Daibutsu, Kamakura

Daibutsu, Kamakura
Daibutsu in Kamakura, June 2010. There were thousands of school kids visiting that day. It was still great fun.

Friday, July 25, 2008

Courtesy and Respect

Why does it seem like there are so many people with a lack of courtesy or respect or just have a bad attitude toward other people in this country or at least in Los Angeles?

I think every American needs to visit another country such as Japan or the Scandinavian countries so they can witness how much more polite people are.

Ever since I visited Japan, I have become more aware of how rude people can be in Los Angeles. Certainly there are rude people everywhere, including Japan. I understand that I have never lived in Japan for an extended period of time. But I have spent the equivalent of several months there and I definitely can tell the difference in how people interact with each other.

Some long-time foreign residents will certainly give many examples of rudeness they have encountered in Japan, especially examples of unkindness they have encountered that they feel have been directed at them due to being non-Japanese. I have read about the un-friendly elderly person and other examples. And if you have ever read anything from Debito.org, you will think Japan is a very unfriendly place for foreigners.

But I feel that these negative interactions are relatively rare compared to in America. I also feel that most instances of discrimination in Japan is more a misunderstanding by Japanese that foreigners do not understand Japanese culture and is not actually based on hate. While I feel that the majority of discrimination in the United States is based on hate.

Here is why I felt like writing this post. On Friday, July 25th, I went for my usual walk around Downtown Los Angeles during my lunch break. On the way back to the office I witnessed four separate examples of rudeness, disrespect, and impatience. Although these events were very, very minor, they still revealed to me a big difference between Japan and the United States in how respectful people are. Or at least it reveals something about Los Angeles.

The four examples I witnessed below occurred within about 5 minutes of each other.

The first incident. I saw a man finish drinking from a plastic cup. He then tossed the empty cup onto a newspaper stand a kept walking. There were trash cans all around the area but obviously he was too lazy and disrespectful to throw his trash into the trash can. When you see how much trash lines the streets and freeways in the U.S., you will know that this is a fairly common and disrespectful occurrance. In Japan, one of the things that sticks out in my memory is how clean it is.

The second incident. Myself and one or two other people were walking along the sidewalk. A driver in a minivan had to turn right into a driveway but had to wait for us pedestrians to pass. But another man in a large delivery truck behind the minivan decided to lay on his horn because the minivan was blocking his way. It's possible the minivan did not put his turn signal on but that really doesn't matter. It just demonstrated typical impatience and rudeness in this city. I do not recall ever hearing people use their car horns in Japan. and I have seen many situations in Japan while driving that if had occurred in America would have resulted in not only a horn but probably a middle finger and an obscenity.

The third incident. I was waiting at an intersection for the light to turn green. Two ladies were waiting on the other side of the street to cross also. A third lady who was not with them was just behind the two other ladies. The light turned green but the two ladies did not immediately start walking because they were not paying attention. I could tell the lady behind them was clearly annoyed that they were in her way because she made a face and stared at them. It was very, very subtle but to me was clearly an expression of annoyance. Once again, I do not recall ever seeing people in Japan get annoyed like this. Maybe some obachan but that's about it.

The fourth incident. This time a car was going to turn right on the red light. In the U.S you can turn on a red light while in Japan, or at least in Tochigi, you have to wait for the light to turn green. The only thing of course is you have to wait until it is clear to turn. There was oncoming traffic so the driver turning right waited. The driver in a car behind him obviously got impatient and they laid on their horn. Whether the driver who honked did not see the oncoming traffic or just thought the other driver could have gone is irrelevant. it was just another of the many examples of impoliteness and impatience in this country.

I know that there may be many people who will say I am overreacting and that these examples were very minor. But, like I said, after encountering how seemingly polite and respectful people are in Japan, these "minor" incidents stand out to me more.

I do admit that I also act in this way sometimes, probably too much. I too find myself sometimes getting impatient with a slow driver and then tailgating them, or giving a look of annoyance to someone but I am really trying to do this less.


  1. I feel the same way too.

    And I more thing that my countrymen seem to lack is the understanding of personal space and noise. We talk way too loudly. Being inside a train in Malaysia is way noisier than in Japan.

  2. Thanks Lina.
    People on the LA subway are raleatively quiet but there are always some people who have very loud conversations. Or are playing their Ipod so loud you can hear it accross the train car.

  3. I've never read debito.org, but Japan is a cake walk compared to the States. I have a lot of complaints about this place, but I wouldn't live here if it were that bad. Yeah, being a foreigner here is not easy, but can you imagine not being able to speak English (or Spanish) in the States?

  4. Excellent post.

    I agree about the Japanese being more polite. As for the whiny foreigners living here - I agree with you that it's just misunderstanding and cultural tensions.

    Whenever I return for a visit to the States or Canada (which I keep to a max. of once every two years), I feel slapped by the vulgarity, the noise, the lack of consideration, and worst - the lack of customer service!

    The patience etc of Japanese could be attributed to living and breathing in a culture that is Buddhist even if not having all the trappings all the time.

  5. Thank you Thomas. I have read debito periodically. But his style is so negative. There are ways to promote your beliefs without sounding so bitter. One good example is Martin Luther King. He fought for civil rights like what Debito believes he is doing. But we all know that MLK always sounded positive and hopefull.

  6. Thanks Tracy.
    I agree with you. Both about the difference in service and in that Japan is a Buddhist country.

  7. Well, as I've lived in Japan for 5 years now, I can offer some rebuttals to the concept of Japanese politeness. I have come to the conclusion that Japanese are polite when you are in their home or place of business, but out on the street, just strangers, that politeness disappears.

    No one expresses impatience here like they do in the U.S., that's because no one is really in a hurry here, at all. I can't tell you how many trains I missed that I could have easily caught if only the person on the stairs or platform in front of me made any effort at all.

    And about littering, Japanese totally litter!! I saw some young j-dude just throw a large plastic convenience store bag on the street in front of him. I went and picked it up and handed it back to him.

    Also, check around the base of Mt. Fuji, trash has been dumped there many meters deep.

    About the person being impatient to make a right turn on red...well, in Tokyo they don't follow normal road rules. The person wouldn't have honked, they probably would have just driven around the car in their way. Cars are constantly illegally parked on the side of the road in Tokyo, so swerving out and around like that is basically a necessity.

    No doubt for the most part Japanese are quieter in general on public transportation. And no doubt you'll get more polite service in stores, especially convenience stores.

    But that same person who so nicely thanked you for making a purchase will bump into you on the street and never even think of apologizing.

  8. Thank you Jason. You have spent a lot more time there so you definately have more experience.

    Some things are relative such as trash level. Driving around LA versus the driving I've done in Tochigi and surrounding areas tells me there is a lot more litter in the US.

    I guess there are just different types of rudeness. But Thomas' experience getting his dirver license where he encountered a rude DMV employee shows that certain behavior is international.

  9. You are certainly not overreacting. It is the little things that matter. A lot of bad "little things" are as bad, as a lot of good "little things" are good. It all matters. It is simply a matter of thinking of somebody else instead of yourself. Unfortunately, most people here in Los Angeles don't.

  10. Thanks Ron. I also see this selfish behavior outside of Los Angeles as well unfortunately.

  11. Anonymous8:59 PM

    From my perspective, LA is the rudest city in the U.S. Not that I've lived everywhere and seen it all, but I've spent considerable amounts of time in both Chicago and NYC, which were amazingly different by contrast. Obviously other cities have their own problem, but people in LA were by far the worst.

    In contrast to Japan - you can't even compare the two. I couldn't imagine, for example, being threatened by another foreigner with a hammer in a parking lot after they tried to run me over wih their car (for no reason), here in Japan. That kind of crap is commonplace in the U.S, however. Even in such suburban trash heaps as Burbank.

    ^_^ Is that a negative enough impression? There was a reason we finally chose to leave a reasonably stable and prosperous lifestyle in LA after 12 years to end up destitute, in debt, having dumped 80% of our possessions, and working in a Sanrio store for pennies - It just wasn't worth it anymore, and the apathy of the citizens at large toward their fellow man was a BIG part of that.

    I'm happier now living poor in a city (country, even) that's seen better days. At least I know, even as a foreigner who knows very little Japanese yet, that I won't be hated out loud on the street by some teenage wannabe gangbanger in Daddy's hand-me-down BMW whenever I walk out the door.

  12. Wow, so brilliant to see another American respond like this. I read so many blogs about people just whinging on and on about things that annoy them in Japan, and I think: move back to the States then and don't leave. In fact, just stick to the route between your house, your job, and the mall. You can have everything your way then.

    It's funny, I don't know if you've been to England much but this one blog (won't name it) had a list of annoying Japanese traits (all of which dealt with being 'too' formal, reserved, or apologetic - how is this bad?) and it could easily have described the middle class England I live in. It made me pretty angry to see it being slagged off. (I'm a Brit/American dual national)

    Even before I started to go abroad, I always read Foreign Policy magazine and had a very clear grasp on just how young, inexperienced and naive America is considered by the rest of the world. Which we are! Particularly when compared with an ancient culture like Japan. And yet all the time, it seems as if us young upstarts are going around demanding the world to be more convenient, more American....just *more*.

    That sounded like a rant, but I don't actually have a problem with Americans loving their own culture within the country. When I go home to Florida or NYC, I get louder and expect more to eat whenever I want it too. But when I come back to England, or visit another country I slip right into their habits. Why else would anyone travel?

    If I could request one thing of every other American it would be to gain perspective. But I have not met one American abroad who didn't look at me like a traitor or a snob when I dared to suggest that.

    Anyway, your post was far more lucid and enjoyable than my rant, sorry!

  13. Thank you for the comment and I agree with everything you said. I think Americans could learn something from the behavior of some other cultures, especially Asian, about courtesy and respect. Of course if I suggest that to many Americans, their response would be "then why don't you go live there".