I just got back from parents observation day at my son's school. The local elementary school has Saturday school about once a month, in one form or another. Sometimes it's Sports and Field Day. Sometimes it's just 4 hours of regular classes. Today was one of those days with one exception, the 2nd class period was open for parents to come and observe.
What better subject to watch our children learn than Ethics. The word for Ethics (Morality) in Japanese is 道徳, pronounced as DohToku. The first Chinese character, 道, means path. The second Chinese character, 徳, means virtue. So DohToku means "The Virtuous Way or the Path to Virtue." That's beautiful.
Today's lesson was absolutely fascinating to me. I learned a bit about the Edo Period in Japan and how teachings from that period deeply affect Japanese thinking and conduct even today.
Various societies have unique and sometimes opposing ideas on what is considered to be polite. Just think burping at the table after a meal or loudly slurping noodles and you get the idea. Most societies' ideals on manners are probably based on what they believe to be common sense and common courtesy towards other people: "Please," "Thank You," "You're Welcome." Lending a helping hand: "Here, let me get that for you." Avoiding Conflict: "After you," "Excuse me," "Sorry about that."
かに歩き、Crab walk. A person should walk through a crowded space with great care in order to avoid bumping into others.
傘しげ、Umbrella tilting. People walking with umbrellas on a narrow path should tilt their own umbrella toward the outside - even if it means that they will get rained on - in order to avoid colliding with the oncoming person's umbrella or forcing the other person to get wet.
肩ひき、Turning shoulders. Two people approaching each other in tight quarters should turn their shoulders so they can pass without colliding.
こぶし腰浮かせ, Sliding Over. A person should slide to the middle of a row to make room for newcomers instead of making the newcomers walk over those people already seated.
Etc. For me, these simple courtesies are logical, reasonable, and go without saying. Common. (Okay, maybe I'd rather have someone climb over me to get to their seats instead of giving up my own seat.)
One of the main points of today's class was that courtesy is rooted in thinking about the other person over self. Japan is a small country with a relatively large population, concentrated in a few large cities. Most of the land is quite mountainous so living areas on the flatlands tend to be quite crowded. Streets are narrow and many do not have sidewalks for pedestrians. Walking paths are sometimes only wide enough for one person to walk on. Japanese courtesy is, in part, born out of these tight living quarters.
If a person humbles self and honors others, discomfort and conflict can be diminished. When granting a favor to others, its common to do so quietly and without making self stand out. If either the giver or the receiver of the favor stands out, the person feels embarrassed. When accepting a favor, it's common to refuse the favor (or gift) initially. The recipient says something to the effect of, "Oh, you really shouldn't have. I can't accept this. You've gone to too much trouble on my behalf," apologizing for having needed assistance in the first place. Finally, when after the refusals to accept and the insistence on accepting are done on both sides, there are words of gratitude.
One example from today's class that stands out the most to me is that, traditionally, when one person accidentally stepped on another person's foot, the person who got stepped on would apologize for being in the way and obstructing the other person's path. (I'm not sure that it still works this way in modern Japan though.)
It was at this point that I realized - not for the first time - that Japan is unique in its way of thinking. Having lived here for so long, I have somewhat mastered the art of humbling self and exalting others. In some ways its like a game. But in order to have smooth relationships in this country, one must humble themselves at times. One must learn the art of bowing in respect to others, learn the art of apologizing, learn the distinct balance of how much to refuse a gift before receiving it. Learn how being humbled is actually to be honored. What you see is not what you see.
I am not comparing Japanese culture with American culture, or to any other part of the world. Humble, meek, respectful, sharing, placing others before self. These are excellent qualities to strive for in any society. Its hard to put it all into words, but today I fell in love with Japan a little more.