Why Do Japanese Cleaning Crews Bow At Trains?

I was inspired to write on the Japanese custom which could seem odd by the article in Rocket News 24 titled “Why do Japanese cleaning crews bow at trains?”


I know there are various opinions even among the Japanese, which is supposed to be. Culture and custom depend on the education that people have received and also on the people whom they have involved with. So, needless to say, there exist various types of people who introduce themselves as “Japanese”. I sometimes wonder what the definition of “Japanese” would be, but I would like to put it aside for a future article….

If you have ever practiced or seen Kendo, Judo, or Kyūdō, it would not be difficult to understand what I’m going to write. Or rather, I’d better quote the website of Kendo than making a mess by writing my words.



Kendo Etiquette
There is a saying that what separates Kendo from other barbaric practices is that it begins and ends with respect. You must always uphold yourself to the code of courtesy and kendo etiquette.

Five Etiquettes of Kendo

  1. Courtesy towards the national flag-As a citizen of the nation, one must show respect and gratitude towards the flag at the beginning and end of practice.
  2. Courtesy towards the gym-In order to express gratitude and modesty towards the place you train in, you must perform a standing bow when entering and exiting the gym. Also, organizing your shoes, keeping the gym clean, and tidying up the place are etiquettes of a trainee. You must treat the equipments as if they were your own, and take lead in cleaning. You can say that Kendo starts from cleaning. Needless to say, messing up the place will not be tolerated.
  3. Courtesy towards the teacher, master, or sensei-It is the courtesy that a trainee shows to the trainer. You must show thankfulness for the teachings. You can perform a standing bow or a sitting bow. Usually, you perform a sitting bow after the training.
  4. Courtesy towards each other: it is the courtesy you show to your opponent or peers. You must not forget to mind your Kendo etiquette even towards close friends and you must not be rude to your opponents. You must be thankful to everyone because it is through them you can develop yourself and have fun.
  5. Courtesy towards juniors and pupils: it is impolite for seniors or teachers to receive bows in an arrogant behavior. The role of seniors is to be an example to juniors and treat them with care. By doing that, seniors must be able to bring out the respect from juniors. However, it is important for the juniors to always stay mentally prepared to learn.

Quoted from http://www.kendotour.com/etiquette.html


These Five Etiquettes are not only for Kendo, but they are the essence of the martial arts. Moreover, so are they for Sado, which is translated into “Japanese tea ceremony, but it surely is more than just a ceremony.

If you look at the words, Kendo, Judo, Kyudo, and Sado you may notice that they all end with “do”. This “do” has nothing with the “do” in English, and it is not pronounced as /duː/ but as /doː/.


KENDO /  けんどう /  剣道

Photo by Eddiepics (CC BY-ND 2.0) Kendo - Face your enemy
Photo by Eddiepics (CC BY-ND 2.0)
Kendo – Face your enemy


JUDO / じゅうどう / 柔道

Photo by Simmr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0) Judo/Kids
Photo by Simmr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)


KYUDO / きゅうどう / 弓道

Photo credit: mattb_tv / Foter / Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)
Photo credit: mattb_tv / Foter / Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)


SADO / さどう / 茶道

Photo credit: Ikusuki / Foter / Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0)
Photo credit: Ikusuki / Foter / Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0)


“DO” is written as 道 in Kanji which means “road” or “way”, thus, I think the people who created these words wanted to convey their philosophy that “way” is more important than “destination”.



Leaking my personal information, I have never practiced Kendo, Judo, Kyudo, or even Sado. I have been living my life without any deep knowledge of these “DO”s. Still, I notice that the education that I’ve received was based on this philosophy. So, I strongly agree to the Five Etiquettes of Kendo without any kinds of hesitation, and I can understand why Japanese cleaning crews bow at trains easily. Their attitude was derived from the Etiquette No.2.

I was told, moreover, that it is important to pay my respects toward the opportunity. “No matter how high your skill or your ability may be, it doesn’t mean anything unless you have any opportunity where you can make use of it.” I was also told about a job. “When you work, you have to do it of your own accord and with your heart. Otherwise you will be a slave. Working only for money is what thieves are doing.”


Photo credit: Neko1998 / Foter / Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)
Photo credit: Neko1998 / Foter / Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)


With these five theories, even other phenomena and custom which can look odd are explainable, such as;

  • Why do Japanese students clean their school by themselves?
  • Why do Japanese people clean their office by themselves (in some companies)?
  • Why do Japanese people pick up trash after a football game in a stadium?
  • Why do Japanese people sit through all the credits when watching a movie in the theater?


However, there is not an absolute golden rule. Even these five rules can be taken wrong if only the visible side of them are “performed” without the fundamentals. For example, if someone misunderstands the Etiquette No.1, his hasty and shallow conclusion will be distorted on right hand side. And if the Etiquette No.3 is too much highlighted and the Etiquette No.5 is forgotten, it will easily mislead to a power harassment. These Five Etiquettes should be all taken into consideration properly. Without the fundamentals, courtesy and respect can be easily confused with obedience. We may notice that the Five Etiquettes are not so easy to understand deeply and to be put into practice. In fact, several questions were raised from non-Japanese people toward the attitudes of the Japanese, which could be the side effects of the Five Etiquettes.

  • Why do Japanese people apologize so often?
  • Why do Japanese people never say no?
  • Why do Japanese people care about what other people would think?
  • Why do Japanese employees work so long?


By the way, I also found a question which was not explainable by the Five Etiquettes.

  • Why Japanese women don’t get old or fat?

That’s what I want to know, too!! I thought I was classified as Japanese but I might be an exception…

にほんブログ村 歴史ブログ 日本の伝統・文化へ
にほんブログ村 英語ブログ 英語の日記(和英併記)へ

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  1. Hilary より:

    Another interesting piece! I like how I think your articles will be about one topic and then you go in a completely different, but still related direction.

    Thanks for the kendo rules and other explanations. I’m going to share this with hubby. I think this will make for a fun discussion.


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