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Commenting on "10 Reasons Japan Is Better Than America"

Once again, a big "cultural differences" article out there on the Internet calls for a little commentary and reality checking. From 10 Reasons Japan Is Better Than America (a title nicely crafted to bring in the hits) on the Hunter Nuttall website, here are some excerpts from the list, followed by my comments:

1. The world is their buffet: ...when they find that someone has something they like, they’re perfectly happy to make it their own... They needed a language, so they borrowed Chinese... It doesn’t matter if different things conflict. Once they become Japanese, there is no conflict. Japan is the Borg. You will be assimilated.

Clearly this is all well-meaning, but we're looking at another old, tired chestnut that needs to be laid to rest.

Yes, the Japanese take in culture from the rest of the world and - as the culturologists always intone - "make it uniquely their own". Yes, the Japanese language takes in many words from other languages. Yes, Japan comfortably sits new things next to old things. But here's the kicker: the rest of humanity does exactly the same thing. Where is there a hint of evidence that other societies don't eagerly take in culture from every and any source?

The topic really deserves a good, critical whack later. There's a blatant double standard that needs to be addressed, in which things non-Japanese – "Western", mostly – are seen as a dull default unworthy of notice. To use the article author's own examples, when there's an old Japanese women in a kimono next to her grandkid in a T-shirt, with both Osaka Castle and a Starbucks in the background, the culturologists swoon over "contrast" and "old mixing with new". But when we see a "Western" teen in T-shirt playing a piano (a centuries-old traditional instrument), or even a keyboard (a happy mash-up of Renaissance culture with modern electronics), all with Edinburgh castle and a Burger King in the background, nobody says a thing. It gets written off as "normal". Why the double standard?

(An aside on Chinese: Japan borrowed Chinese, and its writing system, long ago as a language of scholarship. Today, many elements of that writing system and many Chinese words remain in Japanese, but let's make clear that the Japanese language itself is not based on or related to Chinese. I assume the author knows that and simply glossed over it.)

2. No shaking hands:

That's not quite true. Shaking hands is a growing practice in Japan. But, I agree, you typically don't need to do it here, and as the author says, the lack of 'shaking is nicely hygienic.

4. Taking your shoes off indoors:

Darn straight. I know some US families that keep this rule as a norm, but most don't. I'd love to see everyone adopt the shoes-off indoor lifestyle.

To inject some context, though: A typical shoes-okay household in the US or wherever will have enough decency to place a mat outside the entrance, and will expect it to be used to wipe the shoes! A common picture of "Western" adults tracking clods of mud throughout a house isn't often an accurate one.

And just in the name of orneriness, I'll inject a wee bit of Devil's advocacy as well. Assuming that an entrant's shoes are actually clean, what's actually more sanitary from the poor floor's perspective: an inert rubber shoe sole, or a bare human foot exuding sweat, oils, and smell? Something to think about.

5. No tax, no tips, no pennies, no nickels, no quarters:

Good one. No tipping, alone, is enough to make me want to live here in Japan forever. Expected tipping is a nasty custom I would love to see disappear.

And while Japan does have coins as small as pennies, the author is correct that they're not used as much in prices – though I'm not sure how that's a big benefit, as sales tax then makes you fish for the wee coins anyway. (When prices are listed with tax included, they're certainly not always a neat multiple of 5 yen.)

Perhaps what the author appreciates is the relative lack of annoying US-style "$0.89", "$49.99" etc. pricing. If that's what he likes about prices in Japan, I'm with him!

7. They’re obsessed with perfection: The Japanese are guided by the principle of kaizen, a philosophy of continuous improvement in all aspects of life... Americans ask “why fix it if it ain’t broken.” ... They think “your” and “you’re” are interchangeable, and any trivial difference is best left for Oxford academics to debate.

Yikes, why ruin a pretty good article with this?? We were doing so well until now...

That first sentence is yet another myth needing correction. "Kaizen" is an utterly mundane Japanese word meaning "improvement". Improvement one time or a million times; it doesn't matter. Contrary to modern mythology, kaizen does not mean "continuous improvement".

Yes, Toyota and some other sectors of industry in Japan have made an excellent practice of continuous improvement, but some other companies and sectors in Japan haven't. (Let's talk Japanese hospital practices, and efficiency in construction and retail sectors.) More to the point, any claim that "improvement" or "continual improvement" is not practiced outside of Japan is, like the above bizarre generalization about Americans, outrageously incorrect.

Like the author, I'm normally all for decrying the careless mixing of "your" and "you're", but what am I to think when that lamentation is buried inside even sloppier commentary?

8. The girls:

What can I say? The author is right; there are indeed many model-like lovelies walking about. I don't think a guy needs to have "an Asian thing" to notice, either. If I had to list simple reasons for the high level of attractiveness, these might include:

1. Population density. With so many people crowding around in the big cities, you can't help but spot some beauty in any direction.

2. Good health. The population is overall pretty healthy, and that matters. In particular, though it's not a PC thing to say, the low number of overweight ladies here in Japan is a big factor. (On the other hand, many observers have suggested that dental care isn't always a highlight of health in Japan; YMMV.)

3. Care in appearance. That means attractive clothing and makeup, not ragged jeans, tattoos, wild piercings, garish pancake makeup, monster truck rally T-shirts, etc. Of course, that varies a lot by person; you'll find no shortage of all those things here in Japan. (Well, truck rally T-shirts, I'm not sure about.) But compared to your typical US street scene, you'll find a higher percentage of ladies here taking care to "dress nicely". (That's personal impression, not based on data on hand, so take it with grains of salt.)

9. Public transportation: ...If you’re like most Americans, the last bus you rode was a big yellow one.

Nicely put. Yes, public transport is good in Japan, and I miss it when in the US.

10. They’re totally into technology: ...For many Japanese people, their gadgets are an extension of their body... Here in the good ol’ U.S.A., it wasn’t that long ago that I had to give someone personalized coaching on how to insert a floppy disk.... American car companies are proud to have some models that get more than 20 miles per gallon. The Japanese have recently built a robot that can play the trumpet. Who do you think is more likely to enslave mankind?

Er, now we're getting back into silliness. "...An extension of their body"? Come on, how is that not true for any youngster tethered to computer or cellie? The mention of floppy disks is especially odd to me; let me tell you, the Japanese around me do not impress me with knowledge of the personal computer. (That's my opinion vs the author's, so it doesn't mean much. Anecdotes mean little anyway.)

Meanwhile, vast legions of older Japanese go about their daily lives uninterested in, or utterly perplexed by, some or all of these gadgets: PCs, faxes, DVDs, cell phones, iPods, microwave ovens, game machines, you name it. Same as anywhere.

And to address a particular brand of pet peeve that always plagues "culture" articles: there's that omnipresent abuse of the term "the Japanese". Sorry, but "the Japanese" did not build a robot that can play the trumpet. Toyota did. More specifically, some subset of Toyota employees did. The remaining 99.x% of "the Japanese" most emphatically, unmistakably did not build that robot. I'll never understand why people don't get that vital point.

(To his credit, the author didn't get carried away into claiming a "special Japanese relationship with robots". I tip my hat to him for it, because that myth sure ain't true.)

Moving on

Thus end my comments. I hope the disagreements don't come across as condescending toward the article's author. They're (mostly) minor objections, and I don't want to read unintended tone into the author's words. It can be easy to miss when an author intended some statement as tongue in cheek, or intended an apparent generalization as nothing more than a simple shorthand. I welcome corrections to any misreadings I committed.

Well, on to more stuff. There's a companion article on the same website; will have to get to that soon too!

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Re: Commenting on "10 Reasons Japan Is Better Than America"

Sorry for the delay in approving your comment on my blog; I was out of town for a few days. I don't want to take the time to respond in detail to all of your points, but let me address a few of them:

- "Yes, the Japanese take in culture from the rest of the world and - as the culturologists always intone - "make it uniquely their own"... But here's the kicker: the rest of humanity does exactly the same thing."

To some extent that's true of course, but it seems more prevalent in Japan. For example, according to "Insight Guides: Japan,"

"The average Japanese thinks nothing of marrying at a Shinto shrine, burying loved ones in a Buddhist cemetery, or boisterously celebrating Christmas. Although the devout Christian or Muslim -- each with a monotheistic god demanding unswerving fidelity, the typical Japanese sees no contradiction."

- Your comments about kaizen go against a lot of the stuff I've read. I agree that the word literally means just improvement, but everything I've read has said that it carries a much deeper meaning. If your assertion is accurate, you might want to start by correcting the Wikipedia entry on kaizen.

- "And to address a particular brand of pet peeve that always plagues "culture" articles: there's that omnipresent abuse of the term "the Japanese". Sorry, but "the Japanese" did not build a robot that can play the trumpet. Toyota did. More specifically, some subset of Toyota employees did. The remaining 99.x% of "the Japanese" most emphatically, unmistakably did not build that robot. I'll never understand why people don't get that vital point."

I think everyone gets that point. It's like saying "the Americans dropped a nuclear bomb on Hiroshima." Which Americans? All of them? Of course not; only one American did. But people know what you mean when you say this.

- "I hope the disagreements don't come across as condescending toward the article's author. They're (mostly) minor objections, and I don't want to read unintended tone into the author's words."

Your comments are most welcome, and I don't mind them at all. You're right that some of what I said was tongue in cheek or simple shorthand. It really was just meant to point out some things I liked about Japan. Thank you for taking the discussion to the next level.

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