Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Modesty and Humility

The Japanese are modest and humble. They never speak proudly of members of their family even if they are proud of them. For example, my son's Japanese language teacher once told me, "My stupid son finally graduated from a college." It was her way of expressing humility. She didn't mean that her son barely earned credits to graduate. As a matter of fact, I know that her son actually graduated from Harvard with honors.

The culture of playing yourself down and praising others is considered to be modest and humble. Even I did not always appreciate this idea of Japanese virtue. I still sometimes take other Japanese literally, at face value, and make significant mistakes.

This concept of polite humility is at times inverted into a false polite complement to others. For instance, when a Japanese writes in an email, "It was a pleasure meeting you. Please give me a call." in Japanese, he may not really mean it. If you call him, you may get a cold reply.

Though I'm a Japanese, born and raised there, for some reason, my upbringing didn't encourage me to nurture modesty and humility. Frankly, I think I still haven't learned it. It still astonishes me, the extent to which this is ingrained. I was recently surprised by a young 9-year-old Japanese girl, who modestly announced "I am not smart." A masterful performance of humility; I knew she was an honors student.