Meiwaku and Gaijin: Politeness and Group-Mentality in Japan

March 17, 2017

What do constantly bobbing your head up and down like a chicken, sorting your trash into a multitude of really specific categories, and paying for your purchases in exact change to the very cent have in common? They all align with the commonly understood social order of politeness for which Japan is famous (and sometimes infamous).

As a foreign student who does not fit the perceived “racial standard” of Japanese natives, I have often experienced a conflict between this culture of politeness and the expectations placed on me as a foreigner, an outsider. After several years of studying Japanese culture and months living in Japan, I have come into the habit of practicing certain Japanese customs. I subconsciously bow to strangers who pass by, even if I am riding my bike or talking with friends. I do my best to sort my trash properly in my dormitory, including by peeling off the plastic labels of disposable PET bottles and removing their caps, which results in three separate items that all go into distinct categories of recycling for just one bottle. I even often find that I have no more coins in my coin pouch due to the fact that I paid in exact change too often. 

Yet, because I am perceived as a foreigner, I have still occasionally faced the lack of bows in return, explanations of which trash goes where (in public places, where trash is much more simply separated than in my dormitory), and cashiers offering to look through my coin pouch to help me find the right coins. As such, although I am trying to contribute, to the best of my ability, to the system of group-mentality and constant politeness of Japan, I have often felt as if I am being treated in return as though I am not part of the group, despite having lived in Japan for at least seven months. While I acknowledge that the average person I meet would not be aware of this information, being fit into a box of “outsider” is the last thing someone who hopes to learn about and appreciate a culture to its fullest wants to hear.

This situation presents an interesting dilemma of where the line between teinei (politeness) and meiwaku (annoyance) form when gaijin (outsiders) are placed into the equation. If a Japanese person speaks to a “foreign-looking” person in English with the intention of treating the foreigner in a teinei manner, would it become a situation of meiwaku if the person preferred or was more able to communicate in Japanese? Language plays a huge role in the relationships between individuals in Japanese society, particularly in illustrating the interplay with exhibitions of teinei and meiwaku. Certain forms of speaking exist to protect harmony within the group-mentality and not result in offence to anyone; for the sake of this post I would simply divide these forms of speaking into three categories: super-formal, formal, and casual. However, what can be said about the boundaries of politeness, if service employees, who are almost always required to use the super-formal language in respect for customers, use the higher form with people who they presume to be Japanese, but switch down to casual form when speaking with gaijin—a situation I have both experienced firsthand and heard about others experiencing?

This discussion is further complicated by the fact that foreigners in Japan cannot be lumped into one single category of singularly English-speaking, rule-disregarding tourists. Some foreigners are often rude, failing to attempt to contribute to the group-harmony of Japanese society in even the simplest of ways and, frankly, imposing meiwaku to those around them. However, other foreigners invest time and effort into learning the Japanese language, customs, and social norms. Japanese society is placed into a paradoxical position where it must decide whether to treat “foreigners” with the same group-mentality as it does the Japanese, and thus as equals, or make exceptions for them and attempt to accommodate their perceived language and cultural customs. As the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo near, this situation will have to be dealt with more head-on. While I believe adding language accommodation to signs or maps is reasonable and helpful, since these tools facilitate tourism and thus economic revenue for Japan, I am wary that increased attempts to accommodate foreigners will lead to sacrificing Japan’s linguistic and cultural traditions for the sake of it being perceived as “modern” or “advanced.” This kind of thinking elevates the English-speaking West and discounts the richness of culture in countries pressured by the existence of a lingua franca. Regardless of its choice, Japan, as a country steeped in politeness and group thinking, will continue to be faced with social change as this situation develops in the future.

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