Japanese etiquette: a form of place essentialism

A common myth regarding Japanese culture revolves around its strict etiquettes, as politeness is frequently considered to be an essential aspect of Japanese culture. You’ll often find various etiquette tips on travel guides that can help you fit into their “disciplined society”.

Some commonly mentioned etiquettes include:

  • Not speaking while on public transport
  • Removing shoes indoors
  • Correctly using chopsticks
  • Not walking and eating on the streets

Reminders for noise consideration on trains. Photo by Thomas Raucher

Unfortunately, these behaviours are often portrayed unintentionally as “rules” or “strict guidelines” through media such as anime, and has become a permanent “essence” of modern Japanese culture.

For example, the well-known いただきます “Itadakimasu” is portrayed as a required saying before EVERY meal, where in fact it is only really used during group outings, as it is impolite to start eating while someone in the group is waiting.

Rin’s cooking in Blue Exorcist, A-1 pictures.

In reality, being thoughtful and considerate is often enough, as politeness is highly valued in Japan. As long as you apologise, most unknowing “mistakes” you make will be forgiven.

The issue with place essentialism is that it assigns a form of permanence, a false notion that all Japanese etiquettes are unchanging. This stereotype is then further reinforced when a traveller is misinformed about certain notions of respect, causing greater confusion and conflict between tourists and locals.

Challenging this form of place essentialism

A few ways to challenge misinformation regarding Japanese etiquette can entail:

  • Providing more detailed explanations on what is appropriate and inappropriate throughout different regions of Japan in travel guides
  • Spreading awareness online on various acceptable behaviours through anecdotal travel blogs to remove generalisations

Remember, you don’t hurt a country’s identity by being unaware to unique mannerisms. However, being observative and to attempt blending in is a respectable act, no matter where you visit.

Sources:

Featured image: https://www.worldfirst.com/app/uploads/2020/01/Japan-business_blog-956×628.jpg

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