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BEZAWADA: Americans can learn from Japanese customs

Opinions Column: Traipse the Fine Line

On Nov. 14, just a week before Thanksgiving, something happened in Japan that shocked railway commuters globally. Japan boasts one of the world’s cleanest, most efficient and reliable railway systems in the world. In particular, Tsukuba Express carries 130 million passengers annually and has rarely failed to arrive precisely on time. That Thursday was one of those rare moments — it departed early. The Metropolitan Intercity Railway Company apologized profusely for the incredibly "detrimental" 20 second miscalculation.

Japan has been quite often labeled “the politest country on Earth." Every gesture, title, mannerism and cultural behavior and expectation is performed in consideration of the other party. According to Lee Tulloch of the online newsletter Traveller, Japan is sincere down to the smallest aspects of life. Taxi drivers keep their vehicles spotless, gifts from large department stores to small boutiques are wrapped perfectly and even in the office, nobody leaves until the very last worker has finished. When guests dine in restaurants, hotels or simply visit other families, they are treated with the utmost respect and hospitality. The Japanese are polite to the point that 65 percent of foreigners found the people of the enormous cosmopolitan city of Tokyo humble and gracious, but only 24 percent of Japanese civilians felt the same. They believed they were not kind enough.

In Japanese, the word for polite, “teinei,” has a broader meaning beyond typical shows of what we deem as politeness here in America. Many aspects of this broader meaning can be applied to the daily life of everybody else outside of Japan, including us Scarlet Knights. 

First and foremost, "teinei" is treating gifts, pottery and other meaningful and fragile objects with great care. For us, that means not mistreating our textbooks even if we dislike the subjects and taking the time to clean our rooms. It is not the textbook’s fault that the class is not to our liking, and we do happen to live with roommates.

Second, it means respect, hospitality and generosity, especially when it comes to guests and friends, including “giving them the biggest piece of cake, the best seat in the restaurant or the center position in the photo." Traditional houses reserve a seat in front of a "tokonoma," the best piece of Japanese art the family owns, specifically for guests. Of course, we do not have to go so far. But when a good friend is celebrating his or her birthday, or when someone looks lonely and left out, make a sincere effort to help the other person feel special and included. It can even be as simple as not taking something that is not yours, returning a lost object to a lost-and-found and cleaning up, even if the mess is not yours, without blaming the people who made the mess before you. After all, respect is treating others as you would want to be treated. 

Third, “teinei” means having patience and tolerance and following your duty. For us Scarlet Knights, that would indicate waiting for a bus calmly without criticizing or blaming the bus drivers and allowing someone to voice his or her opinion on a subject — giving them a chance to speak and develop their thoughts — before we start railing against it. This forces us to listen and to respect others’ ideas even if they clash with our own. This is a critical skill especially as we grow up and enter the professional working world college is training us for.

Finally, it comprises modesty, not bragging or making a scene in public even when something is not going your way or when you are having a bad day. This means not boasting about receiving a great grade, because others around you might have received lower grades and may feel far worse. It means not throwing your weight around if you are in a high executive position or have something others do not — your higher status does not give you the authority to push people around. It means giving people attention when they speak, showing them that their presence matters and leaving criticism and potentially harsh remarks for the end.

So if “teinei” is many different things, then how do you define it? America prioritizes independence and uniqueness, living for one’s own happiness no matter what. But “teinei” is a step above that — it recognizes that we still share the world with other people and other forms of life, and these people have feelings that function similar to our own. It is working toward a balance between taking care of oneself and being cognizant of others’ personal spaces and emotions that truly forms a wholesome, kindhearted, genuine human being. Besides, you cannot get your dream job without learning from and interacting with others. Might as well be kind and courteous in the process, right?


Sruti Bezawada is a Rutgers Business School first-year majoring in computer science and communications. Her column, “Traipse the Fine Line,” runs on alternate Thursdays.

*Columns, cartoons and letters do not necessarily reflect the views of the Targum Publishing Company or its staff.

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