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Last Updated: Wednesday, 11 January 2006, 11:03 GMT
Japan bows to code of respect
By Chris Hogg
BBC News, Tokyo

Bowing soldiers
Bowing is a crucial part of showing respect in Japan

As Tony Blair battles to improve respect in the UK, life is very different in Japan.

For foreigners, or gaijin as they're known in Japan, it can take years to fully understand and appreciate the intricate social codes that govern society here.

Japan's cities are modern, exciting cosmopolitan places that on the surface, with their Starbucks coffee shops and the ubiquitous images of David Beckham on the billboards, seem much like anywhere else in the world.

But knowing your place in society and showing others the proper degree of respect is still important here, perhaps not as important to the younger generation as it was to their parents or grandparents, but still unavoidable nonetheless.

Social standing

One of the most obvious manifestations of the respect that's still so crucial here is the system of senpai and kohai.

Senpai is the Japanese word for a person in a club, or your workplace, or school or college who is your senior.

The relationship is complex. There are mutual obligations on both sides.

A kohai is expected to obey and show respect to their senpai but the relationship is like that of a mentor - the senpai is expected to guide, teach and protect their kohai to the best of their abilities.

Japanese people often meet their first senpai at school when they enrol in a club or an organisation. The relationship can last for years though.

It's not easy to describe how it works.

The new kohai are trained like soldiers or sportsmen. Through that process they learn to respect their senpai. They use a more formal and polite language to address them than they would their friends.

The obedience they learn is something they adopt in many other relationships throughout their working life.

The senpai, if they treat them well, earn their respect.

Any older person might be your senpai but your "true" senpai is someone who has earned your respect.

Respectful language

Language is at the heart of this.

There are several different levels of politeness in the Japanese language - one reason why so many gaijin find it so difficult to master.

Some argue that Japan's low crime rate is in part due to the traditional emphasis on the individual's obligation not to bring shame to a group they belong to

At the most polite levels of speech, very humble expressions are used to refer to yourself, very honorific ones are used to refer to the person you're addressing.

Some people complain that the young especially cannot use the different levels of politeness known as keigo correctly.

But in business it is still indispensable.

So what is the effect of all this respect and politeness?

Some argue that Japan's low crime rate is in part due to the traditional emphasis on the individual's obligation not to bring shame to a group they belong to: their family, their neighbours, their colleagues or their friends.

The expectations to conform, the informal social sanctions that are imposed on those who transgress have proved remarkably effective, despite the pressures of the changing society.

But it's also true that it can inhibit self-development.

It's argued that when individuals stop thinking and leave the decisions to their superiors they become dependent.

Unsociable youth

And there are concerns about the future.

In the early 1990s, more than half of all crimes in Japan were committed by juveniles.

Admittedly, 70% of those were petty thefts - stealing bikes or motorbikes for example - but now many of those people are in the workforce.

Japan's education system is blamed for failing to address the concerns of those students not academic enough to make it to university.

Some claim many of the juvenile criminals come from this group.

The issue of social interaction is also being raised.

As society changes here, a new generation of young people is becoming increasingly reclusive, sitting in their bedrooms playing video games or surfing the net.

There are also increasing numbers of women in the workforce who don't take part in the "club-like" after work drinking sessions the salary-men are famous for.

So with less interaction, less "clubbable" behaviour some might feel respect does not play as important a role here as it did a generation ago.

If I cycle home late from the office I'll still pass groups of tipsy salarymen bidding each other farewell outside the izakkya, where they've been drinking, with elaborate bows, each deeper than the one before.

To an outsider, it's hard to judge, but if the depth of the bow is anything to go by there is still a deep level of respect in business at least.





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