The Comfort of Courtesy

October 7, 2011   By KUMIKO MAKIHARA
The International Herald Tribune/The New York Times

The woman at the lost baggage counter at the Portland, Oregon, airport took down my information matter-of-factly and told me my luggage would be delivered overnight. The bag never came.

I retrieved it myself the following morning on my way to another flight after I spotted it in an unattended luggage office and discovered the door unlocked. A few minutes after my find, a delivery man phoned to say he was on his way. “I already have my bag,” I told him. “Great!” he said, sounding happy to have one less task.

Contrast that to my bags’ journey after I landed in Tokyo recently for a short visit home. At a shipping counter at Narita Airport, I arranged in a matter of minutes to have my luggage delivered to my apartment, one employee processed my paperwork and payment while another expertly whipped and tied plastic covers on my suitcases. The bags arrived within the designated two-hour window the following day.

Since my recent move to the United States, I have been struck by the unfriendly and poor service there compared to Japan. A bank teller gave me the wrong forms to fill out when I wanted to cancel a check. When I asked a flight attendant if my son could have some pretzels, she barked back, “I do the drinks first.” Apologies are rare, and people often seem on edge.

Granted, Japan usually has more employees to allocate to each task, and labor productivity is lower than in the United States. But that doesn’t fully account for the accompanying unpleasantness of the people at the window.

My worst exchanges were with the staff at a building-management office in New York City where I had filed an application to rent an apartment. The office had lost my papers, but when I inquired about them with the receptionist who had signed to accept their delivery, she simply said, “I put it in the interoffice bin. It’s out of my hands.” When I tried to pursue the matter with a man in charge of processing the forms, he angrily accused me of adding pressure to his job when he wasn’t the one who actually lost the papers.

There’s a Japanese term for such hostility: gyaku gire, literally “reverse rage.” The phrase refers to a situation in which someone who isn’t in a position to be mad unfurls fury. In other words, I was the one who should be irate, having had my papers lost, but instead the man in the office at fault was yelling at me.

I can’t find a similar term in English, which must mean there are no entitlements in the United States when it comes to rage; everyone has equal rights to that emotion.

If the bottom line is the same — or even better in the United States, since its productivity rate is higher than Japan’s — does courtesy even matter?

It did in post-earthquake Japan, where behavior like politely taking turns at intersections where traffic lights were out averted chaos and panic.

At a recent panel discussion in New York, the moderator asked whether Japan, beset with economic and political problems on top of coping with a natural disaster, still mattered to the world. Professor Gerald Curtis of Columbia University replied with a list of areas in which the country could be a global model — including civility, as in the manner in which people look after each other.

In a July survey by the English-conversation school GABA in Japan that asked parents of elementary school children what traits they wanted to foster in their children, the most frequent answer was “to be kind and considerate.” Nearly half of respondents said the desire for that character strengthened after last spring’s quake.

Many of my foreign friends say they find extreme Japanese politeness — such as the welcome greetings shouted out by every single sales staff at opening time at a department store or the disgraced officials who actually get down on their hands and knees to apologize — exaggerated and insincere.

But after three months with my guard up in the United States, while back in Tokyo I’ve been devouring Japanese courtesy like comfort food. Taking care of some paperwork at my local government office, I marveled at the way the clerk quickly but carefully checked my forms against a model sheet by running one finger over my entries while another finger traced over sections in the prototype. I sensed the pride she took in doing a job well.

When I fly out of Narita Airport, I’ll experience one last act of Japanese graciousness. Ground crew members, after servicing a plane, bow and wave their caps toward departing passengers on board. I’m going to hold onto the warm feeling that send-off gives me for as long as possible.