Recently, several of my blog posts have been picked up and translated by a Japanese site (without any permission, I may add) and as a result I have seen a huge increase in traffic to those posts. One such post was on the differences between taxi drivers in the UK and Japan, in which I concluded that my experience with Japanese drivers had been better.
Somebody saw my criticism of UK taxi drivers as an invitation to send me a long list of all the reasons why Japan was better than Europe, more advanced than Europe and responsible for great innovation and the development of civilized society. It was a list that beamed with pride; pride that led the writer to start sentences smugly with “Of course”. This, for example: “Of course, Japanese culture was highly sophisticated.” Why, “of course”? Anyway, I didn’t bother checking whether or not the claims were all true. Perhaps they were, but that is not what piqued my interest. What interests me more (and this is certainly not something that only applies in Japan) is why people take such pride in things their countrymen have done.
The writer’s post read like a list of “and then we did this, and this, and this and everything we did we did by ourselves and it was better than anywhere else, so there” kind of thing. But even if every single thing is true, so what? He didn’t do it. They weren’t his innovations. So the argument looks to be “Well, they were Japanese and they did great things and I am Japanese, therefore I am great, too.” Pride based on an accident of birth. And if we are using that logic then we also have to take responsibility and blame for the bad things our countries have done. “We were all bastards then, so I must be a bastard too.” But, of course we don’t do that because people today have little to do with past atrocities and holding grudges against people who had nothing to do with “unfortunate incidents” gets us nowhere. Heaven knows my country has had its share of dark moments in history that I want nothing to do with. They weren’t my fault! And whilst I am impressed with many of the countless inventions that have originated in my country, I take no personal pride in them. That would be ludicrous. No, outside of the sporting arena I have little time for vicarious national pride.
The writer goes on to say that tipping is a sign of a failed society where people have no pride and mentions that Japanese people take pride in their work and will “work overtime even without pay”. Well, yes, but so do people all over the world. Before coming to Japan I held a fairly respectable white-collar job. We were often expected to work overtime without pay. It is normal in white-collar jobs, even in the UK. It is not unique to Japan. In any case, working long hours is not necessarily a sign of pride in one’s job. It may be a sign that the company has not employed enough staff, or of inefficiency. When every member of a company is putting in endless days six days a week, perhaps the company should think about employing more people. There’s clearly enough work to do. But pride and hours worked are not automatic bedfellows. Somebody who only works part-time isn’t by definition a slacker. They may may take great pride in the work they do.
Indeed, I think that many do. I actually agree with the writer that a lot of Japanese take great pride in their jobs – station staff, those guys with the red batons that guide you into car parks, bartenders, refuse collectors, shop staff and many others rarely give the impression that they would rather be elsewhere. They do take pride in their jobs, oftentimes more so than their British peers, but it is not demonstrated solely by how long they spend at work. It is in their attitude. And for that I respect them.
The final comment by the writer was this: “I think European people should abandon the racial prejudice and learn from Japan”. I agree. Everywhere should abandon racial prejudice and Europe can learn a lot from Japan. But it cuts both ways, and I don’t think that was implied by the writer. Yes, Europe can learn a lot from Japan, but Japan can learn a lot from Europe. And racism is everywhere. It exists in Europe, as it exists in Japan. But a country whose capital repeatedly elects Shintaro Ishihara may not be in the best position to advise other countries about racial tolerance.
Like anywhere Japan has good and bad. For me the good far outweighs the bad. I like it here. But that’s because I know that a few people with extremist right-wing views are not representative of the entire populace any more than my preference for not tipping cabbies means that everything in Japanese society and culture is best. Everywhere is good and bad. It’s not a competition.