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There are a number of one-word phrases in the Japanese language that, try as you might, just can’t be summed up anywhere near as succinctly in English. ‘Atarimae‘ is one of them. Used to describe a situation, behaviour or feeling that is entirely natural and obvious to all concerned, the phrase has been used with tremendous frequency this week by Japanese reacting to news that people the world over were applauding their country’s football fans for cleaning up their section of the stadium after their World Cup game last weekend. “Why wouldn’t you clean up after yourself?” people asked. “It’s atarimae.”

An article published earlier today on Japan’s WirelessWire News, however, suggests that although in Japan it is considered proper to tidy up after oneself, by doing so at the World Cup stadium these fans may in fact be putting Brazilian staff out of a job, prompting netizens to debate whether they ought to follow suit and leave their trash behind or do what comes naturally to them.

In her article for the business and economics-focused news site, London-based writer Mayumi Tanimoto addresses the issue of Japan’s new-found fame as a country of well-mannered, litter-picking soccer fans. In it, she discusses how it is considered proper in Japan to clean up after oneself in public, giving the examples of outdoor rock festivals, sporting events and cherry blossom-viewing parties to illustrate the way in which the Japanese people behave in public, always gathering up their refuse and taking it home with them if there’s no place to dispose of it.

Equally, though, Tanimoto suggests that Japanese ought to be more aware of cultural standards and behaviours when abroad, suggesting that although the football fans who took it upon themselves to gather up their litter may consider it only natural to do so, they may in fact be causing trouble for others, and even doing people out of a job.

To further illustrate her point, Tanimoto talks about how, in countries such as Italy, Spain, Belgium and the UK, diners at self-service restaurants and the like frequently leave their trays, empty drinks cups and wrappers on their tables when they leave, knowing that staff are paid to clean up after customers and will see to it when they can. This, she writes, is the “atarimae” way of thinking in many countries.


In Japan, however, that’s simply not how things are done. There are no signs to say so, but people – yes, even the cool kids – gather their rubbish when they’ve finished, take it over to the dedicated tray spot and throw it away properly, even going so far as to separate paper and plastics and pour any unfinished drinks and ice into a special receptacle. If a member of staff is nearby, they’ll very often take the tray from the diner and dispose of their waste for them, but more often than not, people leave their tables as they found them, and you’re unlikely to find someone else’s rubbish, cups or plates just sitting there when you enter.

Tanimoto recalls how she, too, was guilty of doing this while abroad, tidying up after herself when visiting such establishments in numerous European countries, simply because it was how she’d always done things back in Japan. All until one day her Italian and Bolivian co-workers positively berated her for doing so, saying:

“You mustn’t take someone’s job away from them. Here, we just leave [the refuse] as it is. If you throw it away, then [staff] will find themselves without a job to do. You can’t take someone’s job away from them; there are people whose job it is to pick up the rubbish or clear away tableware. It’s not for the customer to do.”

She goes on to describe how she was told the same thing by others in Spain and the UK, summing the situation up thusly: “Although I had been trying to mind my manners, it turns out that I had become a ‘manner violator’.”

Tanimoto later writes that, as she learned when a coworker scolded her for trying to help ease their workload by doing a few jobs for them, in countries like Italy, jobs are not easy to come by; trying to ‘steal’ someone else’s job is unforgivable. Similarly, she writes, Japanese should not look down on those from other countries who do not tidy up after themselves at sporting events; these people are behaving in a manner that is natural to them, and when there are so many people in need of work – often living in low-income areas – we ought to look at the bigger picture.

Cultural awareness is of course tremendously important; to visit another country and act as you might at home will often land you in trouble, either causing offence to others or possibly even putting yourself in danger. But when it comes to a matter such as tidying up after oneself, which by its very nature makes a shared environment more pleasant to be in, is it really such a crime?

I can’t help thinking that, while there’s a lot of truth to that which Ms. Tanimoto is saying, Japanese ought not to be too quick to abandon their normal way of thinking. No one likes a busybody, and if a colleague kept on taking care of tasks assigned to you it’s only natural to become concerned that it may reflect badly on you or that they might be trying to take your job, but if anything there are a few countries, my native UK included, whose people could do with being a little more mindful of others. If the Japanese want to be so sweet as to clear their table in McDonald’s, or pick up their rubbish when they leave the football stadium, then I for one am not going to tell them, “Hey, that’s not what people do here.”

Thankfully, it seems that there are plenty of Japanese out there who, while they appreciate the underlying message Ms. Tanimoto makes, weren’t about to abandon their way of doing things any time soon. After the article was picked up by hugely popular bulletin board site Hamster Sokuhou, netizens took to their keyboards to weigh in on the matter.

“You’re saying we should make a mess to give these people a job?”

“Just because that’s the way it is doesn’t mean I want to be the kind of person who just tosses their trash.”

“Yeah, but where does the money to pay the cleaners come from? Ticket sales–it’s our own money.”

“Huh. I guess I never thought of it that way. But I’m glad Japan isn’t that kind of country.” 

“If the workers get paid by the amount they pick up, then [the Japanese fans who cleaned up] should apologise.”

“Hey, if they’re doing something wrong then someone should tell them.”

“I’m fairly sure no one lost their job because of this. Plus, I’m glad people now know the kind of people we Japanese are.”

What do you think, Rocketeers? Should Japanese soccer fans adopt the ‘when in Rome’ approach and consider the Brazilian cleaning staff more, or should they stick to their guns, continue to set an example to the rest of us, and keep on leaving their stadium seats as spotless as they found them? After all, isn’t worrying about a lack of mess to clean up about on par with being concerned that security guards don’t have enough fights to break up or bottle-slinging hooligans to tackle? Let us know what you think in the comments section below!

Source: Hamster Sokuhou, Wireless Wire News
Feature image: Twitter