The Right Amount of Modesty

February 26, 2010 By KUMIKO MAKIHARA
The International Herald Tribune/The New York Times

TOKYO — When I e-mailed a school mother to congratulate her on her daughter’s prize-winning report, she wrote back that she didn’t know anything about it. “My daughter did it all by herself,” the mother replied. I was so impressed that a fifth grader would single-handedly research a prison break by Japanese P.O.W.s in Australia during World War II.

I should have known better.

The project displayed at school featured a page handwritten by the mother on her supervision of the research, and the forward acknowledged “my mother took me to the library and arranged the photos.” The mother had been modest with me, dismissing her daughter’s work as something a child had thrown together and not worthy of my attention.

The Japanese routinely berate themselves and praise others, upholding the culture’s traditional respect for humility. Sociologists say this behavior has helped the crowded country maintain harmonious, interpersonal relations by avoiding conflict. The right amount of modesty means assessing oneself on the harsh side with an eye toward stoic, self improvement. The humility puts others at ease.

I see the teachers at my 10-year-old son’s school trying to instill that sense into their pupils. Anything less than a perfect score means more effort was needed rather than praise for the marks achieved. In one class, the poor papers, not the good ones, are posted on the walls. The students must always strive to be better.

The baseball player Hideki Matsui displayed a shining example of unassuming dignity last year when he was named M.V.P. of the World Series. Mr. Matsui said he was asking himself, “Did I do something?” and trying not to get a big head. At the other end of the spectrum is the Mongolian wrestler Asashoryu Akinori who was recently ejected from Japan’s sumo world for various scandalous behaviors; among them, a habit of pumping his fists into the air after winning close matches. Purists charged that basking in the joy of victory — even momentarily — defiled the grace of the traditional sport.

Mr. Asashoryu’s defenders say the bar is too high to expect a young non-Japanese to respectfully hold back. Indeed, “reticence and humility” were among the top-ranked cultural behaviors believed to be puzzling for foreigners, according to a 2007 Internet-based survey of Japanese by the Web research firm Dimsdrive.

These days, even some Japanese are doing away with the deferential attitude. Japan’s Olympic snowboarder Kazuhiro Kokubo mocked the custom of public remorse after authorities banned him from attending the Opening Ceremony because he didn’t tuck in the shirttail of his national uniform. Mr. Kokubo declared his contrition in an obviously trite tone. He was forced to make a second public apology, but managed to have the final say. Sporting a bloody lip from a fall during his half-pipe run, Mr. Kokubo said, “I have absolutely no regrets about how I did or about anything else.”

More often, the self-effacement morphs into insincere auto-replies and sometimes comical white lies. After being stopped in train stations several times by police asking my nationality, I went to a local police box to inquire what was going on. An officer told me the authorities were doing a sweep of illegal immigrants. Apparently afraid that I might be offended if he said I appeared Chinese or Filipino, the flustered official turned to Japan’s historic adulation of the West. “Perhaps because you are tall, they thought you were European,” he said, even though there is nothing non-Asian about my appearance.

In another example, a woman setting up a blind date for me with her nephew warned several times that the man was “really ugly.” I was surprised to meet a normal looking person. The woman was putting down her relative to be modest and perhaps also wanted me to be pleasantly surprised. But my reaction was puzzlement over why she would stress something so untrue.

Among the school mothers, there’s a competitive streak in the self-flagellation. If one were to believe what the women say over lunch, their kids would be lazy, incompetent and bringing home the worst grades. I used to be relieved that we weren’t the only household with a child who loathes homework. But I discovered that those alleged sloths were racing ahead while we gullible folk were duped into thinking we could relax.

As for the war historian mother, I tried to outdo her by stooping lower. “The report is so advanced,” I wrote in an e-mail. “It’s an honor for us that my son may tread upon the same school corridors as your daughter.”