Why the world should turn Japanese

Wednesday, October 26th, 2016

An Australian journalist goes to Japan for a rock concert and comes back to explain why the world should turn Japanese:

I feel as though I’ve left a country which has perfected humanity; a society of people who are helpful, giving, self-aware, respectful and innovative — qualities which unfortunately are disappearing in Australia.

So here are some things we and indeed the rest of the world can, and should, learn from Japan.

Be Pleasant and Kind

Workers embody these qualities whether they’re behind a counter at a train station, convenience store, hotel or restaurant and are helpful when dealing with others. They bow, smile and seem genuinely happy to direct lost tourists even when the language barrier causes frustration (on the part of the foreigners, some of whom can’t understand WHY the Japanese don’t speak perfect English).

Street sweepers bow as you pass, shop assistants call out an enthusiastic welcome when entering a store, locals offer help when noticing your confused face trying to decipher Tokyo’s rail labyrinth.

A distraught concierge chased us down the street upon realising she’d failed to mention a teppanyaki restaurant we inquired about wouldn’t open for another 30 minutes; the airline check-in employee apologised countless times for the inconvenience of making us wait while she attempted to upgrade us for the flight home (she succeeded).

The Japanese take pride in their work, no matter how menial or boring. On arrival in Sydney, we barely got a smile as we passed through the airport. The employee at the train ticket counter was purely disinterested in helping us.

Trains Are Clean, Quiet, and Run on Time

The bullet trains run at 320km/h, allowing for long-distance travel in record time — infrastructure that’s desperately needed here. Carriages on regular trains are decorated with paper advertisements hanging from the ceiling — they’re not defaced or torn down by bored youths.

There’s no rubbish on the seats, platforms or streets despite a lack of bins (we often carried around empty drink containers because we couldn’t find one). Again, this comes back to pride — the Japanese know they have it good and work to keep it that way.

Passengers are frequently reminded to turn their phones to silent and no-one talks on their mobiles so fellow riders aren’t forced to listen to long and boring conversations about nothing. Because services come every few minutes, there’s no rushing or pushing and passengers line-up to enter carriages. And they let disembarking passengers off BEFORE boarding the train.

I wonder if Australians realise this is how things are done. The amount of times I’ve been pushed back into a carriage or elevator as I’m trying to leave — and then been abused for getting in the way!

People Follow the Rules and They’re Polite

We were there to see our favourite band and noticed vast differences in the way crowds conduct themselves at rock concerts. Yes the Japanese let their hair down, jump about and sing along with passion but they remain ever-so polite and self-aware. Those in the first row aren’t held back by metal barriers separating fans from the band. Rather, everyone stands behind a yellow piece of tape stuck to the floor and they NEVER cross it.

The security guards look bored, perhaps secretly hoping someone will forget themselves and leap onto the stage. We were front row one night and I wasn’t pushed, poked or groped. I was tempted to reach out and grab the singer and guitarist many times … but I would have been the only one. Plus, concerts start at 7pm and finish by 9.30pm — very civilised indeed!

People Are Trustworthy

We travelled from Tokyo, north to Sendai and south to Osaka and everywhere we saw unchained bicycles left outside shops, train stations and restaurants. A majority of them even had shopping bags, helmets and jackets in the baskets. I’m scared to leave my bike on my front porch at home! And most of them were the trendy, vintage-kind so thieves wanting to score a shiny new ride had their pick of options. I must admit I was frequently tempted to “borrow” one after hours upon hours of walking.

Toilets: They Flush

The first loo I tried after landing in Sydney was broken, as were the other three in the block. I’ve lost count of the times I’ve had to change cubicles in Australia because the previous user was unable to get rid of their business. Or there’s no toilet paper. Or they’re filthy. And I’m talking about those inside big department stores and workplaces.

In Japan toilets are hi-tech contraptions with built-in bidets — even those in parks and train stations and they’re as clean as those in five-star hotels. Perhaps this too comes back to pride.


  1. Bob Sykes says:

    Japan enjoys a high IQ, racially homogeneous population. Scandinavia used to have the same advantages. The US suffers from the opposite.

  2. Graham says:

    Japanese toilets have been international legends since at least this moment on the Simpsons:


    As for the rest, I would endorse embracing all manner of Japanese government policies and many cultural norms, but I don’t think I would want my country [Canada] to imitate everything about Japan. We may none of us ever have been quite as efficient or self- and socially-disciplined, but I dimly recall a time when Canada, the UK and [I must presume] even Australia seemed to manage respectable behaviour of most of the kinds the author mentions.

    Without any apparent difficulty for anyone, I might add.

    For example, the self-organizing queue has fallen from omnipresent to mostly gone in just my lifetime.

    I wonder what changed?

  3. Kirk says:

    All the wonders of Japan and Japanese culture come at a price that’s not easily discernible to the casual visitor. There’s stuff going on in the depths and background of the place and culture that are quite invisible to the eye, unless you live there and actually deal with more than the parts you see as a guest.

    Couple of things: The ubiquitous Koban system, where there are police substations everywhere, and where you are expected to report to whenever you move. A friend of mine, who lived in Japan for years, recalled being arrested because he hadn’t done that when he moved apartments in the same building–He was reported by his neighbors, and the police arrived within minutes of the report being made to arrest him. He was literally hours outside of the window of time you had to make that address change report, but he still spend a day locked up. All this was likely due to his status as a foreigner and the fact that the neighbor who reported him had an “in” with the police, but… Try to imagine that in a Western context. You can’t.

    Additionally, all that “social conformity” comes at a horrendous price, in terms of things we Westerners value, like privacy, the right to be an individual, and a whole host of other things we take for granted. You want your eyes opened, spend some time around a Japanese national who is living here in the West, sometime, and question the fact that Japan often doesn’t want those people back. There are reasons–Not least of which is that the Japanese expat returning to Japan often no longer sees things in Japan as being either desirable or positive. I knew a Japanese girl who was going to school here after her father had been assigned to the US as an executive with a Japanese company. She was quite happy to be going back to Japan, when she graduated, but… She was back here in less than two years, completely unable to accept Japan anymore. When I met her again, after that, she sadly informed me that she no longer had a “place in Japanese society”, mostly because she would no longer submit to the unspoken rules, a bunch of which she really wasn’t even aware of. Her status as a US-educated engineer wasn’t good for much more than window-dressing, to show that the company that hired her had an American-educated engineer, and a woman. She was given no real work, and was expected to be the “tea lady” for the office she worked in, with no duties or responsibilities past that. Rueful comment made to me? “I did more real work when I was an intern for Weyerhauser than I did in two years working for X in Japan…”.

    Japan. Great place to visit, not a really smart one to emulate. Jealousy is misplaced, I think–A lot of Japanese are really not happy there, which goes towards explaining the drop in the birth rates they’re experiencing.

  4. Candide III says:

    I lived in Japan on a student visa, and I’ve never seen the inside of a koban or even went near one. Nobody ever told me to, and Japan being Japan, if this was mandatory my school (which sponsored my visa and was responsible for me to authorities) would hardly have neglected to. In fact, it’s the first time I hear about it, so I’m strongly inclined to believe it’s a misunderstanding of the real situation. There is a duty to register at the local government office (yakusho) at your place of residence, but it goes for both foreigners (unless they enter as temporary visitors, under 90 days’ stay) and citizens. Japanese police call upon citizens to report suspected illegal immigrants and visa overstayers, though, so if somebody had a grudge against your friend it would be easy to give him an unpleasant experience.

    Japanese expats are not a representative group by any standard. There are more who come back to Japan and say “foreign countries are a great place to visit, but not to live in”. You don’t normally meet the latter abroad. It is true that the Japanese system is very different and not really compatible with modern American, and it does cost a lot to maintain, but the American system has its costs too. It’s a trade-off.

  5. Graham says:

    Interesting comments from both Kirk and Candide III.

    Reinforces my own belief that I wouldn’t really want to emulate Japan too closely. I still figure the Anglosphere was once perfectly capable of doing all the things that article praises about Japan, in our own way and our own lesser degree of severity and intrusiveness. Although I suspect I would have found the 1940s level of intrusiveness tiresome. Or a small town in any era.

    We should look to our own pasts if we need these qualities.

    Interesting, if somewhat different, takes on registration with the police in Japan.

    I don’t know that Canada or the US ever had such things for foreigners, exactly, let alone citizens. I understand France used to but have no idea how it worked.

    The UK, at least as late as the 1990s, required aliens to register with the police and carry the “Alien Registration Card” on their persons. This rule applied in London, at least. It did not cover tourists, but temporary resident aliens like students, work visa, etc. I suppose it could be considered a green card equivalent save that it covered students who fully intended to go home and didn’t necessarily work, and required check ins with the Met.

    It never applied to me, as I then had UK nationality as well, and it would not have applied to me as a Canadian anyway [Commonwealth citizens were exempt]. EU nationals had become exempt by the 1990s as well. The only students I knew who had to do it were the Americans.

  6. Candide III says:

    Most countries use some such system. Japan still requires all resident aliens (except possibly “special resident aliens”, that is zainichi Koreans who refuse to take Japanese citizenship) to carry their registration cards at all times, while tourists must carry passports. I always carried my card, but with the exception of border checkpoints I had to produce it exactly once — when registering my address of residence at the yakusho. Perhaps it would have been different if I regularly got drunk and disorderly in Roppongi nightclubs.

  7. R. says:

    My take is that Japan has the low sex rates because of the high-tech level and societal acceptance of pornography.

    Japanese society didn’t kill the libido, they merely get it satisfied in a way that’s convenient and low stress.

  8. Spandrell says:

    I’ll agree with both Kirk and Candice. Japanese politeness is produced with iron and blood. But hey, it is nice.

    What isn’t nice is that Sydneys toilets don’t flush. Come on. That’s a very low bar.

  9. Graham says:

    I think non-flushing Aussie toilets is the first sign of the collapse of civilization that results in the first Mad Max movie.

    A bloody outrage, it is.

  10. Sam J. says:

    We can’t have nice, clean, fast trains because Blacks would attack people in them and throw things at the high speed trains. It is so uncomfortable to ride with loud people who attack you with even the slightest excuse the trains would quickly become a lower class method of travel that no one would want to use and would fail financially. Any force necessary to crack down on this kind of behavior would quickly become a rallying cry for more violence.

    I spent a week in Washington DC once just looking at museums and loved the public subways. So nice to read instead of navigating traffic to travel. I’ve heard others who had bad experiences on the WDC subways but I didn’t. The hours I used it were not peak so maybe that was the difference. Lots of people would use public transport if they felt it was safe and could be left alone.

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