Sunday, June 15, 2008


Whenever anybody rings the doorbell to my apartment, a little video-monitor inside shows me who's that knocking at my door, and last week I noticed a couple of elementary-school girls in grainy black-and-white waiting for me to answer their call.

I didn't. I was kicked back on my futon, and I knew the kids were selling something, cookies or tickets or coupons, and I didn't want to buy anything, and rather than see their surprised expressions when a big scary foreigner answered the door, I decided to wait it out, knowing they'd soon leave.

Which they did. They silently, motionlessly loitered for a few moments, waiting for someone to answer the door, and nobody did, so they left. I watched it all, hiding inside. But before they left, they bowed, and said: "Onegaishimasu", which is roughly equivalent to: "Thank-you for doing this thing that I've asked you to do." (Even though I didn't do anything for them, and they said these words immediately after having had their request ignored. )

And let me repeat once again what they did, in case you missed it:

They bowed before a closed door.

Having lived in Japan about half as long as these girls themselves, I'm well aware that the Japanese bow to many different people in many different situations, including when talking on the phone.

This, though, was a first. Bowing to nobody? To a door?

Why did they do that? They weren't being respectful towards me in particular, because, for all they knew, nobody was home.

No, I think they were actually bowing before my neighbours. (Who were also behind closed doors.)

In Japan, the group comes before the individual, and the social takes precendence over the private. Since they were going door-to-door, it stands to reason that people in the neighbourhood could be watching their every move, and their every knock.

Being as polite as possible is not even being polite in Japan; it's being normal. Were you not to be polite, it would be a horrendous breach of etiquette. So not bowing before my door would alert everyone around my LeoPalace apartment that these two little girls were, in fact, not quite as innocent and cherubic as they appeared to be at first glance. By forgoing the bow, they would be revealed as churlish, rebellious brats.

That's what I'm guessing, anyways.

It got me thinking: The things we do so others will like us. Respect us. Or, at the very least, not think us impolite, odd, abnormal.

I love how old people so often say and do whatever the hell they want. It's as if they've transcended these artifical barriers of protocol we erect around us as we age and endure. Life is short, and we're all in this together, so why the hell not just get on with it and stop being obsessed with keeping up with the Joneses, both physically and conversationally? That's the vibe I get from these elderly cranks who can't be bothered with the bullshit of living any longer. (And it's an affectionate feeling I feel for these obstinate codgers, lest I'm being considered rather cruel.)

That's a Western ideal, I think, this notion of the individual doing whatever the hell they want, others opinions be damned.

Here in the orient (if it's still called that), others do, indeed, must, indeed, come first. It does matter what they think, because by doing things that interrupt the general harmony of life, you create distress for others. By throwing the stone in the pond, you create ripples that could lead to waves. Best to bow before closed doors, because then one can see that a certain civility endures, and without civility, everything else starts to deteriorate.

Which is not to say that there are not individuals and rebels in Japan. There are. But I'm guessing that they, too, would bow before closed doors, should the occasion arise.


Noi said...

Interesting post. It's always cool to read little tidbits about how culture is different in Japan or the Philippines (and how it's expressed--such as in bowing before closed doors...).

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