The Japanese believe politeness engenders order, safety and cleanliness – core values to live by
The Japanese believe a polite society is one in which respect and consideration is shown to others. Photograph: Sankei via Getty Images
Although they are ubiquitous, Japanese people rarely notice the grooved lines on their pavements. Every footpath that is wide enough seems to have these extruding lines. They inhibit the smooth movement of prams, wheelchairs and trolleys. In the rain or snow, they can be a hazard for the cyclists who share pavements with pedestrians. They are expensive to maintain.
But these lines serve a purpose. With their prominently raised grooves they provide a means for blind people to traverse the city. They can feel these footpath guides with their feet or follow them with walking canes.
These pavement guides are symbols of a polite society – material evidence of a culture that accepts small inconveniences to the majority to help a few. What other material manifestations of these values exist in Japan?
A polite society is a caring society
The Oxford Dictionary defines politeness as “having or showing behaviour that is respectful or considerate of other people”.
Where to place your handbag is a small dilemma for women in restaurants. Do you put it on a seat? On the floor? In Japan, baskets are provided to hold handbags and shopping bags.
Restaurants, cafes, ATMs and some apartment blocks provide shelves on which to rest handbags or wallets when conducting a transaction or searching for keys.
In day-to-day transactions, a small tray is used to transfer money. This is more convenient than passing coins and notes from hand to hand. It is easier to see what money is proffered, so there is less chance of confusion. Usually a small bin is provided for unwanted receipts.
Occasionally park benches have small tables included in their design.
Public telephone booths are wheelchair-friendly. The equipment is placed at a height that makes it easy for people in wheelchairs to access. Public lockers still exist.
A polite society is an orderly society
The word polite comes from the Latin politus, to polish or make smooth. Creating order by ensuring predictable behaviours is one way of making life smooth.
Subway stations have arrows to indicate where people should line up, on either side of the train door, so those alighting are not inconvenienced.
The train stops at a pre-determined point, so the doors line up with the platform openings. The platform is fenced so people cannot fall on to the tracks.
On the shinkansen long-distance train, there is an arrow to indicate which side of the train to alight. This prevents confusion and smooths people’s exit from the train.
A polite society is a safe society
It is polite to care for the safety of strangers.
A toddler highchair can be found in many public toilets. It keeps a child safe while the adult is occupied.
As in Australia, flag holders shepherd children across major crossings before and after school. In Japan, small yellow flags are placed near crossings outside these times. Children can carry a flag as they cross the street – if they wish.
Sometimes handrails on stairs are designed to provide support at each step.
A polite society is a clean society
Shelves to hold outdoor shoes are part of the design of most houses and apartments. Shoe cupboards also can be found in restaurants, shrines and temples. Taking your shoes off when you enter someone else’s space shows respect for the property of others.
Often Japanese toilet seats are warmed. Functions on their control panels can include spray and bidet options, a deodoriser and music to provide privacy.
Archaeology of the contemporary world
Disciplines such as linguistics and cultural studies help us understand human behaviours. But archaeology is the only discipline that focuses purely on material culture. We live in a material world. Our behaviours are shaped by the materials around us.
Archaeology can help identify the core values of a society – those things that are so normalised that people don’t notice them. One comment from a Japanese woman on the handbag baskets and footpath guides was:
It is normal, so I didn’t notice. I can see it now.
The absence of objects can tell a story. Handbag baskets are missing in cafes such as Starbucks, Mr Donut, Aux Bacchanales and Cafe Barbara. These cafes provide a European or American atmosphere. Japanese-style handbag baskets would be an anomaly.
Not everything described above is unique to Japan. South Korea has similarly styled toilets. The grooved pavement guides for the blind have appeared in Australia. Plastic sheaths to hold dripping umbrellas are now in high-end New York restaurants. But the constellation of material objects relating to politeness is peculiarly Japanese.
Some Japanese may find the degree of care and politeness embodied by the material culture surrounding them suffocating. Some may fear that it could cause antagonism against those who are the subject of care, like the backlash against political correctness being witnessed across the world.
Does Australia have anything that Japan doesn’t? Yes! The new $5 note, designed with a raised bump so blind people can identify it.
Can Australia learn from Japan? Certainly. Material culture in Japan is designed to smooth people’s lives. More subtly, it acts as a reminder to be aware of the needs of others. The material culture we adopt can help our society be more orderly, safe, clean and caring.
• Claire Smith is a professor of archaeology at Flinders University, Gary Jackson is a research associate in archaeology there and Koji Mizoguchi is a professor of archaeology at Kyushu University. This article was originally published on the Conversation, part of the Guardian Comment Network