Flexible Focus #23: Manners make the man

by William Reed on October 14, 2010

An intriguing way to experience flexible focus is through time travel, in whatever way you can. The cinema easily transports us to other places and times, and for an hour or so we are able to experience life from a completely different point of view. Whereas Science Fiction takes us into the future, and Fantasy takes us out of time altogether; Time Travel films have an interesting way of helping us visit the past. One of my favorites is Kate and Leopold (2001), starring Meg Ryan and Hugh Jackman, in which a man living in the 1870s is transported through a time tunnel to modern day New York. The contrast in cultures shows what we have lost or forgotten over the last century in our rush to modernize everything.

This corresponds to just after the end of the Edo Period (1603~1868) in Japan, an extended period of seclusion from the outside world, in which many aspects of Japanese culture and manners were highly developed and became deeply rooted. Many of them persisted well into the 20th Century, and though they are but shadows of their original form, sometimes they live just beneath the surface, as if they had just grown dormant.

There is a quiet but vital movement today to bring Edo Manners back, as an indigenous way of repairing the damage that seems to be unraveling many fine features of Japanese culture.

Manners in Japan used to be the core of communication. Measured in body language, good manners revealed character. A person’s posture (shisei) was considered synonymous with his or her attitude and upbringing.

Today a more casual attitude prevails, and this has led to a deterioration of manners once taken for granted. Lack of consideration for others results in get out of my way behavior. In small ways it shows when young people sit in the Silver Seat while old people stand. In larger ways it manifests in the increase in corporate and political scandals, and in the rising rate of violent crime.

Koshikawa Reiko is the founder of the NPO Edo Shigusa (www.edoshigusa.org), and the author of many books, including a Manga version, Edo Shigusa Nyūmon (Manga-ban), published in 2007 by Sangokan. Her books and lectures contend that Edo manners are a fundamental but endangered aspect of Japanese social behavior, and show many examples contrasting traditional manners with modern behavior.

Eight of my favorite Edo Shigusa

Edo Shigusa goes far beyond etiquette. It shows how to live with respect, culture, and style. In Edo Shigusa, we find many words worth keeping.

Act now, think on your feet (Soku Jikkō)

Japanese have a traditional distaste for talk in the form of excuse making. People were told that in problem solving it was more important to be hands on than to talk on. This is basis of kaizen, or continuous improvement, in which you think as you work, and make improvements as you go.

Use your sixth sense (Kan)

Much effort was made to refine the senses and develop the ability to intuit what was going on, rather than waiting to be told. This led to exceptional development in many aspects of culture and craftsmanship.

Answer with one yes (‘‘Hai!’’ wa ichido kiri)

It was considered important to answer immediately, and with a single yes, to show that you were fully attentive and ready to act. To say yes twice was considered flippant and rude, as in ‘‘Yeah, yeah. What do you want?’’

Pretend not to notice (Toki ni wa, mite minai furi)

If it spared a person’s dignity or gave them a chance to avoid embarrassment, it was sometimes considered best to pretend you didn’t notice. Helping a person save face led to loyalty and trust.

View the positive side of things (Yō ni toraete)

In Edo culture complainers were thought to be energy drainers. It was not only more pleasant to be around people who were positive, it was more energizing and productive too.

Don’t cross your arms or legs (Udekumi Ashikumi shigusa)

Crossed arms were considered to be a sign of stubborness or a closed mind, while crossed legs showed a lack of respect. In both cases, crossing your limbs also made you less ready for action, and more vulnerable to injury or attack. In less casual times, bad posture showed bad attitude.

Don’t cut across in front of people (Yokogiri shigusa)

In pedestrian traffic it was considered rude to cut across in front of someone. Even today, many Japanese signal with their hand before crossing in front of you.

Be polite in momentary encounters (Sokunoma tsukiai)

Edo was crowded and busy. Daily life included many brief encounters with people characterized by greetings, which were the lubrication of communication. In brief encounters, a smile, a polite word, a gesture of kindness can go a long way.

To start integrating these Edo Manners in your life, you can download the EDO SHIGUSA MANDALA, and begin making notes on what it means to you, how people respond to you differently, and how the Edo Shigusa Way works as well for us today.

On Tuesday, August 4, 2009, Reiko Koshikawa did a presentation at the Hotel Kabuki, in San Francisco, sponsored by the Japan Society, Japanese Chamber of Commerce, Japan Airlines, and others. The pamphlet created for this presentation is a treasure, containing fascinating definitions of many Edo Shigusa terms, in categories including the Edo outlook on humanity, view of the world, thoughtfulness, manners, taboos, and the Edo outlook on work. Download the Edo Shigusa Piazza Pamphlet, and enjoy a view of world that has much to teach our own. You can select the most meaningful Edo Shigusa for you, and create your own Mandala chart as a reminder to work on practicing it in your life.

Edo Shigusa is about consideration for others, having a positive attitude, and showing respect in body language and behavior. Many of the lessons from Edo Shigusa make good sense to us today. We learn this behavior by watching others. But as Fred Astaire said, the hardest job kids face today is learning good manners without seeing any.


William ReedWilliam Reed specializes in applying practical wisdom from Japanese and Asian culture to solving the problems of modern business and living. He is the author of the Flexible Focus column on Active Garage, the syndicated column Creative Career Path and the book A Zoom Lens for Your life. William is also a Representative Director and Co-Founder of EMC QUEST Corporation, which provides Coaching for Communication and Change, World Class Speaking™, and Accelerated Action with GOALSCAPE™.
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