One of the things that most distinguishes Japanese culture from others is its constant observance of unspoken rules of manners. For visitors to the country, navigating through the intricacies of these rules of etiquette can feel like traversing your way through a maze where every wrong turn is punished with sideways glances and muttered complaints. However, learning just a few of the words associated with manners in Japan can help make your maze-based quest significantly easier.
When Japanese people talk about manners, they often use the English-derived term マナー (manners) and the Franco-English word エチケット (etiquette). While マナー may seem like a reasonable approximation to the word “manners,” it is unfortunately usually only found in its noun form, whereas there are times you may need a verb or adjective.
For other forms you have to use some of the other synonyms of this word. If you want to talk about a well-mannered young child, for example, the Japanese original word for manners, 礼儀, is more useful, especially as it can be easily transformed into the adjective 礼儀正しい to make the adjective.
Recently, however, Japanese people are complaining that young children are becoming less 礼儀正しい. You may well be wondering what kind of things comprise such bad manners to the Japanese, however, a lot of them are things that other nations may not even consider rude. The recent buzzwords 歩きスマホ (walking with a smart phone) and, horror-of-horrors, 電車で化粧 (putting on makeup on the train!) are frequently cited as examples of the young losing their manners — something that may not bother other cultures so much.
You may well be wondering what kind of things comprise such bad manners to the Japanese, however, a lot of them are things that other nations may not even consider rude.
These kinds of gripes are often joined with the common verb ~をゆるさない (~not allowed) and the even stronger ～は失礼 (~is rude) for those things that really get you mad. On rare occasions, you may even hear みっともない, a strong way of saying that something is undignified or unacceptable to the point of indecency!
One of my favorite phrases to come out of researching this article is the phrase ゲス不倫 (sleazy immoral affairs). This term has recently been increasing in popularity and has become an all-encompassing word for the world of extramarital affairs and immorality that many actors and musicians find themselves a little too readily caught up in.
Unsurprisingly, this is often coupled with the word 恥 (shame). Shame is predictably a very real thing to the Japanese and many will go to great lengths to avoid it. An exceptionally strong way to tell someone that they have angered you, “恥をしれ (you should feel ashamed),” is considered incredibly strong on these islands.
While it can sometimes seem trivial, there are still many who take manners incredibly seriously. The rules are so important to Japanese that often one of the first stories visitors are told is the apocryphal story of a Japanese thief who broke into a house only to find a perfectly maintained tatami floor. The thought of soiling such a perfect floor was so horrifying to the would be criminal that he spent so long carefully removing and putting on his shoes after his misdeeds that a neighbor was able to spot his suspicious behavior and alert the police.
Yep, for the law-abiding citizen and even for criminals, the unwritten rules of Japanese etiquette are full of traps — both grammatical and literal!