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.

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10 Responses to Pride

  1. Andrea says:

    Nice post, and yes, it’s not a competition. But I think it’s very common here to judge Japan in relation to other countries. You’ve got the media spouting BS like “there’s no homeless in Sweden – we should be like Sweden” or “why should we raise the consumption tax – the UK just *lowered* theirs”. It’s not a healthy attitude, and it also probably results in people swinging back hard the opposite way, like your letter writer.

  2. Sakamoto Ichiro says:

    A difficult subject eloquently discussed. I couldn’t agree more! Japan is an awesome country, but it has significant shortcomings. Just as other countries have.

    • Doug 陀愚 says:

      Very true. Every country and culture arises from certain conditions (climate, geography, history, etc), and thus has certain strengths and shortcomings. When the conditions are right, that country might prosper, but if conditions are different, they won’t.

    • Thanks for commenting. Yes, nowhere is perfect.

  3. Doug 陀愚 says:

    Ah yes, the wonders of what I like to call “tribal thinking”. I once read in an book on Anthropology that Early Man tended to band together with those who were similar to them somehow as a survival mechanism, but nowadays people create little social tribes over all kinds of silly things: religion, sports teams, politics and of course ethnicity and nationalism. It’s a natural habit but it’s a big anachronism now and often causes more friction than anything positive.

    Separately, the Buddha taught how people create a sense of identity for themselves based on their surroundings, experiences and so on, and call this a sense of “self”. It’s not that people don’t exist, but when you really think about it, you are not your job title, your house, your native language, your religion and so on. These are all constructs we create to give ourselves a sense of identity. They’re conventional, not absolute. When anything validates this constructed sense of self, it becomes something we tend to like, while anything that detracts from this causes us to get defensive.

    It’s very difficult to avoid this, but it’s another thing to be aware of it and not get carried along by it.

    Trouble is, people do it anyway, and that leads to all kinds of childish and prideful behavior. I see this in Japan, the US, Ireland, the UK, France, Vietnam (where I studied as a student), China and everywhere else I’ve visited. I wrote a bit on that a couple years ago, and glad to see others notice it too.

    For what it’s worth, I’ve had a blog post “hijacked” and mistranslated too (something I wrote on Tanabata last year), which turned out to be a mistranslation of what I said, that inflated the significance of this holiday internationally. It was pretty grating, and I still get a steady stream of hits from that link.

    Great blog post, and good food for thought. 🙂

  4. Doug 陀愚 says:

    P.S. Living abroad taught me to appreciate the things I had growing up, but deflated my sense of pride in them. We live and grow up through the efforts of many other people in our society, and it’s always helpful to reflect and be appreciative. Taking pride though, even a little, becomes selfish, not self-less.

  5. Jeffrey says:

    “Yes, Europe can learn a lot from Japan, but Japan can learn a lot from Europe.”

    Years ago after my second stint in Japan I decided the best of all worlds would be a place that incorporated the best of Japan and the best of the U.S. (I’ve never been to Europe so no base of comparison there).

    For example, whereas the U.S. has too many lawyers and is still too litigious, Japan doesn’t have enough lawyers and the “rule of law” is often trumped by societal conventions and backroom deals that don’t really punish guilty parties and the injured or abused never get justice or proper compensation.

    While in the U.S. women still don’t occupy enough positions of power, though comprising more than 50% of the population, and many still don’t get equal pay for equal work, we are (and various countries in Europe more so) miles ahead of Japan in this regard. Japan wastes more than half it’s potential by remaining a glaringly male-dominated society.

    And the Japanese, as we have all been told many times, have a special appreciation for nature, in spite of having some of the laxest environmental laws and virtually no enforcement of them.

    Wait a minute. Why is it that if circumstances dictate I’d pick up and head back to Japan with no real regrets? I’m so confused.

  6. TheOctopus says:

    Was it a “ch”-related website by any chance?

    Like the previous commenter, though there’s a lot I don’t like about Japan, there’s also a lot I do like about it, and on balance enjoy living here for reasons it’s sometimes hard to explain.

    Going off at a slight tangent, one thing I have noticed living here is that there’s a sizeable number of foreign residents (not infrequently vociferous bloggers) who seem to perceive any vaguely positive (or at least non-negative) utterance about Japan as a sign that the utterer is a hopeless Japanophile apologist straight from Uncle Tom’s School of Stockholm Syndromitis.

    • Yes – agree about apologist thing. Also find a lot of Japanese get quite upset at the slightest criticism of their country. But, that goes for anywhere I suppose. I also know a lot of British and Americans who complain about their home countries but get quite defensive when others do so. Nobody likes Jonny Foreigner coming along and telling you what you’re doing wrong, I guess.

    • Kei says:

      haha Stockholm Syndrome. That shit is funny.

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