What is one word that comes to you mind when you think of Japan?
In 2019, 31.9 million people visited Japan, which is the highest record. Many Brits who went for the Rugby World Cup and came back from Japan told me, usually with excitement, how clean, polite and organised the country is.
Clean, polite and organised
Yes, I hear you. The tables of restaurants, even KFC and McDonald’s, in Japan are pristine. I never needed to wipe the table worrying that people might thing that I am anal. Once I forgot to put my rubbish away when leaving, I was publicly told off by a middle age lady.
Until I came to Blighty, I have never taken a cold shower. In my twenty years of life in Japan, the boiler never broken down. Or never need to put up with 40 minutes wait on the customer service line, or someones preaching me the next available engineer appointment is a month from now.
And train signal? It simply doesn’t seem to fail in Japan.
Peaceful place to live in
Probably you would agree, it is much peaceful to live in a world, where tables are clean, customer service is amicable, and trains are running without any delay.
Being clean, polite and organised at a personal level isn’t so difficult, is it? Yet, for a society to function with these qualities, it seem to take a lot.
I have been thinking for a long time what actually makes such difference. And on one occasion, it felt like I witnessed the very cause of it.
In 2015, a British railway company contracted a Japanese train manufacturer. I thought it was a brilliant decision. But when they launched the new trains, many mechanical issues were reported, and it ended up as a disappointment for both British and Japanese sides.
One night, I got a phone call. The train manufacturer is sending a very experienced engineer from Japan but he had never been out of Japan and he didn’t speak a word of English. So they are asking if I could be his translator. I said fine.
That cold night, I was standing between a short old Japanese engineer and two tall young British engineers at a train depot in West London. The Japanese guy looked into a whole on the train ceiling standing on a stepladder, and he pointed a tiny mechanical part. He said, there was nearly 1 cm gap where only 4mm of gap should be allowed.
Since that night, the trains on that line seem to be running without problems. I was astonished. It is this 6mm that makes tables greasy, a shower cold, and the Tube signal keep failing!!
Rights and responsibility
Here, we see two important, but somehow conflicting concepts: right and responsibility.
Right and responsibility have to come together. For example, when you are a customer, you have every right to receive a good customer service. But if you are at the serving end of it, you have every responsibility to provide that good service. The polite, clean and organised society is only achieved on the basis that someone is providing a good service responsibly.
In Japan, some workers take their responsibility too seriously, and when they realise they can’t keep the standard, they jump off a skyscraper. So I am not saying responsibility is more important than rights. But certainly it is the basis of the world in order.
A sociologist, Sei Ito, made a very interesting analysis on the behavioural difference between theJapanese and the Westerners. He says, in Japan, the interaction with others is characterised by the strong sense of responsibility that we should not disturb others, so that you won’t be disturbed by others.
On the other hand, in the West, where christianity has much influence, people’s interaction is driven by exchange of rights. You insist your own and also grant others on the same basis. Ito says, people grant others’s rights, sometimes self-sacrificingly, because the mighty god guarantees the salvation, if not in this life, but in the next life.
The Oriental culture doesn’t contain such idea, and we hesitate to give or take unconditionally.
Salvation vs minimum disturbance
In the earlier railway episode, the British guys were asking for 6mm of salvation while the Japanese engineer was keeping the disturbance minimum within the range of 4mm.
I have been struggling to fully understand the West time to time because the Japanese general sense of responsibility is so strong, yet it doesn’t feel like the salvation is coming to me anytime soon at all.
But at the same time, I appreciated this idea of granting others’ rights in the Western culture, and it is one of major reasons why I chose London as my second home.
However, I think, now more than ever, the stronger sense of responsibility is much needed in the world with Covid. Because clean, polite and organised society is a nice place to be and it will probably protect us all.
Now is the time for responsibility
Before your own rights of freedom and happiness, I would like you to think a bit more about your responsibility. The consequence of your action in a long chain. It’s as simple as giving a way when you are passing by someone on a narrow pavement.
I’m not asking you to go the extra mile. I am only asking you to go the extra 6mm. I believe this small extras will eventually lead to a comfortable society for us all to live.