to the comfort of others. Are you walking into a crowded space? Let people exit before you enter. In the likely event that you jostle people, or they jostle you, say a simple “excuse me” or “sorry.” This doesn’t imply guilt, it simply communicates goodwill to your neighbor. 

Think about ways you can attend to the comfort of others.

Pause Your Plans To Help Someone Else

Whenever anyone asks me for stories about my life in Japan, unfailingly the first one I tell is about the time my husband and I went camping on Yakushima Island. It’s not the multi-day valley to summit trek I talk about though. Not the ancient, moss-covered trees, or the giant macaque monkeys I feared would tear my face off as I slept. 

No, the first story I tell is about an elderly couple, who, no sooner had they pulled into the trailhead parking lot, were approached by a foreigner speaking horribly broken Japanese. I asked if they could call us a taxi because my husband and I had miscalculated the last leg of our trip and found ourselves a full day’s hike away from our ryokan hotel. In better English than my broken Japanese had been, they told us no taxis would come up the mountain and that they would take us themselves. 

My husband and I thanked them profusely and asked them if they were sure, due to the fact that we were quite dirty after having hiked for three days straight with no available showers. They reassured us, took our packs, opened the car’s back doors for us, and took off. On the 30 minute drive there, they called ahead to the ryokan to make sure our room and baths were ready, rolled down the windows because we smelled so bad, and told us about the other attractions the island had to offer. 

This is an extreme example obviously, but the beautiful thing about this story is that it wasn't at all out of character for the Japanese. The takeaway here is that we as Americans should simply look out for one another more often. We need to be alert to the ways we’re able to make someone else’s life better and realize what a profound impact it can have. This could be as simple as helping someone carry something heavy, putting a shopping cart away for someone else, or helping a busy mom load her groceries while she buckles her kids. We need to appreciate what kindness does to the human soul. Not just the soul of the person being helped, but our own as well. 

Pack for Your Day with Others in Mind

Every foreigner to Japan has a story surrounding their first monsoon season, and every story has the same two elements in common. First, no one is ever prepared, and second, everyone is eventually saved by a Japanese citizen. Whether it’s escorting the foreigner to their destination while sharing an umbrella, giving the foreigner a spare umbrella, or even giving the foreigner their own umbrella, it never fails. The stories we transplants have about our first monsoon season don’t revolve around typhoons, how wet it was and for how long, they revolve around the generosity of the Japanese. 

Anything that can meet the need of another, pack it and bring it.

From the Japanese we can learn to always carry a spare umbrella, or be ready to share your own. To take this further, we must think about the daily activities of our own lives. Going to a moms group? Pack extra hair ties, diaper wipes, paper products, and snacks. Anything that can meet the need of another, pack it and bring it. It’s a minor inconvenience for you, but possibly a major kindness to someone else. 

Be Respectful of Other People's Senses

When riding public transportation in Japan, the first thing a foreigner might notice is the silence. No one is talking on their phone, no one is listening to music from their speaker, and conversations between friends are murmured. Additionally, no one eats while riding on the bus or train, or if they do, it’s an odorless food. Lastly, though this manner has nothing to do with public transportation, it’s very hard to discern romantic couples from friends in Japan. This is because PDA is kept to a minimum. Even hand-holding is rare. 

All of these customs take place out of respect for others. We within the U.S. should strive to do the same. I’m not so extreme as to say hand-holding should be forbidden, but I think we all have memories of American PDA we wish we could forget. 

Think about the People Who Come after You

Starting from a very young age, Japanese children clean their classrooms at the end of each school day. Japanese restaurant patrons stack their plates and wipe their tables before leaving. Every other Saturday of the month, the elderly in a neighborhood will set about to pull weeds from the sidewalks and sweep debris from the road. The takeaway here is simple. It’s polite to clean up after yourself. However, the Japanese have taken it a step further and created their own “leave it better than you found it” policy. 

If we're dissatisfied with the current state of affairs, it is our responsibility to do something about it.

We as Americans can surely do this ourselves with our parks, roadsides, and public places. If we see litter, we can pick it up. If we’re dissatisfied with the current state of affairs, it’s our personal responsibility to do something about it rather than complain and move on. We can pick up, take ownership, and make sure the space is even nicer for the next person who uses it. 

Closing Thoughts

The three years I spent in Japan have forever changed me. Every day, I aspire to make others feel the way the citizens of Japan made me feel. Safe, cared for, and a part of a community. There was a sense of belonging wherever I went because strangers were championing the good for their struggling neighbor. 

When Dostoevsky spoke of beauty, he wasn’t discussing mercurial personal beauty; he was talking about the enduring and heroic virtues of man. He was talking about truth and goodness and love. Seemingly small and insignificant things, humble things, but that’s all that rebirth requires. Just a spark. A spark to light a parched nation on fire and set it ablaze with the light its people have been thirsting for. Be that beauty. 

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