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Every Man for Himself


I read a very interesting little essay the other day in a collection penned by the early 20th century English essayist, Robert Lynd. Writing in the mid 1920's in London, he was musing on the fact that the English people seemed to him to be so much more polite in their behaviour in public places such as buses, trains, and theaters, than they had been a short time previously.

He graphically describes aspects of their former behaviour: rough and tumble on public transport in order to get a place; using elbows and umbrellas to cut in past 'weaker' people; and men arguing with women for the last seats on a bus. He then contrasts this with the 'ladies first' and 'line up here' pattern common in his day.

This was quite a revelation to me - to hear that the English had not always been as polite and 'staid' as I had imagined. I have not lived in England for many years now, and cannot speak of current practices, but my memories of the time I lived in London in the late 60's certainly did nothing to dispel that image. I never encountered any but completely civil people, both in private and in public.

Lynd's comments then, certainly came as quite a surprise to me, as I suspect they may be to many Japanese. When we think about something like the 'national characteristics' of people, in this case the 'polite' Englishman, we tend to assume that such characteristics are somewhat permanent, and not merely current fashion, changeable on short notice.

What was also interesting were his ideas on the reasons for the change in behaviour. Between the two eras he describes, there had been a large growth in the use of personal automobiles, resulting in reduced crowding on public transport systems. He theorized that it's easy to be polite about seats on the bus when there are enough to go around! The 'uncivilized' behaviour of the earlier time had been simply a reaction to an over-crowded environment.

This explanation would certainly 'ring true' to anyone living in Tokyo. Nearly all visitors to Japan comment on the vast difference between the polite 'private' person, and the rude 'public' one. Traditional commentary on this behaviour usually speaks of it in terms of relationships with people one knows (uchi), and those to whom one has yet to be introduced (soto). I suppose that this indeed a large part of it, but perhaps the simple 'crowds = stress = social breakdown' formula is also responsible.

But of more interest to me was to learn that what seemed to be a basic immutable facet of a national character was in fact something that was susceptible to fairly easy modification. It makes me hope that perhaps here in this country too, as a consequence of the growth in personal automobile transport, we may even one day see a man give up a seat on the train for a pregnant woman. Maybe!