Good and Bad Manners Are No Longer Obvious

AKASAKA Kiyotaka

Recently, the situation of manners in the world and in Japan has been drastically changing. This is because we are surrounded by a torrent of events, which started in the U.S. and Europe, and spread to the rest of the world, such as the “BLM (Black Lives Matter) movement,” the “Me Too” movement against sexual harassment, and the “Cancel Culture” movement, which accuses celebrities of past words and actions and drags them off the stage. The prolonged Covid-19 scourge may have worsened people’s sense of stagnation and lowered their level of tolerance.

When I went to a lecture at a women’s college, I used to utter, “Wow! You’re all so cute and pretty! Or, “All of you are so beautiful today!”. It’s no longer politically correct to say such things. Japan Airlines has abolished the phrase “Ladies and Gentlemen” in their in-flight announcements and replaced it with something like “Good Morning, Everyone”. In the U.S., some kindergartens are replacing “Hello, Boys and Girls” with “Hello, Everyone”.

In Japan, a number of people were fired from the Olympic and Paralympic Organizing Committee last year because of what they said was inappropriate. Mr. Yoshiro Mori, former Prime Minister and Chairman of the Organizing Committee, resigned because of his comments that “A board meeting with women on it takes a long time”. Such incidents abounded. In addition, abusive words on SNS are rampant, and the Legislative Council of the Ministry of Justice of Japan reportedly recently recommended to make insults on the Internet, including Twitter, punishable by severer penalties.

We are living in a frightening time as we are entering the “age of data” with the spread of artificial intelligence (AI). From now on, everything we say and do will be stored as data, and can be instantly reproduced. In this way, all the bullying, verbal abuse, discriminatory remarks, and violence that we have experienced or committed since our elementary school days can be replayed and exposed before our very eyes. In the past, we used to wonder, “Did I say that? I don’t remember that anymore, it was so long ago”. Politicians and celebrities in particular, unless they are saints, will not be able to sleep peacefully at night. There is an increasing danger that they will fall victim to a cancellation culture in which their adversaries, armed with the evidence, will drag them off the stage, saying “We can’t forgive you because you said such terrible things 30 years ago”.

In the past, many foreigners who visited Japan during the Age of Civil Wars and Edo periods praised the Japanese for their politeness. Even today, the Japanese people are acknowledged by both themselves and others to be polite, but the traditional Japanese politeness and manners are being forced to change considerably as globalization proceeds apace. For example, long speeches and toasts at receptions, noisy election campaign cars and right-wing propaganda trucks, rigid rules at hotels and inns, low status of women, excessive interest in and advertisements for women’s makeup and beautification, inflexible imposition of Japanese hospitality called “Omotenashi”, Japanese culture and entertainment that is closed to foreigners, etc. If you look around carefully, you will find a lot of “Galapagos” situations that are accepted only in Japan.

Depending on where you place your standards of manners, your perspective may change. We tend to take the manners of Western Europe and the U.S. as the international standard, but there are many manners in the world that differ from each other, and it is possible to think that the rule of “when in Rome, do as Romans do” is the best. However, since Japan has deepened its ties with the rest of the world, we have no other choice but to accept reasonable manners that are new but make sense and are acceptable to everyone. What I mean by “reasonable” is that it conforms to international laws and rules, such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Therefore, we need to respond appropriately to LGBTQ, harassment of all kinds, BLM, etc., otherwise we will face huge criticism from all over the world.

How should we, as individuals, respond to the dramatically changing manners situation we are witnessing? With surveillance cameras watching us at all hours of the day and the arrival of the “age of data,” the safest thing to do may be to remain silent and secluded, as the saying goes “Out of the mouth comes evil. Silence is golden”. However, if new manners are looked at not only from the Japanese standard, but also from the perspectives of the world’s rules and common sense that have been built up through the rough and tumble of history, it is easy to understand that discrimination against race and women, prejudice against sexual minorities and the handicapped, and insulting the Holocaust are indeed bad manners.

In his book “Bushido,” Inazo Nitobe, an eminent scholar and educator in the early 20th Century, said that “politeness is ever a graceful expression of sympathy. Its requirement is that we should weep with those that weep and rejoice with those that rejoice”. With such thoughtful consideration for others, it is possible for us to gain the empathy of people all over the world, even if we make a few minor violations of manners. In short, it is not a matter of fancy manners, but a matter of one’s heart.

AKASAKA Kiyotaka was a diplomat in Japan’s Foreign Service serving in a number of international organizations including the Under-Secretary-General.

Note: This essay originally appeared at the online site of the English Speaking Union of Japan.