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Baffling Japanese Politeness - At The Movies

It’s well-known that Japan is very particular on politeness. Polite behavior shown by the Japanese can be either good or bad, and is deeply ingrained in their culture, as has been discussed in a previous article. This article focuses on a specific situation where the Japanese viewpoint of politeness is hard to comprehend for the non-Japanese – and perhaps among the Japanese as well. The situation in question is, as the article title suggests, while you're at the movies.

Imagine yourself inside a movie theatre hall in Japan, about to watch a show – let’s say an action-comedy. Before the movie starts, as you plunk down comfortably onto a seat, and you see the big screen displaying messages requesting the audience to switch off their mobile phones. This is pretty normal, and is not unique to Japan. By the way, food or tidbits that make noise when you chew or bite on them is taboo. Fair enough, since disturbing the others while the movie is screening is not a nice thing. More and more people stream in and take their seats. By the way, everyone here is Japanese, besides you. So far, so good(read: normal). As the minutes pass by, even though nothing seems out of place, an unexplainable, strange sense of uneasiness slowly envelops you…

The movie finally starts. You see scenes of awesome action, tragically funny scenes, witty lines traded among the characters. Half an hour has passed. The sense of uneasiness is still there. Then, you realize that, apart from the sounds coming from the speakers, the entire hall is eerily silent.

To be precise, it has been silent since the start of the show. No matter how cool the scene, you did not hear even a single “Wow!”. During the funny scenes, not even a muffled laugh was heard.

No, you’ve not been transported into Dimension X. The answer - the Japanese have turned into robotic statues(literally. Okay, not really literally, but close enough), gazing intensely at the screen, absorbing every single second of the show.

That’s not to say that they don’t enjoy those cool or comedic scenes. Rather, they control their emotions and don’t let them show. Why? So as not to disturb the others, of course.

Now, being considerate is all fine and dandy, but to the extent where you can't express yourself freely at the movies? Sure, the Japanese restrain themselves in their daily lives – in particular at work – which is pretty much understandable, especially if you've lived in this country for a while. But they can't even let their hair down during entertainment time. It's just... unnatural.

And in case you’re skeptical, the Japanese do enjoy the show they watch – or at least make a pretense of it. The most obvious evidence is right at the end, when the credits roll. Japanese people remain in their seats and continue looking at the big screen, until the credits have finished rolling. Not all of them do, but a large majority seems to be literally glued to their seats during this time… This means that if your seat is right in the middle of the row, you can either struggle to walk out – while obstructing the view of your neighbours – or stay seated and wait until they start to move their butts.

Welcome to Japan, folks.

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