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Mind your manners in modern Japan


Growing up I often heard this phrase from my parents or grandparents. In the west we usually rely on family to instill manners. We think that a person’s family will teach him/her what is acceptable and unacceptable in day to day life. Here in Japan they have taken the teaching of manners to new heights. Instead of just the family, many entities here in Japan are now involved in promoting proper etiquette. This call for politeness comes from schools, businesses, and even public transportation. Lately in Japan there are signs and posters everywhere reminding one to mind his/her manners. These public awareness messages have been dubbed, in Japanese English, “Manner Campaign.” These “Manner Campaigns” extend to every area of life, from school, to using the train, to the gym, even to smoking.

The “Manner Campaigns” can literally be seen everywhere. I am a member of a local gym and about a month ago I received a post card in the mail informing me of the current “Manner Campaign” going on at the gym. The card reminded me of the proper etiquette I should follow while using the training facilities. In case this wasn’t enough they put up posters all over the building to remind people about the “Manner Campaign.” There is one at the entrance to the locker room, two or three large ones in the weight room, one at the entrance to the bath/shower room, and even one on the door to the sauna. I guess someone was misbehaving in the sauna. It is hard for me to imagine what someone must have done in the bath/shower room in order to warrant reminding everyone what is acceptable behavior while bathing.

At the local schools posters are scattered around the building reminding students of proper manners. These posters usually talk about proper behavior towards elders or other students. The posters will have pictures of young people offering their seats to the elderly, or scenes of bullying with a big X, signifying that bullying is not okay. Strangely enough, these “Manner Campaigns” in the schools haven’t resulted in increased discipline in the classroom.

There was a big push for better smoking etiquette, which only recently has begun to wane. These days there’s a trend for vaping that avoids many such problems but for old-school smokers a publicity campaign was launched. Posters could be seen at most train stations and on the trains depicting smoking behaviors that should be avoided. The posters would have a small drawing of the offending behavior with a caption under the picture describing why this was uncouth. One of the pictures had a man walking with a cigarette followed by a young girl. Even though the man was not smoking the lit cigarette was level with the youngster’s face. As a result she was breathing in all of the smoke. The poster pleaded with smokers to take into account the health of others when smoking. Another poster showed a man smoking in a restaurant. Although he was the only one smoking in the restaurant everyone could smell it, their clothes began to smell, and their meals were ruined. Some of them were amusing, especially the English translations that went along with them. It was readily apparent that the company hadn’t consulted a native English speaker before printing the final copies.

The newest “Manner Campaign” is to teach people about being polite on the train. On this front they have pulled out all the stops, even turning to Sesame Street to help promote the correct public transportation etiquette. Big bird and his friends happily sit on the train sharing space equally. They are all so happy to be sitting near one another and glad to be polite to each other. Oscar the Grouch, though, is misbehaving in the corner of the poster. His unfriendly behavior does not go unnoticed and he is quickly admonished for his lack of manners. If they could all be like Big Bird and Elmo commuter life on the train would be much more enjoyable.

There are posters for the train “Manner Campaign” that are oriented more towards adults, as well. These posters again show people happily sharing the limited space on the train, despite being crowded. The message is that if they all share the space everyone can get along, nobody should take more space than he/she needs. To go along with this are many reminders throughout the train that mobile phones should be turned to silent mode and that people should refrain from using them, besides text messaging, while on the train.

An interesting thing about this “Manner Campaign” regarding proper behavior on the train is that it has never dealt with what really is a serious problem on Japan’s crowded trains, groping of women. Groping of women on the trains is such a problem here that trains during rush hour now have a car for women only so they can avoid this unwarranted sexual harassment. Instead of informing the public about this problem and trying to stop the crude behavior it was allowed to carry on until something drastic had to be done. There was no “Manner Campaign” advocating a halt of sexual harassment towards women. To this day there is still no mention of how audacious and uncalled for this behavior is, only the extra car for women. The problem is only being dealt with indirectly, rather than directly.

All of these “Manner Campaigns” at times seem a little juvenile. The posters that advertise the campaigns are usually dressed up with some sort of cartoon character and are made to look overly cute. I’m not sure if they have helped or if the average citizen is any more polite. But, at least they cannot be accused of being passive towards teaching people how to mind their manners.

The ubiquity of these paid advertisements reminding people to mind their manners could lead one to believe that the Japanese people are incredibly boorish if they need these constant reminders about minding their manners. This however isn’t the case, Japanese people are some of the most polite people in the world. So, I’m not sure why so much money is being spent on these various “Manner Campaigns.” Perhaps Japan wants to reach a new level of politeness, it could be called: nirvana graciousness.

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