Japan is a polite country, sometimes alarmingly so. People are bombarded with signs and announcements that constantly remind them of one thing: think of others.
The above sign shows a woman using a cell phone and a guy playing a Nintendo DSi, and it asks, "Are you too engrossed in your activity?" The notice is to ensure "smooth" exiting and boarding of the Osaka Monorail.
There is nothing wrong with playing a DSi while waiting for a train — though, it might be incredibly dangerous as evident by the young boy in Italy who was nearly flattened by a train. However, these signs are not for safety, but manners.
But in Japan, manners can enter minutia. And often do.
Train signs that say "no eating" or "no smoking" and "Give your seat to pregnant women and old folks" are most likely universal. But in Japan, manners can enter minutia. And often do.
In 2006, a slew of Nintendo DS games, such as Common Sense DS Adult Training, were released in hopes of capitalizing on the Japanese preoccupation with manners.
So much of Japanese politeness is rooted in language. While Japanese people tend to incorrectly think that English, especially American English, has no levels of politeness (it does), English doesn't quite have the intricacies of politeness that Japanese does. Well, not so much anymore. Japanese politeness can feel Victorian, at times, with people analyzing or over-analyzing things that are said.
The layers of Japanese politeness are a result of the hierarchical society, which has existed over centuries. The writing system in Japanese (and in turn Chinese) puts a tremendous emphasis on stroke order — and in turn, doing things the correct way (Japanese and Chinese calligraphy is even more minute, putting tremendous emphasis on things like how much pressure is applied with writing with a brush). The order in which kanji, the Chinese characters used in Japanese, are written is called "kakijun" or the "stroke order". Each kanji has a correct stroke order that is taught as kanji are introduced in first grade. Children are even tested on the correct stroke order.
Of course, not all adults follow the stroke order as they get older for a variety of reasons that might vary from personalized writing style to, well, they've just forgotten the correct order. If you ever wondered where the stereotypical "strict Asian parent" comes from, it could have its most base root in the way the language is written.
But that doesn't mean everyone plays by these rules, or that everyone is like some automaton. There are people who hold their chopsticks incorrectly, who don't care to use formal language and who even get on the train while playing their Nintendo DSi. And in the big picture of things, you know what, that's fine.
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