‘Sorry’ he says, ‘Thank You’ he means: Some Japanese Manners I’ll Never Understand

Tell you something – I actually went to Japan ten years ago. And at that time I was very, very Malaysian. I am one obviously, but the point here is I’d never lived abroad.

And if you’re wondering why I’m emphasising my nationality, let me answer you by giving a brief intro on how we Malaysians carry ourselves in our daily lives. See for yourself, the boorish and selfish ways that Malaysians so fondly indulge in on an everyday basis.

If you’re from a more pleasant and polite part of the globe, reaffirm to yourself that the grass is not greener on the other side.

Malaysian style

Malaysia littering fine sign buang sampah denda

The sign says,”No littering, RM500 fine.”

Malaysia KFC staff assaults customer

I can’t stand Malaysian customer service. It isn’t common for the staff to smile, greet or say thank you to their customers. Frowning at customer feedback is also the norm and in some cases the customer is even assaulted. Just like in this infamous Youtube clip at a local KFC branch.

Malaysia double parking

Double parking: Malaysia’s solution to the lack of space problem.

Malaysia unethical car parking style

An even smarter solution.

Kiasu Malaysians in restaurant

Malaysians (and Singaporeans) possess a common trait: being kiasu (scared of losing out). A very good example is captured on this video: a group of Malaysians immediately rush and gobble up a tray of food which was just served for fear of losing out to the other customers. Many times we usually take as much as we can – the reason? “Just in case.”

To summarise it, what works best for a Malaysian is what works best for himself without regard to the people around him. And I was in Japan as the physical embodiment of this philosophy.

So you could say that going to an advanced and developed country enlightened me, on the other hand, that the grass elsewhere is indeed greener.

In Japan, people always say thank you. And smile. And receive customers’ complaints with utmost professionalism and patience. Cars are parked properly, the drivers have good road manners and oh, the streets are clean. These are some of the many heartwarming sights that match Tokyo’s modern setting so congruently.

Which also means that the Malaysian gaijin me stood out like a sore thumb.

Nail that sticks out should be hammered down Japanese saying

The Japanese have a saying that the nail which sticks out should be hammered down. So I’m lucky that I returned to Malaysia without any significant change in height.

There’s an incident I’ll forever while in Osaka City at night. I was walking along the streets, solo of course, and I reached a crowded pedestrian crossing. The traffic light was red.

The Japanese follow the rules very closely without bending them. You see, the other end of the road was just a second’s dash away. There wasn’t a need for a traffic signal; the in-between distance was so small that a pair of eyes and common sense would’ve sufficed. However, everyone remained stationary even though there obviously weren’t any vehicles around.

And of course, I dashed across. As I said, common sense right? Well…common in Malaysia at least, but definitely not in Osaka – when I realised that I was the only one who ran across, a huge rush of embarrassment flooded me. Welcome to Japan.

And so, recalling this and the many other poor Malaysian manners I used to have, I pledged that in my second trip to Japan I’d carry myself more properly and respectfully.

By then, 10 years had passed and I can bravely say that I’d improved my etiquette significantly. Being in salad bowl Singapore had exposed me to the many good habits that the other nationalities around me possess; I’d changed so much that I actually feel like a foreigner in Malaysia sometimes.

So Tokyo again, November 2012. I was confident in the new me. I was sure that I wouldn’t screw up like ten years ago.


So sure indeed.

However, what I’d experience there reminded me that etiquette and manners are never universal. What’s considered okay and normal in one place is abhorred and despised in another. The grass may be much greener on the other turf but we might think of it as slime.


Japanese Manners

Sometimes, the Japanese express their gratitude differently. There’s a ‘thank you’ in probably every language in every country, but in Japan it’s not always used…at least in three situations I came across.

In each of these three encounters I held the door open for an elderly citizen to enter a shop or cafe.

As is usual of Japanese etiquette, all the elderly men smiled and uttered a nicety but the unusual part was the nicety itself: it was ‘sorry’Yes, sumimasen. And I went, “What?!”

I was simultaneously amazed and amused..though eventually I got the meaning behind it. You just have to look at it from the angle of another culture. “Sorry for troubling you to hold the door,” which is another way of saying, “Thanks for holding it open.” Same feeling, different expression aye?

Though I can’t ever imagine myself saying to my future wife:


“Sorry for troubling you to love me.”

No I just can’t. And I bet that the Japanese would surely agree with me on this.


Even a simple everyday thing like getting on the bus proved to be a source of embarrassment. In Singapore, Malaysia and probably just about everywhere, it’s considered polite to enter after those inside the vehicle have already alighted.

And in Japan I did just that. Be considerate to the passengers inside who need to leave. They all came out; I didn’t barge in, I was a good gaijin. After the coast seemed clear, my body started to move; I telegraphed my intention to enter.

The bus driver told me to wait. Again, I was the only guy rushing in when everyone else just remained where they were. The driver checked the vehicle for a second or two, then said douzu (welcome). That’s when everyone started moving in.

Yup, douzu – the magic word you must hear before you enter. Who knew that the Japanese version of Open Sesame actually works.


And oh, I saw people skipping the red light this time around. Are the Japanese slowly getting more flexible in interpreting the rules? Or are the grouches of the elderly Japanese true: that the young generation, heavily influenced by Western liberalism, are slowly losing their traditional values of obedience and compliance?

Street crossing Asakusa, Tokyo, Japan

Nah it’s green; I’m putting this up for decorative purposes only 😛


If you work in a Japanese company, you’ll notice that the Japanese will squat whenever they’re at a colleague’s workspace to talk about something. The colleague who is approached remains seated.

Now this is one thing that I’ll never ever understand no matter how diluted my Malaysian mind is. When I first saw it I was so very amused that I immediately asked my Japanese colleague just what the hell was it all about.

Japanese colleague squats at workplace
Drawn by me, based on the way it usually happens. Female colleagues crouch way more often than the males. And luckily, the position of the male is as what it is in the picture. If the front of his body was to face the female colleague, I wouldn’t think of this whole squatting thing as manners at all.. if you get my implicit meaning.

He explained that it’d be considered rude to talk to a sitting colleague from a standing position because your eyes would be literally looking down on his while he ‘looks up’ to you. This is worse if the colleague is your boss.

So to be polite, you’ll need to crouch so that you’re looking up to him, eyes-wise again while he ‘looks down’ on you. It’s okay for him to ‘look down’ on you because it’s you who’s initiating the conversation with him, presumably to ask for a favour.

Like seriously, WHAT?!


Japanese bow

My conclusion of Japanese manners is it’s extremely appealing and somewhat strange at the same time. We love the Japanese because of their exceptionally unique, refined and humble style of politeness but many times these acts of politeness are stretched a little too far.

I mean, there’s a fine line between being pleasantly modest and coming across as lacking in self-confidence. I’m very tempted to conclude that Japanese manners incline towards the latter. In their desire to be respectful, they put themselves down a little too much.

However when I compare this with the sheer arrogant and boorish behaviour of some Westerners and Chinese I’ve come across, I start to appreciate the Japanese way of carrying one’s self.

What’s your take on the Japanese way of politeness? Do you prefer your own grass?


9 comments on “‘Sorry’ he says, ‘Thank You’ he means: Some Japanese Manners I’ll Never Understand

  1. Great blog post, loved reading this. I grew up in America, but was raised by two parents from Japan so it wasn’t such a shock to me when I went over there. One thing I love about Japan is the customer service. America’s used to be alright, it’s steadily been going down the the drain. Especially the teenage workers at fast food joints and stores at the mall. They are so freakin rude, I just want to slap half of them across the face and ask why their parents didn’t teach them any manners. I’ll be off to Japan and Hong Kong in a little over a week for a month’s trip, looking forward to interacting with people who know the meaning of proper etiquette!

    • I was in the US some time back (2000), the service was good as far as I remember. I guess it’s going down everywhere, even in my country. And nope, I don’t think Hong Kong should be associated with good etiquette 😛 The people there are unfriendly and somewhat rude in my experience.

      • Lol, since I’ve never been to Hong Kong I gave them the benefit of the doubt by including them in the proper etiquette category. Sorry to hear your poor opinion of Hong Kong’s citizens. I guess it’s no surprise, the service at all the Chinese restaurants I’ve been to have been pretty crappy!

      • Haha tell me more about it. I’m Chinese myself (Chinese Malaysian) and the other Chinese communities I’ve been to have this typical rudeness in them, though I’ve heard that the Taiwanese are slightly better because of Japanese influence. Hong Kong is a nice place though.

  2. I happened to read your blog when I prepared my journey to Brunei and again today. Really a good post of this. However, I am little heart-broken when I saw your discussion with above reader…..Yep, I am Chinese. Anyway hope to see your new post soon.

    • Hi Phoenix, thanks for dropping by. I think I replied to your comment but it somehow didn’t get through and I only found out now – very sorry that this one came late. I understand that you might not agree with my opinion about the (lack of) manners among most Chinese people (I’m Chinese too), maybe you could tell more about our positive side? The Chinese definitely do have some good traits – not being too direct when criticising, showing courtesy to guests and insisting on splitting the bill. But in public, well, I’ve observed that we’re rather loud and self-centred.

  3. Malaysia is improving and at the moment place as the Ninth most visited country in the world and the governmnet are serious promoting tourism and launched a Malaysia tourism 2014. Its citizens are becoming more disciplined in their everyday life.The comments from visitors are getting better and by 2020, we hope to be at PAR with developed countries. Unlike USA, it is now going to drain with Trillions Of Debt and Government Shut down.

    • Hi Mior, thanks for visiting. I do think that Malaysia is showing some improvement in manners and ethics too – the number of frontline staff who say ‘thank you’ has increased compared to say 10 ten years ago. There are other improvements ‘here and there’ as well, though unfortunately when we compare ourselves with other developed countries (Japan etc), we’re still far behind. We’ll certainly need to work much harder and improve ourselves at a much faster rate if we really want to ‘get there’ by 2020. Anyway I appreciate your opinion on our country 🙂

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