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Commenting on "10 Reasons America Is Better Than Japan"

As in last time's Commenting on "10 Reasons Japan Is Better Than America", here I comment on a post on the Hunter Nuttall website: 10 Reasons America Is Better Than Japan.

I hoped I could agree with many of the points in the article – but even more than last time, I found so much to disagree with. Here I go, with excerpts from the list followed by my comments:

1. Credit cards: I didn’t see a single place in Kyoto or Tokyo that accepts credit cards.

What? When was this alleged trip to Japan the author speaks of? 20 years ago? Here in Tokyo, credit cards are accepted at supermarkets, convenience stores, bakeries, florists, hardware stores, restaurants, rental agencies, pet shops, pretty much every retail outlet imagineable... heck, in many ever-lovin' taxis, even!

2. Water; 3: Napkins and toilet paper: In the U.S., every restaurant gives you water right away and will continue to give you as much as you want. In Japan, you don’t get cold water unless you ask for it... Most Japanese restaurants don’t give you napkins... And Japan has only recently begun putting toilet paper in bathrooms.

First, congrats to the author on picking up on an often-ignored oddity that I was going to write about; he beat me to it. It's true: there are restaurants that don't have napkins, and there are restaurants (though hardly all restaurants, as implied) that don't serve water unless you ask for it. (More annoying: restaurant staff which, when you do say "Water, please!", smartly return with one glass. "Uh, water for everyone at the table this time, please...")

With napkins, things are at least a little predictable. It's generally a small class of more "traditional" joints - mainly ramen, soba, and other noodles - that skimp on the serviettes, while the rest of the eat-out biz does provide napkins. What's unfortunate is that noodles are a dish that really do call for some face-wiping afterward, so the withholding is a bit of a mystery. Best to carry tissue at all times!

I suppose the culturologists will have some contrived explanation for the missing water and napkins at some establishments, but there's really a simple explanation: poor customer service. No, I'm not claiming that poor service runs rife through the country or the industry or even all aspects of the restaurants in question. Service in restaurants in Japan is overall quite good! But there are exceptions, and here we've got one. (Or two.)

That brings us to the final necessity, though. "Just started putting toilet paper in bathrooms"? Say what? There were, and no doubt still are, public toilets that expect you to bring your own, but for the most part, public toilets or those in an establishment will have TP. Again, I have to wonder what times and places the author is talking about. Maybe he chanced upon a restroom that'd just been "cleaned out" by a heavy user, and decided to label it a national issue. I don't get it.

4. Affordable fruit: Fruit is outrageously expensive in Japan. I saw some melons that cost $50...

Come on, folks, give it up already with the $50 melons. Yes, there are high-grade, perfect-quality fruit specimens given as gifts, and that includes $50 melons. But that's not what people eat at home or at restaurants! Go into an actual grocer's, and you'll find fruit and veggies at reasonable prices: a buck or two for a bunch of bananas, a few bucks for a nice melon or a bag of citrus fruit.

Reasonable, that is, for a big city in a country that imports most of its food; I'm not saying it's cheap by global standards. But it is cheap enough to be unworthy of comment. (Which is why lazy writers ignore all that and jump right to "OMG FRUIT COSTS $50 IN JAPAN!")

5. You can do things your way: One of the kanji characters is simply a box. But you can’t draw it however you like... The process is more important than the results.

If anyone wants to write about the weary "Japan is a rigid, do-it-this-way place" trope, have at it. But the above is a lousy example of the claim.

People in Japan do learn a specific order and direction for the strokes in a character. That's not because of some "process vs results" dichotomy, though. It's a practical matter: in flowing script, including typical handwriting, a standardized writing method makes the cursive results recognizable. Do-as-you-please stroke order and direction makes such script very hard to read - which sort of defeats the purpose of writing.

In other words, it is about results, after all.

When I was a young'un in the US, we learned writing using that paper with the little lines indicating the baseline for letters, the height of capital letters, where a "t" stops, how far down the "y" dips, and so on. All very controlled and prescribed; penmanship sure wasn't a lesson in "do things your way". How is that any different from the Japan example given?

(Finally, contrary to a later claim, one does not have to "go through 24 weeks of classes to have a rudimentary understanding of how to drink tea properly". If the author is referring to the hobby/art known in English as tea ceremony, that description simply misunderstands what's being studied.)

6. Relatively little discrimination: ...And they even discriminate against pure-blood Japanese, born and raised in Japan, who have ever set foot outside the country.

Yes, there's discrimination in Japan, as in the rest of the globe. As one interesting local example, employers in Japan are quite free to specify gender and age requirements for hirees, which I think would get a US company in hot water today (though maybe not so long ago in history).

Discrimination is a big topic, and books can and have been written about it. But the particular example given above is pure silliness. Traveling, studying, and working overseas are utterly mundane things in modern Japan, at least in the cities; outside of some oddball crowds, they will not get one ostracized.

8. Casual clothes: "While you do see some people wearing jeans in Japan, you also see just about every guy wearing a suit to work, you see every kid wearing their school uniform, and you see women wearing their elaborate kimono... This all seems awfully elaborate for daily life."

Once again, I have to ask: did the author really go to Japan? "Some people" wearing jeans? At any typical moment, a good 99% of the people in view in Japan will be wearing jeans or business suits or dresses or some other form of what we'd call "normal Western" clothes. Kimonos? Huh? A woman might wear a kimono once or twice in a year, if at all; what in the world does that have to do with "daily life"?

Overall, public attire in Japan is neater than what you'll find in the US, with more suits and dresses. Pretty much like the US a few decades past. But it's getting less formal all the time, of course; those jeans the author seems to have trouble finding are on many, many of the young people here.

9. You can eat cookies the first time you’re invited to: In Japan, if someone offers you cookies and you accept right away, you’ve branded yourself as a greedy pig. A person with a reasonable amount of self discipline will wait until the fourth time they’re asked before finally giving in.

Intended as a joke, I assume? It's nonsense otherwise. Yes, good manners suggest a wee hesitancy before grabbing at offered goodies in a formal setting. That sounds pretty universal to me. But people here do take cookies or coffee or tea or whatever is offered; why wouldn't they? And in an informal setting, such as a friend offering you a cookie, of course you're free to dive right in. Like the Japanese do.

Perhaps there's some unshared anecdote behind this particular claim. I don't know.

10. The U.S. isn’t too proud to import foreign goods: If another country can make something better or cheaper, the U.S. will usually be happy to buy it from them. The Japanese people think that American beef isn’t compatible with the Japanese digestive tract, and that French skis don’t work on Japanese snow.

Sigh. I'd hoped I could end this overview on a note of agreement, but...

There is indeed a laughably ridiculous belief among some nutcases here that the "Japanese intestine" is different - it's unusually long, goes the fantasy - and isn't compatible with meat. (This goes back to wartime propaganda, I believe, concocted when meat was scarce.) And there have been sanctions against US beef in recent years, for good reason: bone and spinal matter found in shipments. But there has never been, as far as I know, a specific claim that Japanese can't digest American beef.

Next: Yes, there was an infamous attempt at protecting the local ski industry by claiming "different snow". That was a dumb ploy by some protectionist politicians, not a case of "the Japanese people think...". (Imagine that: a politican coming up with some clumsy excuse to favor a special interest group. Gosh, those Japanese sure are different!)

So I have to disagree with the above as meaningful examples. On the other hand, the fact that some politico even tried a ruse as idiotic as "our snow is different" does point to a real problem: there are entirely too many people, both in and out of Japan, who gullibly believe any claim of "Japan is different", no matter how outrageous. That's precisely the sort of thing I'm trying to speak out against. (A task which isn't made any easier by "10 Reasons" lists loaded with Japan-is-different exaggerations, know what I'm saying?)

So, back to the list item: Japan is "too proud" to accept imports, right? WRONG. Japan is a huge importer of goods from all over the world. It was long the largest importer of US goods (until China took that role recently). Japan imports most of its food. It's Boeing's best customer. US companies own a huge chunk of Japan's medical device market. Everywhere you look in Japan you see Levi's jeans, Nike shoes, Mercedes cars, Coca Cola whatever-that-stuff-is, Bufferin pills, Microsoft software (proving that the Japanese are not always sticklers for quality), Fender guitars, French and Californian wines, Danish ham, Australian (and, yes, American) beef, English teas... it goes on forever.

Meanwhile, if we want to look at current barriers to trade, we could start with the US's sheltering of its farmers through subsidies and import quotas on sugar, rice, milk, cotton, peanuts, tobacco, and other commodities; American domestic-content agreements to protect auto parts manufacturers; American tariffs on imported textiles, clothing, footwear and leather; and so on.

In summary: The US is a huge importer, but so is Japan. Who's worse on trade protection issues is a far bigger issue than a couple of soundbites can begin to address.

Moving on

Hmm. I wanted to make this a more agreeable post than the last, but it's gone the other way. Unfortunately, almost everything in the article was exaggerated or just plain wrong. : (

Like last time, I suspect the author wasn't entirely serious on some of those points, so my reply may sound overdone. But I have no doubt that many readers will take the article's claims as gospel (just look at the "wow, I learned so much!" comments that follow it), so a serious rebuttal isn't misplaced.

Besides, many of these points are myths and misconceptions that I wanted to some day address on this site anyway. My thanks to the article's author for providing this opportunity to hit a whole bunch of topics at once!

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

Hello again...as before, I'm just going to respond to a few of your points.

- Credit cards. My trip to Japan was in April 2008, so no, not 20 years ago. I spent 6 days in Kyoto, and 2 days in Tokyo. I suppose it's possible that some of the stores I visited do in fact accept credit cards, and I just didn't ask. But I didn't see any "we accept credit cards" signs other than at Kyoto Handicraft Center. Before going there, I asked my hosts how often I'd use cash vs. credit cards, and they said you have to use cash all the time, that they don't take credit cards anywhere (or checks, for that matter). A simple Google search shows that this isn't something I'm just making up.

- "Just started putting toilet paper in bathrooms"? Say what? There were, and no doubt still are, public toilets that expect you to bring your own, but for the most part, public toilets or those in an establishment will have TP. Again, I have to wonder what times and places the author is talking about. Maybe he chanced upon a restroom that'd just been "cleaned out" by a heavy user, and decided to label it a national issue. I don't get it."

Again, my trip was in April 2008. My source for this information is what my friends told me, They said that people used to have to carry tissues with them all the time, and that's why there are people on street corners handing them out. I didn't personally see any public toilets without toilet paper, but as you say, they still exist even today.

- "When I was a young'un in the US, we learned writing using that paper with the little lines indicating the baseline for letters, the height of capital letters, where a "t" stops, how far down the "y" dips, and so on. All very controlled and prescribed; penmanship sure wasn't a lesson in "do things your way". How is that any different from the Japan example given?"

The difference is that the penmanship requirements stop after grade school. No one cares that I draw my e's differently from other people. I used this as an example because drawing a box seems like such a minor thing to regulate.

- "Discrimination is a big topic, and books can and have been written about it. But the particular example given above is pure silliness. Traveling, studying, and working overseas are utterly mundane things in modern Japan, at least in the cities; outside of some oddball crowds, they will not get one ostracized."

I don't know what to say here. According to what I read (which I think was "Kata: The Key to Understanding and Dealing with the Japanese"), what I said is perfectly true.

- "At any typical moment, a good 99% of the people in view in Japan will be wearing jeans or business suits or dresses or some other form of what we'd call "normal Western" clothes."

I must have seen hundreds of kids wearing school uniforms. Did I just happen to arrive during "wear a uniform to school week?" And my point was about casual clothes, not "normal Western" clothes. Business suits would certainly count as non-casual.

- "But there has never been, as far as I know, a specific claim that Japanese can't digest American beef."

I got this from the book "Insight Guides: Japan."

- "So, back to the list item: Japan is "too proud" to accept imports, right? WRONG. Japan is a huge importer of goods from all over the world."

I do agree with this. I was just pointing out some weird things they have against some imports.

- "Hmm. I wanted to make this a more agreeable post than the last, but it's gone the other way."

And as with your other post, I have no problem with this one. This is perfectly reasonable criticism, and I appreciate your input.

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

[quote=Hunter Nuttall]"Did I just happen to arrive during "wear a uniform to school week?" [/quote]

I don't know about America, but in England and Japan we wear Uniforms to school. So the chances are if you see a school kid, He or She is gonna be wearing a uniform. Business suits? must of been working hours...Obviously.

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