Japanese are noted worldwide for their politeness to each other and to their guests as well. If you’re not prepared for this tradition, it can catch you a bit off guard and make you feel as if you’re just a step above a barbarian, in terms of manners.
It took very little for me to fall in love with Japan. On my first visit there, in 1983, I didn’t travel far beyond a covered shopping arcade in the large business- oriented city of Osaka. The visual explosion of color, pattern, and sights in that commercial tunnel immediately beguiled me. I slowly snaked my way through the long arcade because I felt compelled to look at absolutely everything. It was a new and exotic world.
The arcade terminated at the spotless glass doors of a Japanese department store. A friend and I arrived a few minutes before opening. We watched dozens of clerks, in immaculately tailored uniforms, bustling around in preparation for this event. At precisely 10 AM, with a great sense of importance, the manager of the store unlocked the doors, warmly greeting all the waiting customers.
My friend and I were the first to enter. We were not quite ready for our experience as Exceptionally Honored Customers. Being the first in line, we began to make our own way past the gauntlet of welcoming sales people . It seemed as if suddenly, we had become royalty.
A clerk stood silently in front of every single counter. To our great surprise, as we passed them, each salesperson bowed and wished us welcome. It seemed as if suddenly, we had become royalty.
As a foreigner, I try not to offend. Unprepared for this show of politeness, my friend and I made a split second decision that the right thing to do was to bow back. We slowly inched our way through the large first floor main aisle of the store, bowing in response to each clerk on our right and then our left. When at last we reached the escalators where there was no more bowing possible, we turned around to note that the Japanese customers who had entered behind us performed no such exchange of bows, they’d just strolled on in!
Our bowing performance had probably held up the rows of other customers behind us, because no one had passed us. They were probably having too much fun watching us. All I could think of was that we were like the toy drinking birds of my childhood, who would bow formally and incessantly at the waist towards a glass of water. All we were missing were the bowler hat and tail feathers!
As I looked over my shoulder, I expected to see everyone in the store erupting in laughter, but I think everyone was far too polite to show their amusement. My friend and I quickly were overtaken by our own laughter and embarrassment.
I did suspect that our foolishness must have made a great tale around many supper tables that evening! Sometimes, the eager – to – please and uninformed can be TOO polite! Lesson learned.