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Bow And Snap March 12, 2008

Posted by Mitch in Life in Japan.
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As you are all no doubt aware, bowing is quite important over in this corner of the world. That said, I think it may only be limited to Japan as, when I was in Vietnam, I got the weirdest looks when I bowed at someone; it now being routine.

At the beginning of the class, the kids have to all be paying attention, stood by their desks, ready to start their learning. There’s is a short speech said by a preordained student, everyone says Onegai shimasu (which is sort of like thanking someone in advance. I think the literal translation is “Do me a favour”, but that doesn’t really fit it all the time) and then they bow.

Following the 45-50 minutes that a lesson occupies, the students again rise, thanking you for what you have done and this is followed by another bowing. For both events, the teacher also joins in, therefore initially telling the students that he/she hopes that they learn something from what they are about to experience and then thanking the students for their attention (or at very least, their presence) during the class.

At a recent gathering, I remarked that I found this quite nice. The students must stand there and, for those few minutes at least, pay attention and respect their teacher. It just seems to me to be polite – even though they may not be going through this thought process, it’s almost as though they’re thanking you for having prepared a lesson for them. Obviously, school kids think different, but I still quite like the premise behind it. Another English teacher there commented that he felt the whole debacle was disingenuous and, on the whole, a farce. He said that if the kids wanted to bow to him, then fine, but the fact that they are forced to doesn’t sit well with him.

I’ve been pondering this on and off for a couple of weeks now and decided that I really needed to put this down in words. When kids are growing up in England, they are taught to say ‘please’ and ‘thank you’. Even if you’re not very grateful for something, etiquette dictates that you say ‘thank you’. It’s just the way you’re brought up. When you’re older you’re allowed to make your own decisions as to your responses to things, but when you’re younger the default through which to teach is politeness. You can never be too polite.

And so this man saying that making the kids say ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ isn’t right, doesn’t quite ring true to how he himself must have been brought up. At the end of the day, it is just politeness; instilling respectful behaviour in kids. It’s what we do in our ‘civilised’ world – we grit our teeth and we act nicely to those around us, even if we can’t stand them/will ignore what they’ve said/resent them for having done something (delete as applicable).

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