Playing the politeness game

Something funny happened at football practice the other week. It was a usual training practice for the Fukui Fist FC, in a local athletic ground that many people use for all sorts of sports. There are often kids clubs, or fathers flying kids with their children and there are always elderly people power walking the perimeter of the park. It’s the ‘public’ kind of field, or so we thought.

About twelve of us had just started playing a game when an official-looking Japanese woman appeared at one of the goal posts. She started speaking to Yuki*, a new Japanese member to our team, and explained the problem. The game stopped, the ball was picked up and people gathered closer to overhear the conversation. As I couldn’t catch her Japanese, I watched the reaction of Ryota, a Japanese man whose football skills holds our team together. He turned away from the woman and I could see him mouthing “Bull*~@>” to our other players, and started ranting about what she was saying to us.

Then Yuki, not knowing what to do, called Ryota over to speak to the official woman himself. Suddenly, the anger had gone from his eyes and he did the lowest bow I’ve ever seen. His nose must have skimmed his knees as he bent in two in front of her! He had to do the Japanese thing in this situation, apologise deeply and cohere to authority, with no argument and definitely no cursing.

After the woman had walked away, Ryota explained the situation. It turns out that the woman works for the athletic park, and for an organised team of people to use the green space, they need to make a reservation first. This is all and well, but when the woman told us that we had to stop playing right at that moment, we were outraged! We looked across the green, weedy field with its bunkers and pit holes and saw one lone man running about with a football. We wondered if he needed a reservation too!

Learning the rules

Although the strictness of the athletic park’s rules verges on the ridiculous, it was the incoherence of the first and second reaction of Ryota that surprised me the most! How easily he hid his annoyance, behind a mask of Japanese politeness. Trying to argue with the authority is just not done in Japan, well not if people are following the rules.

The concept of sunao means a variety of things, from “gentle, mild, meek, obedient, submissive, docile, compliant, yielding”, qualities which may imply a weak character in the West. Yet here, being passive towards authority and adhering to social etiquette to avoid conflict are qualities that are instilled in people from a young age. I see this in how junior high school students who come into the first grade with the same childlike qualities of elementary school; shouting out, getting out their seats, asking questions but within their behaviour changes and soon there are just one or two students who will voluntarily speak up in class. This is done by the strictness of the school rules; being punctual, greeting teachers loudly and cleaning in silence must all contribute to the quietness of second grade students who seem to adhere to the school rules with hardly any complaint or questioning. 

The play of politeness, where everyone knows their place and people follow the unspoken cues from society of how to maintain a group-orientated society. I saw Ryota’s true feelings about the situation when he threw his arms up and cursed in English to his team mates, but he so easily gave in to the woman in charge, because, that is the Japanese thing to do.

In defiance of the rules, our football team went back the following week with no reservation and again were thrown off the pitch. Now, we’ve moved to another field. We have given in and are following the rules. It’s the done thing in Japan.

Bowing-like-a-Japanese*Names have been changed.

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