Even people born and raised in famously polite Japan are amazed by Iwate Prefecture’s manners.

Just about any cultural guidebook will tell you that bowing is the standard greeting in Japan, but a respectful lowering of the head isn’t only used to say hello. People in Japan also bow when they say good-bye, ask a favor, or show appreciation.

But even with as much mileage as bowing gets in Japanese social interactions, a local custom in Iwate Prefecture, located in Japan’s northeastern Tohoku region, still surprises people from other parts of the country. As shown in the video below (a clip from broadcaster Nippon Television’s Himitsu no Kenmin Show variety program), when pedestrians in Iwate cross the street, they bow to the cars waiting at the intersection.

Children in Iwate are taught to do this during elementary school as part of their lessons on etiquette and good citizenship, and while there’s no legal requirement to do so, the habit sticks with a lot of adults, who continue bowing in thanks to motorists throughout their adult lives. The gesture isn’t reserved for uncontrolled intersections either; Iwate locals do this even when crossing in front of cars that are stopped at a red light.

Famously polite as Japan may be, this level of courtesy surprises many from outside Iwate, and the video has attracted comments including:

“I can see bowing if a car stops so you can cross the street where there’s no signal, but it’s weird to do it when they’re stopped at a red light.”

“Isn’t it natural for cars to stop when people are trying to cross the street? I mean, it’s OK to bow in thanks, but who cares if you don’t?

“I’m from Iwate. I always thought everyone did this, but then I moved to Yokohama 40 years ago and did this when I was crossing the street with my coworker, he was really surprised.”

“This is something we should start doing everywhere in the country.”

“Totally agree! If more people show consideration to each other on the streets, it’ll make drivers more polite too.”

There seems to be some truth to that last theory. Cars are indeed required to yield to pedestrians in Japan (especially at red lights), but taking a moment to bow in thanks helps form a sense of connection between drivers, pedestrians, and everyone else who shares the road. While it’s not the sole reason, this increased awareness of each other’s presence is no doubt a factor in Iwate having an extremely low rate of traffic accidents (45th out of Japan’s 47 prefectures in accidents per 100,000 residents, as of a 2013 study), and taking a second to give a bow of thanks seems like a much friendlier and more effective way to promote traffic safety than some other ideas.

Source: Twitter/@Co2_HERASOU via Jin
Top image: Pakutaso