I was raised in a very polite household. Through strict instruction, politeness became one of my core values; the Golden Rule forever in my heart. Hence, I was very drawn to Nitobe’s discussion of politeness in Japanese culture, and the perspectival differences between the American and Japanese versions of politeness. In his book Bushido, Nitobe introduces these opposing approaches, stating, “The American speaks of the material which makes the gift; the Japanese speaks of the spirit which prompts the gift” (Nitobe, pg. 70). This is certainly a loaded sentence. I appreciate the difference between the sentiments of, “I deem your position or friendship worthy enough for this gift,” and, “There is no gift comparable to the worth of your position or friendship, but please accept this gift anyhow.” In the first scenario, it seems as if the gift is the treasure, while in the later the true treasure is in fact the individual receiving the gift. Consumerism is not politeness, only consumerism.
I also appreciate the Japanese definition of politeness, that being “the outward manifestation of a sympathetic regard for the feelings of others” (Nitobe, pg. 65). This belief was cemented by Nitobe’s example of two men standing in the hot sun. Rather than politeness being built upon praise, it is built upon sympathy. In the “sun” example, if the man were praising the other, he would forgo his shade for the other man. Instead, he sacrifices his shade with the other man. By changing one word, the sentiment is flipped upside down. This latter action, however, does not exemplify the Golden Rule because the action of suffering with another is selfless. The Golden Rule, “Do unto others as you would wish other do unto you,” requires selfishness, and hence, the Japanese perspective of politeness is above the westerner’s fundamental maxim of politeness.
Given this, I believe that only the Japanese revere politeness properly. To me, Americans conceive interpersonal connection as the highest achievement of social encounters. To the Japanese, however, connection falls under the auspices of politeness, and therefore only politeness is “the ripest fruit of social intercourse” (Nitobe, pg. 65). Because there is no interpersonal feat higher, only the Japanese respect politeness properly.