If there were an international competition for good manners, Japan would always score highly. In what other country is one expected to bow before strangers unless meeting royalty, and where else does making hot tea constitute a formal ceremony?
But even this nation, steeped in its ancient rituals and virtues, is witnessing a significant shift in public behavior.
Last year on a Tokyo subway platform, commuters witnessed a literal clash of old and new manners. A 22-year-old was making some last minute adjustments to her makeup when she was approached by an older woman who criticized her conduct as entirely inappropriate. In New York, London or Paris makeup repair is a daily occurrence and nobody much minds. But here in Japan …
Instead of accepting the rebuke, the younger woman shouted and then shook the older woman against the side of an incoming train.
The older woman went to the hospital, the younger woman to prison, and now there's a nationwide debate over what distinguishes good and bad manners in modern Japan.
Smoking Outdoors, Even Sitting Considered Rude Behavior
Tokyo's city government has stepped into the debate. It has convened a special committee called the Study Group Relating to the Prevention of Behavior That Causes Discomfort Among Numerous People in Public Places.
The panel invited submissions to understand what most offends the people of Tokyo. The response included loud use of cell phones, sitting on subway platforms and practicing golf swings with an umbrella -- all considered rude. And the government is expected to act on these findings.
In some parts of Tokyo the campaign has already started. Posters with Big Bird and Elmo caution people to behave. Cell phone use is not allowed in most restaurants. In the airport there are even cell phone booths to help keep the noise down.
In the Chiyoda Ward business district, smoking in public is banned. Yes, banned. An anti-smoking squad is on the lookout for those delinquents who still take a drag in public. They're ushered off the streets into special public smoking rooms. If they refuse to go, they are fined on the spot.
Masahito Komamura, a senior government official who leads Tokyo's response to bad manners, argues that civil liberties should always be subject to the wider needs and expectations of the community. And no misconduct is too minor to escape notice.
"We thought that if you just ignore small misconduct then it's going to lead to a bigger problem," he explained.
From an American or European perspective, these seem like petty offences, but the Japanese have made a last-ditch effort to preserve good manners in public places.
However, others argue that holding on to good standards of public behavior is simply an exercise in futility, that Starbucks to-go has supplanted the tea ceremony as the shops and standards of the West take up residence in the East.