Reflections on recent events, plus the occasional fact
free rant unfiltered by rational argument.
It’s necessary every couple of months to escape the rough and tumble of Hong Kong. The frantic pace of this place takes a toll. A beach in Thailand or Bali is always an inviting option. And yet, Japan can offer respite, even in large metropolitan centers. Is this surprising? Culture, a slower pace of life and the sheer convenience of the place all combine to achieve this.
Let's take convenience first. Like Hong Kong, Japan offers easy access to services. Whether it's a quick meal or trains. Plus, Japan excels in delivering quality, which is nothing short of exemplary. Travelling by train is a delight. Modern, clean and always on time, even the small local lines impress. Contrast that to the poor state of the UK's rail system. The difference is stark.
Travelling in London or any European city, you keep a watch for pickpockets or other rogues. Wandering around Osaka, Fukuoka or even Tokyo, no such concerns enter your head. Whilst Hong Kong is safe, petty crime remains an under-reported issue. Thus, it's wise to be alert. In Japan, those fears evaporate. Without doubt, crime exists in Japan. Even so, the atmosphere is conducive to believing you are safe.
Helping drive this impression and create a relaxing mood is the ever-present politeness. Japanese people are always mindful of behaving in the correct way. Give way, don't jostle others, be considerate. Uniformed officials, no matter the agency, greet you with a polite nod or gentle bow. I smiled at two police officers, who each smiled back, then bowed their heads in turn.
This is all part of ‘omotenashi’, which translates as “Japanese hospitality”. In practice, it combines politeness with a desire to maintain harmony and avoid conflict. Deeply influenced by Zen based precepts and the Samurai ‘Bushido’ culture of controlling ones emotions, society has adopted these principles.
There is a serenity that is induced by the politeness, an antidote to usual stresses of city life. Further, it’s done in such a way that no sense of inferiority is conferred. In fact, I found myself bowing in response. Such is the power of cultural norms.
Taken to an art-form that manifests itself in even the way food is presented. Setting aside any foibles about eating raw fish, the delivery is exquisite. Each accompanying piece of pottery, plate, dish and even the table cloth is chosen to complement the food.
I suppose it's possible for us Europeans to interpret the conduct of ordinary Japanese as obsequious. All the genuflection seen as belittling. Such a view would undermine a fundamental truth. The Japanese have recognised the importance of good manners in making life more tolerable. This collective community consensus extends itself to their behaviour at times of crisis. Earthquakes and tsunamis are not made worst by looting or random violence. The police don't need to guard abandoned buildings or waste time dealing with the hooligans. Instead, the people come together, helping each other through the troubles.
After the 2011 tsunami took down the Fukushima nuclear reactors, a struggle ensued to control radiation leaks. In a selfless act, a group of retired engineers volunteered to undertake the work. They asserted they'd reached an age that the radiations impact of their bodies is unlikely to take hold before their natural deaths. This is a fine and humbling example of the Japanese group culture (shogun-shugi)… the needs of the many are greater than the needs of the few. The rationality of this is self-evident, unsentimental and overpowering.
Meanwhile, the loutish behaviour that exhibits itself in European cultures is pleasingly absent in Japan. Still, the Japanese can be loud when having fun, in particular when alcohol is add to the mix. Although, I never recall it ever getting out of hand or proving threatening to others. The same can’t be said about a Saturday night in London.
Yet, I’m not blind to the downsides. The repressed nature of Japanese culture has produced issues that are a concern. Trains with female-only carriages suggests indecent assaults are a significant challenge. Whilst the inability to vent frustrations or be different must take a mental toll on some.
What can we learn from the Japanese? Well, their politeness is infectious. That's certain. The power of culture to over-ride the individual is evident. That's both a good and bad thing. I'd like to think that if we adopted the politeness of the Japanese, whilst recognising people are different, then the world may be a happier place.
Walter De Havilland is one of the last of the colonial coppers. He served 35 years in the Hong Kong Police.