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Seasons and culture of Japan

Politeness (Tate-mae:建前) in Japan

This article will offer a brief overview of "politeness" in Japan.  One of the things foreign visitors will notice when they first visit Japan is the way people bow in many situations.  Lowering one's head in a bow is a sign of respect and part of the "correct" way to meet someone for the first time, to greet customers, or to show gratitude.  In business settings, a bow is also used like a salute when interacting with someone who has a higher rank or is more senior.  It is no exaggeration to say the Japanese people bow so many times each day, and there are even rules about how deeply to bow, depending on who you are meeting.  Sometimes a Japanese person can even be seen bowing while talking on the telephone.  There are some historical and traditional reasons for the bowing behavior, and one of those is the concept of "Wa" ( 和 ), which means "harmony".  In the olden days, a famous Japanese leader made a national law which said the people should live in harmony -- and over the centuries which followed, Wa/和 became deeply imbedded in society.  Another way of describing it is that Japanese people are brought up and educated to believe that in order to promote and preserve social harmony, it is really important to be aware of the feelings of others, and to be careful not to do or say things which will upset others (or make them "lose face").  So, what results is not just bowing and using correct/polite language, but also a tendency to hold back on openly asserting one's observations or opinions.  It can be said that a Japanese will act a certain way in public (Tate-mae, 建前) for the sake of appearances, but at the same time his/her inner feelings (Honne, 本音) may be different or conflicted.  Foreigners are not expected to know all the rules about Wa/和-related behavior, but once you have lived here for a while and you've become more familiar with things, it won't hurt to try bowing -- especially in instances where you are saying thanks.  We hope you will enjoy living in "polite" Japan. 

-Written by Goodfield

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