It’s saying something that one reason Hongkongers like visiting Japan is that the people are so polite. Another way of looking at it is that there’s so much rudeness in our city, it’s refreshing to go somewhere where citizens respect one another.
But this isn’t a matter of culture or living in a busy, crowded city. Rather, we’ve become so wrapped up in ourselves that some of us have lost the ability to care about others.
Evidence abounds of how dismissive of others we’ve become. These aren’t matters that would seem to hark back to bygone eras like taking off hats when indoors, addressing people older than us with respect rather than calling them by their first name, or saying please and thank you.
Instead, the handful of things I’ve noticed are common courtesies, and the offenders are often of younger generations. The most apparent are people talking loudly on mobile phones, smoking while walking along footpaths, not giving up seats on public transport to the needy, and closing lift doors on those approaching.
I’m especially familiar with how people treat the elderly, pregnant women and the disabled on buses and trains. There are dedicated seats, with signs and announcements to remind. Yet commuters, especially during rush hours, can seem oblivious to the courtesy to give up their seat. An elderly man or woman is left to stand feebly clutching a support, while a young person sits in the dedicated seat, eyes glued to their smartphone.
I was once caught up in an argument over such a seat. On buses, the row behind the stairs is reserved for the needy, and a woman had guided me there as I was boarding, having noticed my blind cane. She found a mother on one side and her child, perhaps three years old, sitting on the other; when asked politely to put the child on her lap to make room for me, the mother refused.
An argument along the lines of she had been there first and wasn’t giving in for anyone ensued, and eventually I was shown a seat further along the bus. I didn’t need to sit for the 20-minute journey and told my Good Samaritan so, but she had been insistent on the principle of the matter.
There’s been discussion on social media of late about priority seating, with some people contending it isn’t necessary, as giving up a place to someone in need should be automatic.
Painting a few seats red and putting smiling faces on them to indicate they are for the elderly and the like, as the MTR does in its train carriages, only shows how ignorant we have become, the argument goes.
Passengers who don’t give up their seats are sometimes condemned, their pictures being put on internet sites, leading some people to tag priority seats “condemning seats”. One widely circulated image is of a few boy scouts taking up the seats playing with their phones while several elderly women stand nearby.
Of course, there are also those who defend the youngsters, suggesting that they may have been tired after a tough day of training.
No such debate would be taking place if we were in Tokyo. There, the rules are strictly followed by all but unaware foreigners, and they quickly get the hint from the dirty looks they get from other passengers.
Japanese trains have priority seating sections and they are reserved exclusively for the needy; even when it’s rush hour, commuters will not use them. Equally striking is the rule against carrying out conversations on mobile phones, with culprits being made aware that it is taboo and impolite by the disapproving frowns of fellow passengers and announcements every 10 minutes.
This carries over to restaurants, cafes, bars and other places where people are trying to relax.
Etiquette varies from country to country, and some may consider that Japanese go too far with politeness. But when in public, we should respect others and be courteous and well-mannered. There’s nothing archaic about giving up seats or opening a door to those in need, smoking in a place where we’re not disturbing others or keeping our phone conversations quiet; it’s just common decency.
Peter Kammerer is a senior writer at the Post