San Francisco Chronicle

Volunteers can’t be repaid, but let’s not insult them

- Ann Killion Ann Killion is a San Francisco Chronicle columnist. Email: akillion@sfchronicl­ Twitter: @annkillion

TOKYO — This is a country that obeys the rules. And one of those rules is being polite.

I’m sure there is mean behavior beneath the surface. I know obeying rules can be boring. But compared to the bad behavior and divisivene­ss in the United States, Japan feels extremely calming.

Especially in a pandemic. Everyone wears a mask — well, except American swimmer Michael Andrew. But the Japanese people? To a person.

People don’t break rules. There could be no cars on the road for a 10mile radius, but everyone uses the crosswalk. Not only is there no jaywalking, but people patiently wait for the light to change.

Japan is a polite country. People present your receipt for a Coke Zero with two hands and a little bow as though it is a rare and precious document. Most of the Olympic volunteers give a bow — or a deep head nod — in greeting, even to grouchy, shlumpy foreign media members. Two volunteers personally walked me to the bus stop Sunday, rather than point a finger.

Though many volunteers don’t speak English, they all say, “Hello,” “Thank you very much” and “Enjoy your stay.”

And while most of the visitors don’t speak Japanese, we’ve at least learned to say “konnichiwa” and “arigato.” Or we should have by now.

Volunteers make the Olympics work. The Tokyo Games lost about an eighth of their volunteer force in June, when 10,000 quit because of concerns about COVID. The remaining may be getting a hard time from their neighbors and friends, because the Olympics are so deeply unpopular in Japan.

But they are trying to make our Olympics nice. They are our primary point of contact with the country, as media is not supposed to be out and about. They try their best to be helpful.

I wish we could return the kindness. A few days ago, I boarded a bus with an American photograph­er. A young volunteer was carefully checking each credential to make sure it was the right kind for that bus. The annoyed photograph­er said to the young man’s face (and I’m not kidding), “You’re so stupid.”

I wanted to hide in shame. I prayed that volunteer did not understand English.

Obey the rules. Rule No. 1? Don’t be an ugly, divisive American.

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