May 07, 2005
JAPAN has witnessed its first case of mascara rage — at a subway station in central Tokyo. It began with a seemingly innocuous scene: a young woman, sitting on a bench, carefully applying her make-up. An old lady passed by and, as old ladies will, she vented her displeasure at the girl’s bad manners.
In a moment the 22-year-old was in a fury, grabbing and shaking her shoulders and shouting in her face. Stumbling away, the old woman fell against the side of an incoming train, suffering serious head and chest injuries. The victim was taken to hospital; the assailant ended up behind bars; and a new front was opened in Japan’s inter-generational war of good manners.
In every age and in every country older people complain about the rudeness of the young — but rarely is the gulf between the two as great as in contemporary Japan. Exposed to the corrosive crudeness of Western popular culture, young Japanese are abandoning the sometimes stifling codes of politeness for which their country is famous, while older people look on in horror.
Apart from putting on their make-up at stations, young Japanese have adopted such “vices” as swinging umbrellas, eating in public and crossing their legs on the subway. While these are minor sins elsewhere, in Japan they are being taken with the utmost seriousness.
The Tokyo Metropolitan Government has taken the step of convening a commission of eminent experts known, without a hint of irony, as the Study Group Relating to the Prevention of Behaviour that Causes Discomfort Among Numerous People in Public Places.
“A decline in manners, together with rude behaviour, is rampant,” Tokyo’s City Hall concluded in a document issued to members of the group last month. “The fact that many people turn a blind eye to rude behaviour leads to a decline in social standards and contributes to an environment that induces crime.”
How bad is it really? To the Westerner in Tokyo, the most obvious examples of bad manners are those common all over the developed world. Thoughtless cigarette smoking, bellowing into mobile phones and the enraging tinkle that emerges from headphones of a Walkman are universally acknowledged as irritants; but there are specific Japanese forms of rudeness.
Respect for personal body space is cast aside when getting on and off trains, and many Japanese men have no compunction about reading pornography in crowded carriages.
Childishly inappropriate behaviour has infected Japan’s political elite, as Junichiro Koizumi, the Prime Minister, revealed when he lectured a group of young MPs last year. “Don’t send e-mails on your cell phones or read comic books in parliament while in session,” he told them. “You can be seen very clearly from the Prime Minister’s seat. You should really stop that — it’s disgraceful.”
It is a sign of what a well-mannered country Japan is that much of what is regarded as “rude” would not raise a frown in the West. Take the list of offences compiled by the Tokyo authorities, which includes using strong perfume, carrying large bags, kissing, infants, crying, sitting on the floor and, most unexpectedly, using an umbrella to practise golf swings.
Tokyo’s subway stations are decorated with large coloured posters featuring the characters from Sesame Street. “Fold your newspaper!” they implore. “Please don’t take up too much room with your newspaper.”
Anecdotal evidence suggests that the perpetrators of such trivial offences are striking back. “I once told someone who was swinging his umbrella to stop,” said a television commentator, Noriko Kimoto. “He turned round and shouted ‘Shut up, old hag!’ It was frightening.”
Japanese in such situations face yet another problem. While it is not true that the Japanese language has no swear words, standards of vituperation are certainly lower than in English. Even the word commonly used to mean “you bastard” — kisama — is simply an impolite way of saying “you”.
The worst that one can do in daily speech would be Shine bakayaro!, which means little more than “Drop dead, you idiot!” Such is the dearth of salty invective that angry Japanese turn increasingly to a reliable English expression, pronounced the Japanese way: Fakkyuu