Please note that this article is not based on any particular research, but based only on my personal perspective. I had always been vaguely thinking about this, because Japanese people can be very nasty and I have confronted those Japanese people who are considerably rude. When I was surfing on wordpress articles the other day, I found some others have also been talking about it in the same way I had always been feeling, so I decided to express my thoughts on my blog too.
My favorite question to the tourists visiting my store in Tokyo is what do you think about Japan? They, of course, make positive comments about this country especially because I am Japanese and not many people are brave enough to make negative comments when someone standing in front of you is the native person.
They always say how beautiful Japan is and how clean Tokyo is. They also mention about how Japanese people are always polite to them. What they say is partially correct and I do not generally retaliate to their comments about my country that is mainly because it is just a casual conversation at my store and it is not like we are talking at a bar with a glass of beer and not like talking frankly being honest to each other.
I was born in this country, but I lived in the UK and visited various other countries (that was over 10 years ago, so my English is not as good as it used to be, so please excuse my bad English). I would not say that my experiences living and visiting abroad represent everything about these countries I visited, but I have leant many things from these experiences through my eyes. When I returned to Japan, I was somehow fascinated by this country again and I had also been amused by those unique cultures we have in the same way as those people visiting Japan as tourists.
I still like this country and I feel that it was a right decision I made to come back to Japan, but I have also experienced and felt negative sides of this country.
When people are visiting this country as tourists, their experience in this country is relatively skewed i.e. their experience is only as a customer and visitor. In Japan we regard customers are the same as god, so we treat any customers well and polite because they are like god to the shop they are visiting. Many tourists in Japan, therefore, mistakenly assume that all Japanese people are polite and nice to them.
Japanese politeness is unfortunately often limited to some circumstances and situations and when you are not in the right situations or circumstances, the chances of you being treated really badly are high.
You are also more likely to be treated well if you are western and white, that is because many Japanese people are still unconditionally attracted to western cultures and white people. On the other hand, if you are Asian, you are more likely to be treated like locals or possibly they might look you down because many Japanese people believe that they are superior to other Asians. It is sad to admit that many Japanese are racists, although they are also likely to be discriminated against in other countries. Prejudice exists due to a lack of knowledge and experience, so naïve people tend to prejudice those people they have never met or do not know much about them, but many Japanese people have vague idea that western countries are rich in culture and wealthy, so they have fantasized about western cultures etc (although it is not always the case).
We have rapidly been losing our culture due to our belief that being westernized is a proof to be rich and wealthy and they tend to neglect our own culture replacing them with anything western looking things.
We might be called as a developed country, but mentally I believe this country has still been in a developing stage and it will always be until we stop mimicking western culture and establishing our own as it should be.
Anyway it is partially true that Japan is beautiful, when you go out of Tokyo and visit beautiful mountains and countryside. Some areas of Tokyo can also be beautiful and clean such as Ginza and Aoyama area, where are considerably wealthy. If you, however, visit those areas where are considerably poor, you would see rubbish on the streets and see those old buildings which might collapse anytime soon. Well that applies to any large cities in the world, I suppose. Every large cities have also dark sides hidden under the mask of rich and beautiful appearances.
As I mentioned earlier and as you expect, Japanese people are not always polite and sometimes that politeness is very overtly limited to certain situations. They are normally very polite when you are a customer due to the reason explained above. On the other hand, if the social situation is reversed, the customer often behave very badly and rude to the shop keepers or restaurant waitresses and waiters. They do not regard the shop keepers as the same human and they believe that it is normal to be treated well at any places they visit, so they naturally behave quite arrogant to the shop keepers.
Many Japanese people often discriminate against other Asians too. So your experience as living in Japan as an Asian might be totally different from those white Europeans or Americans living in this county.
Many Japanese often avoids communicating and having direct eye contacts with strangers. Those behaviors are often translated as Japanese people are very shy, but in many cases they simply do not have proper abilities to interact with other people.
I remember a study conducted by an Australian researcher who raised a question if Japanese people were really polite and he tested and compared Japanese with Australians using a number of variant questions. Even though the questions used were somewhat unfair to Japanese due to the cultural differences, he concluded that Japanese were not as polite as they had been thought to be i.e. Japanese do not greet to the neighbors appropriately and do not apologize enough under certain situations etc. What made me interested in the research was not about the content of the study itself, but the reason he attempted to conduct that particular research. I assume that he personally confronted those situations which he thought Japanese people are rude to him and not so polite as people often describe about Japanese. Sadly it is very true that many Japanese people living in big cities like Tokyo do not greet to each other, although they live in the same building and worst case even when they live right next to each other. Many Japanese people annoyingly avoid direct eye contacts and they don’t apologize even when they abruptly bump into you on a street. These are only few examples, but you can make a long list of all those bad and rude behaviours of Japanese people.
Anyway this article is getting too long, so I will summarize it. As I stated earlier, I love this country and I am glad to hear that many visitors have positive impressions about this country after travelling around everywhere here in Japan. It is also true that many Japanese people “appear to be” polite, but it should be noted that the politeness is often situational and please remember that they are not always polite to you once you are in different contexts. I also feel that Japanese politeness is very superficial in many cases. It is true that there are many truly polite and nice people out there in Japan, but many people are also calculating and there are often reasons to be polite and compassionate.Japanese people tend to speak badly behind your back, even when they are smiling.
I will say again, but I love this country because there are so many good things about this country and these positive sides can easily cover up the negative sides. I just want this country to be even better place to live and visit by acknowledging those negative sides and improving these down sides.