How many times have you heard this? Yes, many Japanese people are polite. But in what sense?
Recently I've been thinking - Japanese society is focused on etiquette, not courtesy. What I mean is that Japanese people have some very clear ideas about acceptable behavior, and ritualized manners out the wazoo. In other words, a lot of people here can be schmucks without being impolite by Japanese standards. Don't get me wrong - there are plenty of nice, warm, courteous Japanese. But this country also has its fair share of asshats, and that's a fact.
Chris recently wrote a post about rude old people in Japan. While I certainly wouldn't go so far as to say they deserve to die, I agree with his observation of these people's existence. This isn't limited simply to old people, but there are many here who feel a certain sense of superiority or entitlement. Age only strengthens this unsavory characteristic. I know what you're thinking, and you're right. It isn't unique to Japan. But it is somewhat more rampant here in the East, among the cultures that have been influenced by Confucianism. I have nothing against respect for the elderly; many of them have earned it. But that doesn't excuse riding your bicycle wherever the hell you feel like or expecting traffic (either vehicular or pedestrian) to go around you.
Now if you've been to Japan or been exposed to the culture, you'll know that there are set phrases and patterns of behavior for all kinds of situations: entering someone's home, starting or ending meals, asking someone for a favor, etc. Though it can be daunting to a newcomer, it's actually quite nice - there's something to say for every circumstance, and if you know the words you don't need to stumble around for something to say.
Japan is a culture of dualities, however. While set phrases abound, sincere courtesy can sometimes be surprisingly absent. Take the simple courtesy of holding a door for someone. Yes, yes, I know some of you may say that this is a Western manner and we can't expect Japanese people to do it. Well that's garbage. I have seen Japanese people holding doors for others. And I've seen people give up their seats on the train or the bus for the elderly or those with children. They just happen to be rarer occurrences than you might think in the Land of the Polite.
I hope you don't think I'm being unfair to the Japanese. Some of the warmest and kindest people I've met have been Japanese. But that is the individual versus the whole society, and I wanted to set the record straight on my perception of politeness in Japan.
What set off this diatribe? I had dinner at an Indian restaurant near my house, and there were two tables of young Japanese men nearby. And they weren't rude, but they certainly weren't polite. No "please," no "thank you." No 「いただきます」or 「ごちそうさま」 ("thank you for the meal," set phrases usually said before and after eating). Just "Chicken curry."
And this isn't uncommon, nor was it simply because the sever was female. I frequent several restaurants and often observe the same kind of behavior. And you know, it kind of pisses me off.
Maybe it's a lack of cultural sensitivity on my part, but I find it pretty messed up that it's considered unspeakably impolite to walk into someone's house without taking off your shoes, but meanwhile common manners like saying "please" and "thank you" can easily be foregone.