If you’ve been lucky enough to have travelled to Japan, you know that it is a nation full of surprises.
On the surface, Japan is fairly normal. There are large sprawling cities, highly developed infrastructure, and familiar corporate brands not unlike you would find closer to home. This in part, is thanks to the nation’s post-war transition, and subsequent rise to become one of the world’s top economies. (Perhaps a discussion for another time)
But hidden beneath all of those familiarities lies something the Japanese have held onto for dear life: their way of life and unique culture.
One such aspect of this culture is the inherent respect that people have for one another. As a Canadian, we tend to have a global perception of politeness and tolerance in our society and while this is true to some degree, Japan just takes it to an entire other level.
When you arrive at your hotel, the staff handle your passports and credit cards like a newborn baby. Every time you enter a café, restaurant, or store you’re greeted like royalty. The service you receive in Japan is bar-none the best I’ve ever had in all of my travels, and nothing but the best is accepted by those who serve you. In fact, tipping in Japan is seen as rude. The Japanese see it as a pleasure, not an obligation to give you the best experience possible.
This inherent respect translates to all areas of life, and are most noticeable in the mega-metropolis of Tokyo. The city streets are spotless despite there being a noticeable small number of garbage cans, the air smells clean and fresh, and in the 17 days I’ve spent in Japan I haven’t heard a single car horn.
Think about that for a second…
The greater Tokyo area has a population of nearly 40 MILLION people. In any other large city you would be drowning in honking. When I asked a local about this, she was almost offended at the notion that a Japanese person would be as completely irrational as to honk in traffic. Japanese people genuinely care about each other, their environment, and how they can play a part in bettering the world they live in.
The mentality is very much society over the individual.
The best real-world example I can give of the deep rooted cultural tolerance, respect and politeness in Japanese culture is from an encounter I witnessed while waiting for a train in Kyoto in 2018.
Standing on the train platform looking across the tracks, I noticed two businessmen having a conversation. After a couple of minutes, the man on the left motioned to his watch and signaled that he had to leave. The two said goodbye to each other by bowing not once, not twice, not three times or four, but FIVE times back and forth. And these weren’t quick bows; they were slow and meticulous as if they were in the presence of royalty.
The man on the left turned and began to walk away before quickly bouncing back around as if he forgot to mention something. The businessmen talked for a couple of seconds before they began the arduous goodbye process all over again. Just like before they bowed several times, almost as if it was a competition to have the best form. The man on the left turned again and walked away for a short distance before realizing he had gone the wrong direction.
He reversed his motion and as he walked past the other man, the two began to bow AGAIN. Each step he took he would stop, plant his feet and bow. It seemed to never end, and not until the two were 10 feet apart did they finally go their separate ways.
This whole goodbye process from start to finish had to have taken 3 or 4 minutes. I didn’t even spend that long saying goodbye to my parents when they dropped me off at University! The level of respect that the Japanese people have for one another and for those visiting their beautiful country is astounding, and quite frankly it opens your eyes to the almost barbaric nature of how we treat each other in North America.
To sum it all up, I could talk and write about everything I love about Japan for hours on end. The culture, the people, the food, and the sights all combine to make the nation somewhere I could return to time and time again. It truly is a special travel destination that never fails to give.
Unfortunately, my words don’t come nearly close enough to articulating just how memorable it is. It’s just something you’ll have to discover for yourself.
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