Obligations of Gratitude

Unwanted favors gain no gratitude.

The Japanese realize this on a conscious level. They even have a word for it. arigata-meikawu. It’s when a well-intentioned someone does you a favor, and even though it was unsolicited, social conventions dictate you express gratitude.

I experienced this for the first time two or three days after arriving in Japan. It was late at night, and I was trying to find my way back home. I forgot the way back to my sharehouse, and, my phone being dead, I couldn’t look up the address.

Then a woman in her 30s walked over.

“Do you need any help?” she offered.
“I’m g — well, I think I forgot the way home.”
“Oh! Is there any way I can help?”
“I mean, I know the name, but I don’t know the address.”
“Do you want to look it up on my phone?”

I’m touched by such earnestness, I really am. But I didn’t expect that she would also then walk me home. Maybe her house was on the way, but after hearing similar stories of Japanese acts of kindness and generosity from my fellow interns, I think it’s a cultural thing. If she would only let a guy (gai?) figure things out by himself — like they would back in Thailand or in the US — then I’d probably waste a lot of time, and she would probably save a lot of hers. What is it about Japanese culture that fosters such a strong sense of community?

I can’t give a satisfying answer, but I see it everywhere here. When someone goes on holiday, they bring back gifts for their family, friends, and coworkers. At drinking events, everyone has their drink poured for them. Even during conversations, the listener often peppers the conversations with hais to show they are listening.

I think it has to do with reciprocity. The nomikai, or corporate drinking party offers a metaphor for Japanese interaction. Employees are usually expected to participate in the occasional drinking event. An employee, usually of lower rank, will offer to pour a drink for his superior, who will reciprocate. It’s not about gaining favor so much as it is about preserving harmony. It’s also why saying no, or refusing a drink in Japan can be considered rude. You’ve refused the obligation to pour your neighbor his drink.

And because it has to do with the tacit obligation to reciprocate, these little acts of kindness don’t happen in the US. It doesn’t make sense to do someone a huge favor if it won’t be reciprocated, and it’s unnerving for the beneficiary who feels like they’re being buttered up for a future request. It’s beyond arigata-meikawu, where the benefactor probably has good intentions. They expect, either now or further down the line, to find out what the free lunch costs. In other words, receiving a favor directly opposes the American ideal of freedom.

But in Japan, where the worst an act of kindness can be understood is just as arigata-meikawu, generosity flourishes and is reciprocated on a societal level.

Maybe that’s why they’re so advanced.