The Lesson I Will Take From Japan

I’ve only lived here in Japan for 6 months now and already I’ve experienced some powerful take-aways from living amongst this wonderful culture.

America is not the greatest. It’s a sad fact. We fail in so many areas and I think the greatest example of observing the Japanese culture vs American culture lies in personal responsibility. Your first experience with it as an American will likely be just walking around, and using the public restroom. It’s a simple example. You are walking around searching for a trash can. There are none to be found. You might have luck at a train station. At first you grumble about it. “How can there be no trash cans in this city? What the heck do people do with their trash?” They carry it…or they don’t create it. 127 million people living in this country. Roughly 1/3 the population of the US living in an area the size of Montana. And what I didn’t realize about Japan is much of the country is mountainous. So even more people are crammed into the urban flatlands where development is easier. Can you imagine the burden on cities to care for all that trash in public places? Can you imagine the litter? The smell? Starts sounding like an American city now.

The Japanese have a culture that places the burden on themselves and not on society. When you move into a new home here, you offer your neighbor small gifts as a way to say “I’m sorry if my move disrupts your day or if my kids ever become disruptive to you.” The trains are stuffed full of commuters but nobody says a word. Silence is respected because noise would be disrespectful to everyone else having to listen to you. It’s the American on the platform yelling at the top her lungs to her friend coming down the escalator, “B**** hurry your a** up!” (Yes, that really happened.) In restrooms there is never any soap or a way to dry your hands. Again, they carry it on themselves. Even I can be taught to carry a small clean hand towel and sanitizer for me and the boys when we travel. When you are sick you place a mask over your mouth in consideration of everyone else around you. You inconvenience yourself so others don’t suffer. Young children are trusted on the trains coming to and from school. But more importantly, society is trusted with small children on the trains. Can you imagine trusting complete strangers with a 6 year old on the trains in New York City?

Simple examples of personal responsibility that I think are the foundations for their culture. If you can teach society to respect others in small, real, tangible ways that carries on to their work ethic. Much of our furniture shipment was damaged when it moved from our home in Virginia to temporary storage. Yet it was the Japanese workers who apologized profusely for the workers incompetence back in the states. Shame is a real and powerful motivator in this country. Stories are shared of the Japanese who have taken their own lives if they bring shame to their country or to their family.

Seeing America through the eyes of Japan is a bit frightening. Do we even have a culture anymore? All I see now is a self-centered society. Loud, obese and consumed with consumerism and gluttony. A society that is so concerned with being politically correct, with making everyone comfortable…without offending. We’ve become so used to entitlements that they no longer seem to be a helping hand, but a right. The Japanese are a culture where they see a small act making a huge difference when it compounds into the lives of 127 million. Americans are a culture of thinking “I’m only one in 300 million. What difference does it make?” And it all starts with that little piece of trash in your hand. How do you take responsibility for it so you aren’t a burden to society? How do you take personal responsibility for your health so you aren’t a burden to society? How do you take responsibility in every aspect of your life so you aren’t a burden to society? That little way of thinking is my observed difference between American and Japanese society.

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7 Comments

  1. Christene, all your points in this post really resonated with me. At first with never being able to find a trash can I saw it as a big annoyance but once I took a step back and looked at it from the Japanese perspective it made sense and taught me more about their culture and how the Japanese think and view society. How most people think in America is so different than here and even though I don’t feel like I am “one of those Americans” I realized I kind of am, I am more programmed to think selfishly than I even realized before moving here. You hit it spot on friend, wish I could write as eloquently as you!

    Oh and another example…. we are having a new school built on base by Japanese nationals. As I was driving off base early one morning I looked over at the work area and saw all of the construction workers in a series of circles stretching in perfect unison in their uniforms:)

    • Thanks so much for your comment Jenn. I feel the same way. I thought I was doing “okay” until I came here and realized how much I still have to improve. Love the example of the stretching workers. We live on the other side of one of the Japanese buildings and every day around lunch time they file out of the building and do their jumping jacks and stretches together. :)

  2. I agree with all that you said. After 4 years living in Japan, the only thing I couldn’t figure out was their smoking. They seem so intelligent and respectful of others, yet they expose strangers to second hand smoke and still allow smoking in restaurants. A total connundrum.

    • Jenni, Yes! I can’t figure that one out either. It drives me crazy! As far as I can tell though they don’t have the same level of anti-smoking campaigns here so maybe it’s not on their radar like it is ours?

  3. Every time I back to the good ole USA, I am so disappointed in things such as respect for others, customer service, and the absolute rudeness of people. The USA of today is not the one I grew up in.

  4. character trait of many old school generation of the 1940’s –50’s –60’s —–then it started changing

  5. I found this blog to be so impactful. I loved the insight to the Japanese culture, and was left wanting more. I found the example about trash to be particularly poignant. And I walk away from this thinking about that very core ideal. How can I be less of a burden on society. Thank you.

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