A Large Crowd of Polite People


It isn’t as extreme as I’m about to put it but imagine yourself working a busy convenience store and saying to every customer who buys as much as a pen “Thank you so very very much for shopping here we appreciate the business goodbye take care of yourself!” and meaning every word of it. Hold the enthusiasm in place, but reduce it to a normal-sounding amount of words, and you’ll have an impression similar to what I’m getting from people in Japan. Working at Bucknell’s 7th st cafe I often get a sense of how well knit the community is – how the school’s organizations and the students parties seem to be a powerful driver for making as many social connections between them as possible, and how they seem to share a collective mindset. I’ve also seen a group mind at work when working in previous food service jobs. A powerful negativity caused by stress and reciprocal feedback among the employees.

I have never seen before, a culture that has internalized consideration of others so deeply. Crowds, I’ve seen before, but not polite crowds. They apologize, they welcome you to go first, they’ll hold your camera and take your picture for you if you so much as ask. They don’t litter! The massive crowd in the picture above and I saw no trash laying in the street, not even a cigarette butt.

When the group entered the place in the picture above, Sensoji, we agreed to meet at the end of this long row of shops. The crowd was so massive I had lost sight of all the group members halfway through. I’m embarrassed to say I forget the details, I think this was a new years celebration of some sort, the majority of the crowd walking toward the temple at the far end for some ritual of cleansing and prayer, stopping to look in shops along the way. Moving in one direction but they didn’t push or force, and one could move the other direction without being trampled. Often I would stop my feet to let my camera focus and take a picture, and then get bumped from behind and apologized to. A few days and a few more crowds later, I’ve learned to look behind myself before I stop, not because I don’t like being bumped, but because it hurts my feelings being the only rude one.

Many of the places we’ve been I’ve felt myself standing out in the crowd because I don’t know the motions of it(and because I’m tall, white and pointing a camera everywhere). Yesterday when walking onto a train platform after arriving in Osaka, Professor Armstrong was leading the group, which had functioned up to that point by walking in a line and cutting through the train platform crowds, and I saw a gap rapidly form between myself and the group members in front of me. Dr. Takahashi, who was at the rear of the group, quickly provided me the information “Osaka people are more aggressive, these are not Tokyo people”. I suddenly became aware – the people in this crowd, many of them walking on a perpendicular path to the train, were working harder to take the space in front of me. The perception of personal space was different here, a few inches between people was enough to put oneself in it, like interstate drivers who aren’t afraid to tailgate.  I continued observing this as we switched trains and switched trains again. People in Japanese crowds look at me before they walk in front of me, and even these “more aggressive” people will let me walk my path first without hesitation if I simply provide the nonverbal signals of changing my speed or direction to say my intention and make eye contact to ask. Another day and now I’m politely offering to let others go before myself because I see a space I can take behind them. Massive fast moving crowds and somehow everyone is so polite that movement through them feels like a karmic net positive.

I’ve been told before that Japanese people are polite, that they never steal and that the crime rate is really low, that they are very considerate. I’ve read folktales from Japan centered around putting others before the self. I find it very hard to observe much with my drastically limited ability to understand or be understood with speech, and I have to ask myself if there isn’t a degree of confirmation bias in my unconscious collection of information, but what I see is what I feel is what I know, what’s been said is true to me, the people in Japan are overwhelmingly kind.

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