The Secret Power of the Japanese

“Appearances are a glimpse of the unseen.” – Anaxagoras

Earlier, I wrote about the great service we received during our stay in China. I didn’t honestly think it could get any better – but the way we have been treated at the Four Seasons (Marunouchi) in Tokyo has topped it. Let me give you a few examples of what you can expect should you decide to stay there one day:

From the moment you arrive at your hotel till you leave, everyone addresses you by your name, bows, and smiles at you.

You never have to wait more than 10 or 15 seconds for someone to take care of you. Whether it’s the reception counter, the concierge desk, the restaurant, or the valet stand, there is always an abundance of perfectly dressed, smiling, English-speaking young people there to help you.

You can ask anybody for just about anything at the hotel and it will be done. As you are getting into a taxi, ask a doorman to have the NBA finals taped and delivered to your room. “No problem, sir,” he’ll reply. And the neatly wrapped tape will be sitting on your bed when you get back three hours later.

If, in a casual conversation with the receptionist, you mention that you are allergic to peanuts … at every meal thereafter, the waiters and waitresses in the hotel restaurant will assure you that there are no peanuts in the wonderful thing they’ve prepared for you.

Regardless of your request, you never get “no” for an answer. Some things may turn out to be impossible, but the staff will not fail to deliver for lack of trying.

If you happen to break the tip of your pencil and leave it on the desk in your hotel room, you can be sure it will be sharpened when you get back.

And it’s not just at the hotel.

Before allowing passengers to board a train, uniformed cleaners rush through to vacuum carpets, wipe down seats, sanitize bathrooms, and rearrange the magazines on the backs of the comfortable reclining chairs. And when the train is ready, passengers don’t rush forward en masse, but form a courteous line, allowing elderly people and mothers with children to board first.

In the shops and department stores, salespeople not only service you immediately and courteously, they literally run back and forth to locate things for you and to get your credit card processed.

The elevator attendant, beautiful and beautifully attired, greets you with a smile, takes you quickly to the floor you want, and says goodbye to you with a bow.

If you are walking and ask someone for directions, he or she will almost always lead you to exactly where you want to go.

The Japanese are an extremely civilized people. By most measuring sticks, they are more civilized than the Chinese, the Eastern Europeans, the Russians, the Germans … and they appear even more civilized than the haughty French or the proper English. By “civilized,” I mean that they seem always to treat others with consideration, their physical environment with care, and themselves with respect.

During the time we have spent here so far, we have seen no shouting, arguing, fighting, vulgarity, littering, rude driving, cutting in line, spitting, or even smoking in the streets. (Smoking on the streets is illegal in some parts of the city but considered crude everywhere. “If they see you smoking, they will think you are from the country,” Hirano said.)

The supreme civility of the Japanese people is evident in everything they do: how they carry themselves (good posture; never slouching), how they dress (always neat and clean), how they greet you (first the bow, then the smile), how they speak (with courtesy and enthusiasm), and how they solve your problems (patiently and diligently).

And although one of our guides told us that the Japanese give preferential treatment to foreigners, we were struck by how well they treated each other. The way the driver of our van chatted with the toll-booth operator, a highway flagman, and the parking lot attendee was almost startling in its respectful friendliness. You won’t see this kind of good manners in New York, Paris, or London.

The Japanese are so remarkably well-mannered that we can’t help but wonder if there isn’t some sort of ruse going on. But when we asked our old friend Anthony, who has been living in Japan on and off for 11 years, he said: “It’s hard to believe, I know. But in all the years I’ve been here, I haven’t seen anything but this kind of good behavior. They drink, but they don’t get boisterous. And they argue, but they seldom find it necessary to raise their voices.”

Anthony teaches English and American literature at one of Tokyo’s better private universities. He says his students are a pleasure. They always show up for his classes on time and well-prepared, and are unflaggingly respectful and eager to learn. Anthony has taught in the States, in Africa, in Saudi Arabia, and in Europe. “My Japanese students aren’t brighter or more creative than other students I’ve taught,” he said. “But they are peerless when it comes to attitude and demeanor.”

Last night, we went to the Kabuki theater. The play was a farce about a man who tricks his wife into allowing him to spend a night with his girlfriend, only to be tricked by his wife into unwittingly confessing the details of his debauchery with her. The plot reminded me of Shakespeare, but it was apparent from the performances, the scenery, the costumes, and – most of all – from the way the audience responded, that the art of Kabuki is not about language and ideas (which are paramount in Shakespeare) but style and beauty.

That ties in with a little theory I’ve been formulating about Japanese culture particularly and Eastern culture generally. It’s definitely a work in progress, but it may eventually be helpful in doing business in Asia – if I ever choose to.

My theory, as it stands, is as follows: Eastern culture places a great deal of value on form – how things appear on the outside. Western culture favors substance – what’s going on inside.

As Westerners, we believe that form is superficial and therefore unimportant, while substance is deep and therefore important. The Japanese don’t see it that way. They feel that the outside is very important.

Westerners favor change from the inside out; Easterners, from the outside in.

Westerners believe you can behave poorly and still be a good person “inside.” Easterners believe that to be a good person you have to act like one.

As I said, this is just a germ of a theory at this point – but it does play out well when you consider the Japanese geisha. The geisha, as you may know, is an extremely well-educated practitioner of the many arts of distraction. Geishas are trained in the proper way to dress, talk, walk, dance, sing, serve tea, and (we imagine but don’t know) make love. Though their art is dying out, they are living museums, preserving traditional ideas about how to conduct one’s self when entertaining.

I am very impressed by all this Japanese formality. It makes for a better, more orderly, and more civil society. It probably has little or nothing to do with wealth and power, but it may have a good deal to do with how those things are used and enjoyed.

Since I was a child, the trend in Western cultures has been from outward to inward and from formal to relaxed. For example, having dinner with your family used to be something you’d dress up for. And when the first course was served, there was a right way and a wrong way to eat it. Today, it’s okay to come to the table in a dirty T-shirt. And when the food is plopped on the table, it triggers an instant free-for-all.

In the West, we have abandoned the formality of the old European gentry and replaced it with informality. We don’t care so much about doing things properly. What really counts is getting the job done. If you have to knock someone aside to get to the front of the line, it’s okay to do so. And if you can claim your position at the front of the pack, then you deserve it.

The Western world could do with an infusion of old-fashioned manners. That’s unlikely to happen – but we can still enjoy a little bit of Japanese order and tranquility by incorporating some of it into our personal lives.

[Ed. Note: Mark Morgan Ford was the creator of Early To Rise. In 2011, Mark retired from ETR and now writes the Palm Beach Letter. His advice, in our opinion, continues to get better and better with every essay, particularly in the controversial ones we have shared today. We encourage you to read everything you can that has been written by Mark.]