This past summer, my wife and I spent about five weeks in Japan. It was part of a much longer overall trip in the region that also included Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia, Indonesia, South Korea and Malaysia. While each of those countries was unique and amazing in its own right, Japan stands out as the most prominent contrast among them.
I tried to reflect on why that is. One of the conclusions I came to was the fact that their economy doesn’t rely heavily on tourism, and as a result, it creates a very different type of atmosphere. South Korea is also an anomaly in this regard, but due to their long-standing, close relationship with the United States, Seoul was easily the most Americanized city in all of Asia that we visited. Perhaps other parts of the country are less so, but we were only in Seoul so I can’t speak to that. In addition, just about everyone in Seoul spoke English really well. Compare this to Japan where almost no one we encountered spoke English beyond some basic words like ‘hello’ and ‘sorry’. Not only did very few people speak it, but many public places had signs, menus, etc that were written only in Japanese. Coming from Southeast Asia where most people we interacted with spoke basic English and everything was usually written in English alongside the local language, it was quite a culture shock.
Personally, I loved it. I’m sort of strange in the sense that I enjoy the feeling of culture shock. Maybe it’s my curious personality or my thirst for solving problems and puzzles, but few things make me as excited as being in a new place where I have absolutely no idea what’s going on. Japan gave me that feeling more than any other place. Some parts of Vietnam came in a close second.
Over the course of five weeks, the more I interacted with local people in Tokyo, Kyoto, Osaka and Nara, the more my culture shock buzz wore off. It’s not that I learned how to speak fluent Japanese in such a short amount of time, but I adapted to the lay of the land — just like everywhere else. I also learned some wonderful things about Japanese culture that I think the rest of the world should consider adopting. Hence this article.
I use the term learned loosely because I was already aware of these things on some level due to prior exposure via reading, movies, and other forms of media. It was really an exercise in confirmation bias, but experiencing things firsthand is always more powerful than just reading about them or seeing them on a screen.
I have so many examples of this that it’s tough to narrow it down to only one, but because this is not a book, I will arbitrarily choose one story to share with you.
It’s about a waitress.
One day, on our way back from attempting to hike to the summit of Mount Fuji, my wife and I decided to stop at Arakurayama Sengen Park. It was sort of a consolation prize for us because due to treacherous weather conditions, they closed down the trail at the 7th station and we were unable to complete the hike.
After almost getting stuck on the mountain in the middle of a hurricane, we managed to catch the one and only remaining bus back to ground level. As we made our way back to Tokyo via train, we realized that we’d be passing by the famous Chureito Pagoda. In an effort to salvage the day, we stopped at Shimoyoshida Station and made the fifteen minute trek to check it out. The pagoda itself was picturesque and the panoramic views were breathtaking. It wasn’t the summit of Mount Fuji, but it was still a very cool place to see.
By the time we made it back to Shimoyoshida Station, we had developed quite an appetite. We still had about forty-five minutes before our train was set to arrive so we found a nearby restaurant and sat down. After perusing the menu, the waitress came over and was ready to take our order. We had run out of cash so I inquired if they accepted credit cards, but to our dismay, they did not. We thanked them and made our way back to the station. At that point we were too tired to continue searching and we figured that we’d just wait it out until we got back to Tokyo. So we sat down and waited.
About ten or twelve minutes passed when all of a sudden the waitress from the restaurant came into the station. She wasn’t there to take the train. She came looking for us.
Believe it or not, she was concerned that we’d be hungry. This woman literally took a break from her work shift so that she could find us to tell us about another nearby restaurant that accepted credit cards. We were both in grateful disbelief. It’s not like we even told her that we were going back to the train station. We could have been aimlessly walking around somewhere in town, but she made it a point to track us down. You know, in case we were hungry.
I cannot think of anywhere else that I’ve been where someone would go out of their way in this manner. In case you’re thinking that it’s a fluke or a one-off example, let me clarify it for you by saying that it’s not. Keep in mind what I said at the beginning of this — — this is only one example of many that we experienced. Whether it was the businessman who derailed his busy day by thirty minutes so he could personally walk us to our destination, or the retired engineer who surprisingly spoke perfect English and acted as our translator for two hours — — the Japanese people are incredibly helpful to strangers. They really go above and beyond for no other reason than it’s the right thing to do.
I think that is something we could all do a little bit more of.
Bowing is probably the most commonly known aspect of Japanese etiquette that people think of when they see the word ‘respect’ mentioned in an article like this one. While bowing is certainly something you will see if you spend some time in Japan, it’s not something that will necessarily make you pause. The reason is because it is already known to you. You expect it.
The type of ‘respect’ I am specifically referencing here is something that pleasantly made me look at my wife and blurt out:
“Woah! Did you just see that?!?”
It is the respect for minutiae. How every little thing that we don’t normally think twice about is handled with such great care.
It was probably our second day in Tokyo and we walked into one of the three 7-Elevens within a five minute walking radius of our apartment. I purchased about five or six items. Nothing fragile. Maybe a banana, a water, a dark chocolate bar and some other food items.
Then something unexpected happened.
I shopped at 7-Eleven in Thailand on an almost daily basis for seven months and not once did I ever encounter a clerk that handled each and every one of my items as if they were some sort of irreplaceable works of priceless art. The man behind the register carefully opened the bag and then proceeded to slowly place each item into it, one at a time. He found a spot for each of the items inside the bag so that they wouldn’t clash with each other. A slight tug on the handles confirmed that everything would stay in its place when lifted. Then he delicately tied a knot but made it into a ribbon. Finally, he gently slid the bag with both hands across the counter as he slightly bowed and made a gesture with his hands that I interpreted as “here you are”.
It was the most memorable customer service experience I’ve ever had at a convenience store. I will remember that clerk forever. Of course I had the same experience many times after that, but it wasn’t quite so mind-blowing after the first time.
I witnessed this same level of delicate care in all sorts of places from restaurants to gardens. It permeates society in Japan and I think it’s great. If nothing else, I think we can all admit that we feel good inside when we know that other people care. Now imagine almost everyone caring. That was my experience in Japan and I believe that if we adopted some of this in our own lives that we would all mutually benefit from it.
KEEPING IT CLEAN
You may recall a story from the World Cup this past summer about how Japanese fans cleaned the entire stadium and left it spotless after each game they attended. It was interesting being in Japan and reading about it because it made complete sense. Everywhere we went, there was no garbage. Not even a trace. Barrels and dumpsters themselves were hidden inside of other compartments to keep them out of sight. Ironically, we also struggled to find public waste disposal options. We later learned that Japanese people hold on to their litter until they get home and then dispose of it.
The level of cleanliness was truly on overdrive. To the point where people sat on the ground in public parks and just ate their lunches right on the floor. It was that clean. Compare this to our time in Penang, where we were the ones who spent an entire day cleaning the beach near our house due to the overwhelming amount of litter.
It was awesome to witness an entire country reflect our ideals in this regard. With that said, Japan is by no means perfect. Even though they do a great job at keeping their surroundings pristine, they also often use way too much single-use plastic. For instance, there was a bakery next door to us that we frequented often and it was a struggle to get them to stop individually wrapping each baked good we bought into three different plastic containers. Especially since we would eat the items inside of three minutes after buying them. It was such a waste.
That’s a perfect segue to my final point — — no country or culture is flawless. Everywhere you go has some positives and some negatives. Travel is wonderful for many reasons but above all, I think it has the potential to change the world for the better if we use it to learn from each other. If those of us who have the opportunity to leave our borders do so and learn the things that others are doing right, then we can carry those things back with us. We can then introduce those things to our own circles of influence and hopefully make some sort of positive dent in the societies we live in.
Thank you to Japan for being a guiding example in so many ways.
Also, a big thanks to you, the reader, for taking the time to read this article.
I appreciate you.