One Week in Polite and Egalitarian Japan

tokyo train stationI just spent a week in Japan, as my college intensifies its exchange program with two Japanese universities.

While it is dangerous to make generalizations about a country and its people after a first short visit, such comparisons seem an inevitable human occupation.

The Japanese are very polite. Repetitive bowing, waiting for others to go through doors, and saying “thank you” are physical expressions of the cultural importance of deferring to others and pleasing guests.

In the train, the conductor takes off his hat and bows to the entire car before collecting tickets. This politeness also includes some physical distance. The hand shakes, mutual hugging, and cheek-kissing common in Western cultures are absent.

The Japanese place a premium on cleanliness. Removing one’s shoes at the entrance to residences and the provision of hot hand towels with meals are well-known manifestations of this concern with order and neatness. The absence of litter on city streets, paired with public recycling programs, make urban spaces welcoming. Even on long train rides, I saw no trash in abandoned lots near the tracks, a common view out the windows of American trains.

Space is a necessary concern in a country of 127 million people squeezed into an area the size of Montana, with 10 times the population density of the United States. Houses nearly touch each other and rooms are small. But a feeling of being crowded together is avoided by the efficient and thoughtful use of space. Although the typical home has a tiny yard, these small spaces contain beautiful gardens. It is no accident that the Japanese developed bonsai culture, compressing trees into table-top gardens.

These behaviors are varied expressions of a culture which emphasizes cooperation and the welfare of others over self-regard and individual striving.

To an American, these traits can feel constraining, even stifling. But they provide important social advantages. In the wake of the tsunami, the Fukushima nuclear disaster, and the resultant loss of nuclear power generation, the whole nation was asked to reduce power usage by 15%. The Japanese people accepted reduced air conditioning and many other daily inconveniences of lowered energy consumption in order to collectively meet this goal.

Another aspect of this cooperative model is a much flatter distribution of wealth. The Japanese think of themselves as a middle-class society. Along with the Scandinavian countries, Japan has the world’s lowest level of wealth inequality. The ratio of the pay of CEO’s to average workers is 11 to 1; in the United States it is more than 200 to 1. Private home ownership is nearly as high as in the United States.

Certainly the economic “miracle” of Japanese postwar expansion shows that this cultural model can succeed in global competition. For decades Japan had the world’s second largest economy. Recently the Japanese economy has appeared to sputter, with very low growth rates. Many Americans saw this as proof of the superiority of our more individualized model.

But our economy has now entered a prolonged period of decline, and oursteve hochstadt position as the world’s leader is in question for the first time in a century. Other models, like the Chinese centralized command economy, threaten to displace us from global leadership. A Goldman-Sacks study done before our great recession estimated that the Chinese economy would pass ours by 2030.

If the US enters a long period of stagnation, our stark social inequalities may become less tolerable, as both the rise of the Tea Party and the Occupy Wall Street demonstrations already show. More egalitarian Japanese society may be better placed to deal with lack of growth.

I am speculating here, from little evidence. I am just beginning to learn about Japan. For a week I observed a vibrant, efficient, modern, and friendly nation, whose people look forward, but see something different than we Americans Steve Hochstadtdo. Their ideas and customs are neither better nor worse than ours. Observing the Japanese can teach us much about ourselves.

Steve Hochstadt
Taking Back Our Lives

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Comments

  1. says

    Engaging article. Just one demurral. Steve’s next-last sentence is meant to read: “Their ideas and customs are neither better nor worse than ours.” Why is Steve so sure of this assessment? Especially when he admits he’s just starting to learn. And if his assessment were correct, we’d have little reason for optimism. The world advances just when society A adopts those ideas of society B which are better and rejects those which are worse.

  2. Gary H says

    I’ve started watching this, the thesis seems to be that the highly efficient, industrial corporatist seeming conforming communitarian robotic worker class of Japan is not from conformist culture but born from conflict.
    I’m interested in knowing if their is regulation that caps CEO salaries and bonuses so that wealth is better distributed toward production and wages. 1968 was previous year of international protest. And 1848. I’ve heard this was not mandatory but voluntary and this example of a “social contract” is eroding, just as it has in the “American Commonwealth.”

    1/6 The Pacific Century: inside Japan Inc

    broken into segments on You Tube:
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HUi_6_z-6Gc

    A rather old documentary of the labor movement made in 1992. But I think it shows that Japanese society has not always been harmonious. The “harmony” of today may have been a conscious construction of the ruling class.

    For more info, visit Pacific Basin Institute here: http://www.pomona.edu/pbi/pacificcentury/

    Gary H.

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