Politeness is universally allowed to be a distinguishing Japanese trait. Personal intercourse with this people for more than thirty years has convinced the present writer that it is la politesse qui vient du cœur,—something deeper than mere bows and smiles,—that it is rooted in genuine kindliness, especially among the lower classes.
The politeness of the Japanese being thus a fact disputed by none,—least of all by the writer of these miniature essays,—there may be some interest in noting a few items on the negative side; for in some exceptional particulars this most courteous nation does offend glaringly against the canons of courtesy, as understood in the West. Japanese will dog your footsteps in the streets. They will contradict you fiat. They will answer in English when you have addressed them in their own language. They will catechise you about your plans: "Whither are you going? Whence do you come? What is your business? Are you married? If not, how extremely odd of you!" If you turn them off, they will interrogate your servant, and that to your very face. At other times, seeing that you speak Japanese, they will wag their heads and smile condescendingly, and admit to each other that you are really quite intelligent, much as we might do in presence of the learned pig or an ape of somewhat unusual attainments. But the most fundamental and all-pervading breach of courtesy (from the European standpoint) is displayed in the way servants and other inferiors behave towards their superiors. You tell a jinrikisha-man to set you down, that you may walk a hill. You probably have to do so four times before he obeys:—he assumes that you surely cannot mean it. You order your cook to buy mutton. He goes straightway and invests in beef:—he knows beef to be cheaper, and thinks to spare your pocket. Disobedience, in fact, is the rule, not disobedience from malice prepense, but from an ineradicable assumption on the subordinate's part that he can do better for his master than his master can do for himself. Sometimes this is true; for the native servant knows native ways better than his foreign master can ever hope to do. Sometimes it is true, because the native retainer has sharper wits than his native lord. "Dull as a Daimyō," was almost a proverb in old feudal days. But in any case, what a novel state of things does this open out to the minds of us Europeans, to whom obedience is the first rule of courtesy, abstention from inquisitiveness the second! The visitor to Japan is advised to accommodate him self, once for all, to local conditions in this as in other matters. He cannot possibly change them, and he will spare himself much loss of temper, and at the same time will preserve his dignity in Japanese eyes, by frankly accepting the situation. He should read over, in this connection, what we have already mentioned on pages 134-5 and 356 concerning the comparative social equality of all ranks and stations in this country. He will then begin to realise a truth which the existence of an almost absolute government and of an elaborate code of manners at first tends to conceal, namely, that the Japanese and Far-Easterns generally are at bottom more democratic than Anglo-Saxons on either side of the Atlantic. They are more polite, yes, on the whole; and we, for our part, admire the way in which they manage to unite independence with courtesy. But their courtesy does not go the length of dis carding their methods in favour of those of a social superior, neither does it go the length of leaving him his freedom, neither does it take into consideration that abstract multiple being whom we call "the public," nor again does it specially display itself towards women. This may be one reason, among several, why ladies are apt to view Japan less favourably than do travellers of the male sex.
The habit which Japanese subordinates have of thinking for themselves, and more particularly of esteeming themselves ever so much smarter than their employers, leads to various small mishaps. While we are penning these pages, an instance occurs, which may be quoted because typical of a thousand. A friend staying with us in the country (we will call him Smith Senior for short) had sent a registered letter to his son, Smith Junior, in Tōkyō. Does the postman deliver it? Not he:—he does nothing so commonplace. Instead of delivering it, he unfolds his great mind and thinks. He remembers that various letters for Smith Senior have recently passed through his hands re-directed to the country:—ergo this particular letter must be re-directed to the country, and so to Smith Senior it returns after many days. The consequence is that Smith Junior is kept waiting for his monthly allowance, probably in no very filial frame of mind. This sort of thing it is that has given rise to a bitter remark current among the foreign residents. "The Japanese," they aver, "never think; and when they do, they think wrong."