Once upon a time I stopped, at the entrance to Marukyu supermarket, to help a young woman who was struggling to fit herself, four huge bags and her crutches through the door.
I know now that this was the wrong thing to do. Not that she got aggressive about it, because that’s really not the done thing. Sumimasen, she said, her head fluttering uncertainly in a bow of undecided depth. Moshiwake arimasen, and backed away from the scene of the crime. Osore irimasu, and was gone. Thrice times sorry, but not a thank-you in sight.
I was perplexed. I hadn’t intended to offend. I couldn’t quite conceive of a world in which doing things for people got up their noses, but it’s true that long experience seems to bear out the fact that here, random acts of kindness are no kindness. They come with strings attached.
The theory is that in a culture that views relationships of all kinds as ones of reciprocation, you’re not so much helping a stranger as tying them to an unwanted relationship, and giving them the burden of reciprocation as a kind of cherry on top. Further, acknowledging their difficulties draws attention to them, thus shaming the individual. Never mind that modern life makes it extremely unlikely that I’m ever going to see Ms Crutches again, let alone be in need of her aid. I just hope she’s gotten over the shame by now.
There are two broad reactions I’ve encountered when I’ve been clearly at a loss in Japan. Occasionally (well, once), I’ve had people go far out of their way to get me to where I need to be. I should probably be suffocated by the weight of shame and reciprocal obligation. In the overwhelming majority of cases, though, I’ve been scrupulously ignored. Mukanshin, they call it: disinterest.
Coming back to feelings of shame, which would you consider more shameful: falling off your bike and getting trapped under it and being helped up, or falling off your bike and getting trapped under it and seeing five, six people sail serenely past, eyes fixed forward, conveniently not seeing the only other person on the road for miles around? Coming as this experience did only a few days into my first job in Japan, it’s almost surprising I’m still here.
Japan has a culture so elaborately polite that even Japanese people mock its complexity. Imagine my surprise, then, when some years later I read an article in a Japanese newspaper arguing that Japan could learn a thing or two from Britain in terms of politeness. What they meant was that in Britain, we are polite at random, most particularly to the person who has just stood on our foot. Or at least we’re expected to be, when we’re not braying into mobiles about why we didn’t change the cat litter, or listening to loud garage music at the back of the bus.
I think I’ll just have to add this one to the list of things I’ll never, ever get used to.
From here on November 10 2012.