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Japanese Politeness: More than just saying “Thank You”

Are the Japanese polite or just cordial for the sake of keeping the harmony?

By 2 min read 11

We all have different mannerisms. Most of the time we can agree that holding open the door for someone or helpful (non snarky) customer service is polite. We can also agree that cutting in line or throwing your trash on the street is rude. But many things seem to fall in that grey area, though, where it really depends on the country, person, and situation.

For instance, I think shoulder-checking someone (shoulder-checking is when two people bump into each other, shoulder-to-shoulder, on the street) without apologizing is very rude. But my husband thinks it’s polite to just not say anything when that happens – since drawing attention to the issue only makes it worse.

I think saying “thank you” to anyone who opens the door for you, regardless of the situation, is polite… but most of the time, I’m the only one saying “thank you” to the elevator lady, waitress, or security man. My husband thinks it’s odd to say “thank you” to someone who is only doing their job.


Politeness is a given in Japan. I can’t tell you why. It’s probably a nice mixture of tradition, the way of the samurai, and some history. You can find a dozen other articles online telling you why – in much better terms than I ever could. In fact, fellow GP writer Yumi’s Uchi, Soto, and Japanese Group Culture article is great for further reading.

What I’m trying to say is there are so many ways to be polite, aside from just saying “thank you.” Living in any large Japanese city is a great way to experience this systemic politeness. You see it every day.
The vast majority of the population in this country believes in conformity for the sake of harmonizing. And, when you have a society built on maintaining smooth, interpersonal relationships, politeness will be enforced.

What are your thoughts on politeness in Japan?

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  • Cecille Talisaysay Iida says:

    Politeness is a traditionall heritage of every japanese , and whether they like it or not, they are oblige to fulfill those politeness governing etiquette practices inherited from their great grand parents.

  • Boey Kwan says:

    Yea! I don’t think you’re asking too much, but then again, I myself ask a lot of questions~
    How great would it be, if we could take the good things from Eastern culture, and the good things from Western culture, and integrate them into the ideal society? (dang, I don’t mean it to sound so much like a dystopia.) But that’s what I thought.

  • Skreblin Ognjen says:

    As you can express thankfulness with a mere sight, so polished politeness can be empty. People are different in different time, different case, different occasion (everything is in a change), but please do not forget, they are all human beings and as such not different. Agree with NOMURAMAI san.

  • Barnaby Jones says:

    Japanese people in general seem more polite (at first glance) than people in the countries that I’ve traveled. I have certainly met very rude Japanese as well, so it’s also kind of a generalisation.

    Part of Japan’s politeness simply has to do with the fact that Japan (especially the big cities) are incredibly crowded. If you’d start pushing to get on the train things would end in utter chaos very quickly.

    Also, it has to do with the Japanese way of being non-confrontational (avoiding any issue at all cost) and avoiding contact with people who are not in your own “group”.

    I sometimes wish the Japanese were less polite and just said what they meant, but I guess that’s something you’re going to have to get used to when you’re in Japan.

  • As the saying goes “It’s nice to be important…but more important to be nice!!

  • Rusty says:

    I wish you’d given us more examples. You say it’s more then “thank you” but never give examples of what the more is.

    • GeneralObvious says:

      It’s common place to apologize for anything that you may have done to another person to waste their time, regardless of how insignificant it may have been. This could simply be allowing someone to walk through a door or down a path before you, if you both arrived at the same time, or simply dropping a coin while paying (even if you pick it back up yourself).

  • Vamp898 says:

    I think this depends on where you live.

    The more country-side you life, the more people say thank you.

    In Tokyo the people would never say thank you to the bus driver, but i seen this in countryside quite often.

  • Abraham Alvarado says:

    I think it speaks for the people as a whole and really motivates me to do as they do because it such a nice way of being. Thanks for this post by the way. I’m American with parents from El Salvador and Guatemala.

  • Brodie Taylor says:

    In Japan politeness is everywhere however it’s a tokenistic politeness. Most people think if they follow the social rules they are ‘polite’. For me politeness should be less about appearances and more about considering the needs and feelings of someone else. Sometimes people are blatantly rude but don’t realize it eg: telling foreigners ‘your nose is so big! do you have a boyfriend?’ is plain impolite. There are plenty other examples such as men talking down to women, malicious gossip in the office, etc. What surprises me most about a country that’s so polite on the surface is when I see young salarymen sitting on public transport whilst frail old women are made to stand for long periods of time. The salarymen are oblivious to what those around them might need because their perception of politeness is confined to using keigo with customers, giving giri gifts and bowing. So it’s a type of superficial politeness that’s socially constructed to ‘keep the harmony’. This isn’t unique to Japan. Politeness is a veneer in every society because it’s more about tokenistic gestures than actual behaviour and attitudes. I’d still much prefer this superficiality to my home country of Australia where basic manners in everyday situations are often thrown out the window and there’s no respect for others at all! Taking up space on trains, spilling food everywhere, invading other people’s personal space, being boisterous and loud – these things would never fly in Japan!

  • Quatro Naruhodo Briefs says:

    As a Canadian/Ecuadorian, I was found Japanese in general to be very well mannered. When my Japanese wife and I brought my mom to Japan, who is full on Ecuadorian, she found some things different, such as the pace of Tokyo especially in peak hours.She is just not used to that. But overall, she had a great impression. The customer service, whether genuine or not, was astounding. They put pretty much everyone else on the map to shame. Very meticulous the Japanese are, and my mom would later tell her friends how amazed she was by Japanese and how they get things done.



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