You’ve seen it in the news. After getting all excited for their national team’s victory at a World Cup football match against Columbia, Japanese fans took out garbage bags from their own pockets and cleaned up the mess they had made.

This was not exceptional behavior by exceptional Japanese citizens that was blown up by the media. This was exactly the standard behavior of the average group of Japanese people.

Japanese people are known to be polite at many fronts, with all the bowing, polite smiles, never forgetting to bring a gift to home parties, wearing masks so as not to transmit diseases to others whenever they are sick, and providing excellent customer service whenever they take on that kind of job. These are not stereotypes. They are all true.

But their super-politeness is not the weirdest part of Japanese people. The reasons the Japanese behave the way they do are the most fascinating yet bizarre part of Japanese culture. And here are 5 facts that point to why Japanese people are so damn polite everywhere they go.

1. Each individual represents a whole family quite literally

Japanese people often call each other by their family name. This practice starts from grade school and carries on into the business world. So if your name was Taro Yamada, everyone would call you “Yamada-san.” If you introduce yourself, you would say “I am Yamada” or “I am Yamada Taro.” So your family name comes first, followed by your given name.

So that’s how things are in Japan. You as an individual are not the most important entity of your identity. Your family, or the name of your family is. So in case you had bad breath, your colleagues would be whispering to each other “Yamada-san smells like sewage,” which sounds like your whole family has dental problems.

Of course in reality, your colleagues wouldn’t automatically assume the whole Yamada family needs to be introduced to dental floss, but the family name does come up 100% in the conversation.

Plus, there are so many Japanese idioms that remind us the link between ourselves and our family tree:

  • 一家の面汚し (Ikka no tsura yogoshi) = Literally translates to “Dirt on the family’s face.” The Japanese version of “Black sheep of the family.”
  • 末代までの恥 (Matsudai ma de no haji) = Literally translates to ”Shame big enough to curse generations after.” Some big failure on your part was/is believed to hurt the family’s good name and the effect would last for generations to come.
  • 蛙の子は蛙 (Kaeru no ko wa kaeru) = Literally translates to “A frog’s child eventually becomes a frog.” What people actually mean to say when they use this idiom is “A criminal’s child eventually becomes a criminal” or “A child of a big dick will eventually grow into a big dick himself.”

The idea that your actions affect not only your own reputation but your whole family’s dwell in the back of our minds subtly but surely all the time, and I really believe this is one reason crime rates are low in Japan. If you commit a crime, you’re virtually supplying your whole family, ancestors and future descendants with a criminal record.

To rephrase that, being polite to others isn’t just a display of your personal good will, but an effort to keep the reputation of your whole family, ancestors and future descendants’ good name.

2. One step out the house and it’s a formal occasion

In Japan, all social and business activities can be classified into two sorts of interactions: internal (interactions with people on your side) and external (interactions with people on the other side). Internal activities are interactions with your family members, classmates or colleagues – peers who basically live or work in the same group. External activities are interactions with other families, other departments of the same company, and people from other companies.

Depending on whether you interact with an internal or external counterpart, the way you speak and the actions you take change dramatically. Internal interactions are very informal, while external ones are formal to super-formal.

Take a pair of colleagues as an example. Suzuki-san and Yamada-san work in the same department of the same company, which they both joined at the same time.

They would regularly go out to have a drink after work together, call each other by nickname and make fun of each other on a regular basis – clearly an informal, internal relationship. They would not bow at each other for any reason because it would be weird for friends to do that to one another.

However, in the case where Suzuki-san invites Yamada-san to his house on the weekend, the relationship turns into an external, slightly more formal one.

Yamada-san would bring Suzuki-san a little gift – a box of sweets perhaps. Suzuki-san would introduce his wife to Yamada-san in a rather formal manner and Yamada-san would formally bow in front of Mrs. Suzuki. Yamada-san would not dare make fun of Suzuki-san in front of his wife, and would try to eat every speck of rice he is served in order to show how grateful he is towards the Suzukis who prepared all the food for his visit.

In short, Yamada-san would behave much formally compared to how he would usually behave towards Suzuki-san at work. This is because in this occasion, Yamada-san is visiting Suzuki-san’s family as a representative of his own family. Keeping his family name under a good reputation is Yamada-san’s best interest.

When Japanese people visit a foreign country, they immediately switch on their formal self, because it’s like they are Yamada-san visiting Suzuki-san’s house. They are aware that their actions in a foreign country would affect the reputation of Japan and Japanese people as a whole.

Cleaning up around their seats after a soccer match is in part the result of this way of thinking.

3. Politeness is culturally expected with all Japanese adults

Seizing to be a student and entering the real world is a big deal in Japan.

Japanese companies allocate quite a bit of time training up the new graduates they hire to become capable of exchanging business cards the polite way, responding to phone calls from external parties the polite way, dressing the right way, and speaking to customers using the politest Japanese phrases. All adults are expected to behave super politely, in both work and social life.

In Japan, this transition from childhood to adulthood is to be made overnight, and this practice bears a striking resemblance to a long-lasting Japanese tradition of coming-of-age ceremonies called Genpuku.

Genpuku, a ritual dating as far back as the 8th century AD, basically involves officially declaring the end of childhood of a kid by doing the following:

  • Giving the kid an adulthood name and seizing to call him/her by childhood name.
  • Changing the kid’s hairdo from a childhood one to an adulthood one.
  • Talking to the kid as an equal from that day on.

Genpuku used to take place anytime between ages 5 to 20. 16 to 20-year olds, we understand. But why should an early teenager be considered an adult, let alone a 5-year old? Before the 1600s war was commonplace in Japan and famine occurred periodically and that meant people died easily.

Especially if you were born to a samurai family, your father would go fight in wars often and may not come back alive. In case you were the first-born son who just lost your father, you would most likely be going through Genpuku sometime very soon to assume the position of the head of your family. If you were 5 at that time, so be it.

Of course people at that time must have questioned the ability of a child to take on adult responsibilities, but transitioning juvenile minds into mature ones was extremely important in order to protect the family and also the child himself.

When an influential samurai family goes to war against another giant, the winner of the battle must make sure the head of the opponent is either killed in battle or captured and then beheaded later (or, the losing family head and his family would at times commit suicide before enemy troops got to them, in order to maintain their dignity through not allowing the opponent to take their lives. Life was hard in the middle ages).

My point here is that the life of a Japanese samurai boy is no joke. No matter how old you are, if your family loses in war, you and your family’s done with. So boys had to know what’s coming up and be mentally ready for it. The Genpuku ritual and the way children are treated thereon highlight the importance of becoming mentally mature in Japanese culture.

Nowadays, Genpuku does not take place (except in a few areas in Japan which do it as a cultural formality) and of course no family is readying their children for war. However, reaching maturity still means much more than the right to drink and vote in Japan. Japanese people’s politeness comes partly from their adaptation to the social expectations they have faced growing up in Japan.

4. Politeness is built into the language

A Japanese English learner would always wonder why the English language is just so bizarrely simple.

“Why would you speak to an elder person or your boss the same way you do with your peers?” “Why would you speak to a customer the same way you do with your colleagues?” “Don’t they think that’s rude?”

These are questions that arise as a Japanese person exposes him/herself to a language that does not share the 4 degrees of politeness the Japanese language carries.

In Japaneses, there can be up to 4 different ways to state the same idea using a single word as a base, and you choose which form to use depending on your position relative to the counterpart. In effect, you distinguish the degree of politeness you want to express in 4 levels (there are technical names for each but I’m not going to go into that much detail here).

Degree of politeness Counterpart
Politest A superior or customer
Polite Anyone you’re not close with
Neutral Your close friends, colleagues, family members, someone younger than you
Condescending your children or someone you disrespect out of anger

Take the word 返せ which means “give it back to me” as an example. Here are the 4 different ways it can be said to alter the degree of politeness.

How it’s worded The communicated nuance
返していただけますか
Kaeshite itadake masuka
Could you please return it to me?
返してください
Kaeshite kudasai
Please return it to me.
返して
Kaeshite
Give it back to me.
返せ
Kaese
Give it back you piece of ****

The most commonly spoken form in everyday adult life is the “Polite” degree. Politeness is prominently built into the Japanese language, and therefore, it’s second nature for Japanese people to treat others politely.

Observing mannerisms is a priority for the average Japanese

Whenever we interact with an unfamiliar person in an unfamiliar place, the first thing we think about is how not to be rude. We believe there are certain codes of conduct in every occasion because, well, there is an extensive list of do’s and don’ts for every Japanese occasion: first-time meetings with a client, meals with a client, weddings, funerals, even visits to a friend’s home and drinking parties.

If you don’t observe the codes of conduct, or even if you are simply not aware of them, people will frown at you and may remember you as a vulgar or immature personality. It’s no surprise some Japanese people would even pay to learn at mannerism classes, and leaning up their seats after a soccer game was just an obvious Japanese move.

As the number of foreign visitors, university students and immigrants have increased significantly over the past decade, younger generations in Japan tend to have a more open mind growing up in a such an international environment. They may be more lenient about mannerisms, but they too still look up to people who know how to get by the right and polite way at any given situation.