World View: The roots of Japanese prosperity reflects its culture

Michael Carin

The stories you hear about Japan before you go there will be the same stories you bring home. This was your correspondent’s experience during his recent tour of the Empire of the Rising Sun. Everything I had heard about the country proved demonstrably true, beginning with the diversity and charming bewilderment of its cuisine.

The Japanese are astonishingly courteous and never, ever, late. Furthermore, and here is a rock-solid certainty, they will invariably go out of their way (and even far out of their way) to help befuddled foreigners. I could narrate adventures in relation to each of these national traits, but my report will be best served by a focus on my principal lesson from the trip – namely that the success of a society is profoundly related to the subtleties of its culture.

On first glance, the Japanese economy bears a distinct resemblance to our own. Scan one of the country’s highrise cities with a wide angle lens and you will have trouble differentiating it from a typical North American metropolis.

The office buildings could be transplants from Calgary or Cleveland. The dynamism on the streets and ceaseless flow of traffic owe their energy to familiar commerce. But narrow the lens, look closer.

Observe the behaviour of the conductor on the bullet train as he enters or exits your car. He faces the passengers and … bows! Watch your waiter’s face in any humble yakitori grill or elaborate robatoyaki restaurant should you offer a gratuity. The expression on your waiter’s face will turn to one of puzzlement, or quite possibly umbrage. Walk the teeming streets of Tokyo, and note the absence of trash bins. The Japanese are so punctilious about minding their litter that they keep it to themselves until a private opportunity avails. Public spaces remain spotless and unburdened.

These seemingly minor snapshots of Japanese life struck me as keys to understanding the country’s success. When the train conductor bows he is not simply paying respect to his passengers. He is lending ceremony to an everyday service. The relation between provider and consumer has been elevated to assume the trappings of dignity. More than a mere manner, the nod of regard acts as a signal of pride, which in turn says this is a person who will do his utmost to perform efficiently.

The gesture of tipping in Japanese restaurants is heavily frowned upon, because a waiter’s sensibility is almost certain to be offended. In Japan the idea that one’s salary could be insufficient compensation for one’s labour is alien. The absence of tipping represents another example of self-esteem operating in the workplace, and another open secret of the country’s exceptional productivity.

The emphasis on a litter-free environment in Japan responds to a collective will to perform all public functions meticulously. You sense this when you walk the streets. You become aware of a palpable devotion to civic standards and adherence to the rules. (Woe unto anyone crossing  the road against a red light!) Again, here are elements of cooperation and self-possession that speak to a nation’s values and fuel its drive.

Japan is a small densely populated country without significant natural resources, yet it has built a technological society that ranks among the wealthiest in the world. Insights into a few Japanese social ethics only hint, of course, at the roots of the country’s success, but they suggest how culture can engineer an economy. The foundational credit for Japan’s prosperity belongs to the spirit, discipline, and customs of the Japanese people.

If you crave a positive culture shock, book a tour of Japan. I wager that no place on earth will deliver a more upbeat perspective on human progress.

Michael Carin is a Montreal writer. His most recent book is the novel, Churchill At Munich.

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