I mentioned some things about how polite the Japanese people are in a few other blog postings. In this one I want expand on that and explain a little about just HOW polite they really are!
Before I came to Japan I did my best to read up on the culture, and I have really seen some of the things I read about validated in person. Japan is one of the safest countries in the developed world with very low rates of violent crime. This is even more pronounced in a rural/agricultural area like Misawa! This is the sort of town where people do not lock their doors or cars and kids walk around unaccompanied. That was one of the first things I noticed driving around town that was different about Japan; kids will be out walking around by themselves throughout the day and evening! I am talking about elementary age kids! From what I've seen it's more likely that random people would keep an eye on the kids then do anything to harm them.
The Japanese language is also set up for politeness and formality. There are several ways of saying most things that range from rude to extremely formal. Most people will use the very formal version of a phrase with everyone except for close friends. The Japanese equivalent of “thanks” is pronounced “domo” but you will rarely hear that being said because everyone uses the more formal “arigato gozaimasu.” The Japanese say please and thank you constantly, and will regularly affirm that they're listening by saying the equivalent of things like “yes,” “of course,” and “is that right” while talking to someone. It's almost a contest to see who can be the nicest and most humble.
Next up, bowing. I had read about bowing before I got here but seriously misunderstood how much people bow. There is a whole system of how low to bow depending on social status, but the standard is about 15 degrees for most bows and 45 degrees when talking to someone of much higher status or age. You only ever bow lower than 45 degrees if the other person is extremely higher status to you, which is why Obama goofed when he bowed at 90 degrees to the Japanese Emperor. The hands stay pinned to the side and you bow straight at the waist. A lot of Americans bring their hands together like they're praying but that's not the right way to do it. Bowing can be funny because if one person bows the other person returns it, and in some cases it can get into some sort of infinite awkward loop.
People will literally keep bowing back and forth as they walk away from each other until one person is gone! When I had the workers at my house setting up my utilities we bowed and said thank you back and forth until they were out the door! Some people are in such a habit of bowing that they'll even do it while they're on the phone. The other day I let someone make a turn across my lane in traffic and they bowed at me while driving, and today I let a young girl cross the street (Japanese don't really stop at crosswalks despite their politeness) and after she got across she stopped and bowed! The culture really is amazing how everyone goes out of their way to show respect for each other.
The biggest thing I think that shows this mutual respect is the wearing of surgical masks. Most Japanese people will wear a hospital mask whenever they even THINK they're getting sick. Sore throat, cough, sniffles, anything that signals illness and they pop a mask on. They do it solely to help avoid spreading germs to other people! You'll see all sorts of people wearing masks all the time, from little kids to high-schoolers to business men. It's almost an affirmation of their willingness to contribute to the common cause! Some people will also where the masks to avoid breathing in other peoples germs, but the majority wear them to avoid spreading germs. They have taken it so far here that they sell all sorts of special masks that are custom fitted and decorated.
With everyone being so helpful and friendly wherever I have been so far I am sure that traveling around the nation for the next three years should be a blast! I already have some great plans for the spring/summer. One of them is hiking to the top of the mountain in my snowboarding pictures! That is actually a dormant volcano named Mt. Iwate and there is a trail that goes to the top of it!