Lessons from the Land of the Rising Sun

Elena and I just returned from a vacation in Japan. It was quite a memorable experience indeed! We spent a few days in Tokyo, visiting places like Disneysea, Akihabara and even the Yasukuni Shrine. The latter is probably not a common tourist destination for ethnic Chinese like myself. It is the final resting place and memorial to Japanese soldiers who died fighting for their country, including convicted the “Class A” war criminals who committed great atrocities against the people of Asia, including those Singapore, Malaya and the Philippines. My great grandfather and grand uncle were abducted by Japanese Imperial Army soldiers during the early days of the War, never to be seen again. (They were probably shot and killed on a beach in Singapore’s east coast.)

But I thought it would useful to see first hand the place that has been the cause of so much tension between Japan and its neighbours, China and Korea. I recognised the arch and walkway from TV footage of former Japanese prime minister Junichiro Koizumi walking through during his provocative visits to the Shrine. Unfortunately I missed the real fanfare which was to take place a few days later, on August 15, the anniversary of the US atomic bombing of Hiroshima. That is the day that many right wing Japanese parliamentarians and dignitaries visit to Shrine to pay homage to their fallen “heros”. (Admittedly not all those in Yasukuni were war criminals, and for the record I don’t agree with President Harry Truman’s decision to drop the A-bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, killing an estimated 120,000 Japanese civilians.)

After Tokyo, we took a beautiful drive across the island of Hokkaido, Japan’s northern frontier, which is home to just 2 per cent of Japan’s 121 million people. We both don’t speak Nihon-go, so GPS, hand signs and Kanji characters came in quite useful in finding our way around.

This post isn’t a journal entry about our vacation. Instead, I thought I’d share some of the things we observed about the Japanese people, their behaviour and the way their society is organised, and the lessons that Singaporeans could learn from this amazing land. My positive observations fall under 3 broad categories:

1. Consideration for others

In Japan, it is considered rude for your mobile phone to ring in any enclosed space. In our entire two weeks there, we only heard cell phones ring twice — and both instances occurred in open, public areas. Contrast this with my two hours at Singapore’s National Library last Saturday, when I heard phones ringing at least four times!

Driving in Japan, even in a crowded city like Sapporo, was a breeze because everyone gives way, even when they are not required to. I felt a little embarrassed once when I didn’t give way to a car coming out of a petrol station onto the main road, and the car behind me did. I only heard a car horn sound once, and that was a cab driver honking at another cabbie.

Although most Japanese can’t speak much English, everyone we approached for help was more than willing to assist. There was once in Tokyo we got lost and asked a young lady for directions. She didn’t know the way so we thanked her and continued on our way. A few minutes later, on seeing that we were still lost, she came back and tried to ask someone else along the street for help on our behalf! I was amazed at her kindness.

2. Self governance

By self governance, I’m referring to individual citizens willingness to do the right thing, even without being compelled to do so by governing authorities.

On escalators, no matter how crowded it is, everyone — yes everyone — stands on the left, to allow those in a hurry to overtake.

While we were waiting at the crowded Tokyo metro, my jaws almost dropped when I saw all the commuters queuing up in two neat rows on each side of the train doors, waiting their turn to enter. I wonder whether I’ll ever live to see that happening at Jurong East MRT, where the Law of the Jungle apparently reigns supreme.

The Japanese are committed to recycling. Most trash cans have three separate bins — for combustibles, non-combustibles and liquids. The Japanese all faithfully separate their rubbish before throwing. (Yes, they all clear their own trays at fast food restaurants.) There was once at a KFC when I couldn’t figure out which bin was for which item of trash (since I don’t read Japanese). I was tempted to “anyhow throw it”, but societal pressure forced me to do the right thing and ask someone for help.

3. Work attitude

Customer service in Japan is light years ahead of Singapore. Everyone, from hotel staff to waiters to 7-11 cashiers are genuinely friendly and nice. What impressed us most was the work attitude of even those working in “menial” positions like petrol station attendants, car park security guards and toilet cleaners. When I drove into petrol kiosks, the pump attendant would take off his cap, bow and smile. I didn’t even have to get out of my car, as he (or sometimes she) would clean my windshield and collect my payment without expecting any tip.

The public toilets, including those in the metro stations, were sparkling clean and odour free — better than even the toilets in Changi airport — and without a cleaner camped permanently in the toilet. Each cleaner is decked in a smart, white uniform and my guess is that he or she is simply more efficient and effective in his cleaning duties.

Beyond these, one thing I really liked about the hotels there is free, unlimited Internet access from the rooms! No where else, in all my travels, have I enjoyed this in hotels.

Obviously, Japanese society isn’t without faults, and I have chosen to only highlight the positive things in this post. But I think if Singaporeans could learn a thing or two from the Japanese, it could pave the way for us to be a truly developed, First World country.