We all know the Japanese are “very polite.” In Japan being polite goes beyond just saying excuse me or thank you. In Japanese, the word is “teinei.” Teinei goes beyond the English word “polite” because it applies to far more than just people and their actions. Additional meanings of the Japanese word “teinei” include courteous, careful, care, kind and conscientious. For example, in Japanese, you can treat a fragile item “politely” meaning “gently” or “with care.” And a birthday present should be wrapped “politely.”
Politeness in Japan is synonymous with respect. Putting other people first: giving them the biggest piece of cake, the best seat in the restaurant, or the center position in the photo, are all part of everyday politeness in Japan. The traditional Japanese house even has a dedicated seat for guests — the one in front of the “tokonoma” (beauty alcove), so that the guest is framed in a background of the beauty of Japanese art (hanging scrolls, ikebana, ceramics, etc).
Politeness in Japan is about respecting property. If it’s not yours, don’t take it. Just because it’s not chained down doesn’t mean it’s yours. In Japan, there is not an equivalent saying to “finders keepers . . .losers weepers”. Instead, if someone drops their hat on the sidewalk, the finder rests it on the nearest post, so it is easily visible to the person if they come back to find it.
Politeness in Japan is about being a good citizen. Don’t throw trash on the ground, and if others do, clean up after them (yes, even if you didn’t do it). Sweep the sidewalk or pathway in front of your house every day. Clean the drains in your neighborhood of leaves and debris. Take responsibility for your environment. Clean up after yourself. Do your part. Then do some more.
In short, politeness in Japan promotes harmony.