Here’s the scenario. You’re late for work and while rushing through the morning crowds you accidentally knock over one of the many commuter bicycles parked near to the station. Thankfully nobody was injured, but as you pick up the fallen vehicle, you notice that the bell attached to the handlebar has been damaged, rendering it unusable. It’s not a particularly expensive-looking bicycle and it could have happened to anybody, but the owner is nowhere in sight and nobody else around you seems to care about the situation.
What would you do?
One such person to whom a similar scenario occurred did the following. They left a short note apologising for the accident along with a 1000 yen banknote to pay for the broken bell. Upon returning to their bicycle, the owner presumably snapped the picture above and uploaded it to the internet.
The translation reads; “I accidentally knocked over your bicycle and broke the bell. I’m very sorry.”
The image has been seen millions of times and gained thousands of comments from both Japanese people and foreign nationals alike, despite the 1000 yen banknote only being worth about $10. Why is it that a simple act of kindness such as this invites such a powerful response? Is it such an unusual act as to be surprising?
Comments on the original GaijinPot Facebook post are very telling. The majority of English comments either saying that such an act would be unheard of in the commenter’s home country, or stories of how the foreigner has experienced acts of unexpected kindness while residing in Japan. The common scenario describes a lost wallet or purse and how the owner, feeling as though it would be long gone, is extremely pleased to find the lost item returned to them. Even if this photo happens to be a fake, it’s clear that these sort of actions are regularly experienced in Japan.
The Japanese comments are overwhelmingly positive and written in such a way as to suggest that this sort of action is commonplace. The focus of the comments are on the good nature of the person, or expressing pride at being Japanese. The fact that the money was not stolen from the basket is also cause for celebration (although on closer inspection it appears as though the money may have been folded up and hidden inside the apology note).
But are such actions representative of Japanese people?
It would be wildly presumptuous to say that such actions are unique to Japan, or that they are the result of some special quality that only Japanese people possess. However, in my own experience residing here, lost items are almost universally found and returned to the owner, and Japanese people are brought up with an exceptionally strong ability to recognise the needs of others, which in turn fosters a strong sense of community responsibility and trust.
Being brought up in the U.K, I would definitely not expect to see my wallet again if lost, and it would be immensely surprising to find money and an apologetic note left for me if such an accident occurred. Indeed, my first thoughts upon seeing the picture were of respect and a knowing nod to how common these acts of kindness are in Japan. However, my second thought was directed towards the money: ‘Is this really enough for a new bell?’ If the person really had a sense of responsibility, why not leave their contact details and pay the owner what they actually need to fix the bicycle (including scratches and dents to other parts of the bicycle)? Aren’t they just avoiding taking complete responsibility?
As some of the Japanese comments pointed out though, thinking about the value of the bell or the fact that the person left no contact details misses the real message in this story. The person had no need to do anything at all, but nevertheless went out of their way to resolve the situation. This is indeed worthy of praise and it’s sad that such an action is, even by Japanese standards, still ‘abnormal’ enough to garner praise and attention on the internet.
But to play devil’s advocate a little longer, my next question would be to ask: what really drove this action?
Was it really due to a sense of social responsibility? Kindness? A set of virtues or moral rules? Or perhaps it is an emotional matter – not wanting to have a nagging feeling of guilt or embarrassment for running away? Would the same person have acted this way if the damage were to an expensive car? In other words, is it because the person is truly altruistic, or did they act for their own emotional satisfaction?
Most people won’t think this deeply. Some may even question the very act of thinking this much about the matter. ‘Why can’t you just accept that it was an act of kindness?’ they say. ‘Why deprive the story of its beauty? Asking such questions means you will never be able to perform such a kind action’. Perhaps.
It’s a psychological question and I doubt many of us have ever deeply thought about what drives our own actions, especially before making the leap and ascribing these traits to an entire nation or race. It would be wrong to assume we completely understand the true motivations for such actions. But at the same time I don’t think it erroneous to say that the Japanese are a kind and thoughtful people. The anecdotal evidence of goodwill and samaritanism is extremely strong in this country. And that in turn makes me wonder why. Surely as fellow human beings we’re all capable of such actions. Why then are such actions prevalent in Japan?
Would this sort of thing happen in your home country?