Courtesy is Contagious
For the second time in my life, I’m deeply inspired by a visit to the place they call the Land of the Rising Sun. About 24 hours from now, I will fly home from Tokyo where memories of my month-long trek across Japan in 1981 are still top of mind. Today’s lesson is the same as it was 27 years ago: Americans sure do have a lot to learn from the Japanese.
But first a bit of the back story. As a college student, I cemented a lasting friendship with a resident of Nagoya, the nation’s fourth most populated city. If not for a falling out with my first-semester, second-year roommate that forced me to move down the hall of my dormitory at Boston University right before the Christmas-New Year’s break, I might never have met Hiroshi Kondo, an unusually tall presence among scores of short people whose even bigger personality and generous heart have served him well as a politician and entrepreneur. We barely knew one another before he extended to me and two other American college chums an invitation to stay at his home when school let out that May.
My first trip toJapanwas full of revelations. As an angst-ridden sophomore out to save the world, I observed in a journal entry on June 14, 1981 that Japanese are “more courteous, generous, polite and honest than many Americans.”
Ten days earlier, I was confounded by “an immense respect conveyed by the youth of Japan” toward visitors with American faces, especially after visiting the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum where I remember having an intensely visceral reaction to gruesome details about the August 6, 1945 atomic bomb blast that eviscerated a once-thriving city of roughly 420,000 residents.
Another observation I made: “It’s obvious that everyone here is eager to forget about the past and concentrate on a productive and prosperous future.”
These thoughts square with what I just witnessed during an eight-day vacation, five of which were spent with my parents who have long had a soft spot in their hearts for my Japanese pal and his family. Kindness and generosity are so ingrained in Japanese culture that nearly every conversation among the begins and ends with the kind of diction
Americans just aren’t accustomed to hearing anymore, with “yes,” “please,” “thank-you,” “I’m sorry” and “you’re welcome” strung together in about five seconds flat. People are also always bowing to one another, regardless of whether you’re a friend or stranger – the ultimate sign of respect.
Speech and gestures are just part of the equation. Cleanliness actually might be a notch above Godliness in a nation whose residents take great pride not only in keeping their homes and streets free of debris but also handing out hot or cool towels before meals or travel. Spa treatments featuring quality time spent in a sauna, wet steam or whirlpool also are highly valued, as are a nice warm bath. I was fortunate to have been pampered at the elegant Resort Trust XIV n Kyoto, which is just two years old and one of 16 such facilities spread across Japan.
One also can’t help but notice that our Japanese friends are very much into physical fitness, nutrition, meditation and mind-body balance, though much of this health-conscious nation still seems to be as addicted to cigarettes as I remember back in 1981.
But at least they respect the environment, which I was reminded of after walking into an Earth Day rally in Nagoya on April 22 and then a few days later driving past the building where the Kyoto Protocol was formulated in hopes of reducing greenhouse gas emissions blamed for causing a significant change in the world’s climate.
As the rising sun now sets on the second of what I hope will be more trips to Japan, I imagine how great it would be to bottle this unique spirit and genuine affection for people and places, and pour it everywhere. The world would be a much better place with a touch of Japanese courtesy, which is absolutely contagious once you’ve been able to experience it first hand.