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 our 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 do. Their ideas and customs are neither better nor worse than ours. Observing the Japanese can teach us much about ourselves.
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