6 things the west can learn from Japan

Japan. Just speaking its name conjures up images that tantalise the mind. Peaceful gardens, beautiful geishas and futuristic cities interwoven with a rich history.

It’s a country I’ve always dreamed of visiting. One that has captivated me since I was a boy. A country that held an isolationist agenda for over 200 years, enabling it to develop a unique identity and culture (at times it was illegal to enter or leave Japan – a crime once punishable by death). The allure of a land so different to my own was too attractive to resist. I hoped to discover if Japan really was so different from the west or whether western portrayals of Japan had been tailored to suit an ideology.

What I uncovered during my time in Japan not only deepened my fascination but also opened my eyes to just how admirable a country and society can be.

Here are 6 things western culture can learn from Japan…

1. Respect is everywhere

Walk through a door at the same time as someone else? They’ll hold it open for you. Somebody next to you on the train answers their phone? They’ll leave the carriage first. Enormous queue to catch a bus? You’d better believe that line is perfectly arranged in single file, quietly awaiting its arrival.

Politeness and respect are no strangers to British and western civilisation but in Japan, society conducts itself on a whole different level.

Walking around the streets of any of Japan’s villages, towns or cities, you’ll notice a quiet atmosphere. People going about their daily business with barely more than a quiet chatter. No loud, boisterous shouting or arguments here. Just, politeness, respect and manners. It’s something that transcends social status, class, age, gender, you name it! Everybody I met or observed in Japan showed respect to all.

Even in Ueno Park, Tokyo’s busy cherry blossom hotspot during the height of the bloom, announcements could be heard politely reminding the crowds not to get in the way of other people’s photos. Japan has a huge selfie culture and to see people courteously awaiting their turn to extend a selfie stick and snap an Instagram-able shot besides a tree overflowing with pink flowers, is an impeccable example of the way this country behaves itself.

It’s all because from a young age, children are taught to be kind to each other, respect the elderly and conduct themselves in a manner that doesn’t cause nuisance to others. It isn’t a revolutionary idea, it’s just common decency.

2. It runs a transport system that works

Punctuality is a big thing in Japan. Its high-speed trains, or Shinkansen (bullet trains to you and me), run between most major cities across the country. Unlike trains in the UK, their delays are measured in seconds. On the rare occasion a train is late by more than a few minutes, conductors can be seen personally apologising to passengers and offering a ‘lateness certificate’ as proof of delay to one’s employer, if required.

Despite travelling at up to 200 miles per hour, the smooth journeys are effortlessly comfortable. Station staff greet you with smiles and readily offer assistance (whether you need it or not) and the on-board staff pause and turn before leaving a carriage to courteously bow to the passengers each and every time they pass through.

This level of punctuality and service obviously comes at a cost. Many of the trains on the network are new and the lines themselves aren’t cheap. In comparison to the UK train network, the cost often isn’t much more for the distances covered, but in Japan, you travel in style and comfort, arriving on time at your destination. It’s actually an example of rail privatisation done properly, not to mention they’re just cool!

3. It’s incredibly clean

One very bizarre concept of Japanese culture compared to the west, is the lack of waste bins in public. Something you’d expect would lead to more rubbish in the streets. It actually has the opposite effect.

Given the Japanese people’s love of community and respect for society, rubbish is not simply thrown on to the floor due to lack of bins, Japanese people will carry their litter with them until they eventually come across one or they arrive back home. It’s a simple example of care for the country in which they live. As a result, Japan boasts some of the cleanest streets I’ve seen. Fines do exist for littering but hardly ever have to be issued.

Japan is also big on recycling. You’re more likely to see a recycling centre on the roadside than you are a rubbish bin. Various studies show the level of waste recycling in Japan sits somewhere between 30-50% depending on which report you read, with certain materials such as steel cans, coming in at an impressive 88%!

4. Japan doesn’t do tipping (and for good reason)

Try leaving a tip at a Japanese restaurant and chances are you’ll be chased down the street by the waiting staff as they try to give you your money back! More realistically, your mark of appreciation which now is common practice in western countries, will simply be politely rejected.

Why? Japanese people take pride in their work. This is something I noticed across all industries and occupations in Japan, from businessmen to waiting staff and construction workers to government employees. As such, jobs that would require tips in western culture can actually command a very good wage – tipping can actually be seen as pity, implying that you don’t believe they are paid enough. It is often considered rude to tip.

One simple rule the west can learn from this? Pay staff a reasonable wage and don’t force them to earn a large portion of their income from non-guaranteed tips. It’s just common decency really!

5. Japan seems to be the only nation that has learned something from the horrors of war

Without getting into political debates (there’s a time and a place for those), military resolutions to world problems can sometimes be the only way of solving them, but countless conflicts throughout history have resulted in a catastrophic and needless loss of life. It seems to be something that the world never learns from.

Following its defeat at the end of World War II, Japan renounced all military aggression and its armed forces are forbidden from entering into combat unless in self-defence. In simple terms, it swore to take the diplomatic approach and avoid any more killing under its flag.

Having stood at the infamous ‘Atomic Bomb Dome’ in Hiroshima, just a hundred metres or so from the detonation site of the world’s first nuclear weapon, I can completely understand why such a decision was taken. Yes, Japan committed many horrors during the war, as did all of the players on all sides, but Japan appears to have understood that the insanity seen during those years should never be repeated – something I’m not sure western nations would have done if they found themselves on the losing side.

6. Gadgets, gadgets, gadgets!

This wouldn’t be a worthy blog about Japan without a mention of its technological wonders. Japan is behind some of the world’s most popular things, including DVDs, CDs, video cameras, electronic calculators and, of course, karaoke.

But the most memorable inventions you notice on a visit to Japan, are the little things that you would never come across in Britain. Here are just a few:

Vending machines – ok, so every country has these but in Japan they’re everywhere, and I mean everywhere – on the street, at ancient temples, hidden deep inside forests and even up Mount Fuji. They offer a variable plethora of products, such as hot and cold drinks, crepes, eggs, porn mags and underwear!

Braille on beer – because everybody has the right to a cold one.

Ringpull can design – Someone in Japan thought to introduce a small groove on the pull tab of ringpull cans so you can effortlessly grip and open it. You didn’t know you needed this but it makes a big difference!

The toilets – these are incredible all singing, all dancing machines! The first time you sit upon a Japanese porcelain throne, the heated seat takes you somewhat by surprise, as does the powerful jet of water you receive when you hit the ‘cleanse’ button. Options include jet strength, water temperature and even a choice of ‘front’ or ‘back’ cleaning! Many are even equipped with a rotating toilet seat that passes under a cleaning head after each use. Then there are those which play music or provide a calming sound of ocean waves for those outside the bathroom to hear when you hit the ‘privacy button’. They may take a couple of uses to get accustomed to but you’ll leave Japan wishing we had them in Britain!

Japan truly is a land of wonder!


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