I recently made a post about things in Japan that aren’t amazing. When a country’s problems are summarised and presented to you one after another like that, it can probably be quite off-putting. So this one is about the aspects of Japanese society that stand out to me as particularly nice and not scary. Sometimes, regardless of its underlying serious problems, Tokyo seems kinda like an actual utopia compared to the UK.
1. It’s crazily safe
In the UK you’d never think of leaving your bag unattended in a public place. In Japan, everybody does this, all the time – and nothing bad ever comes of it. I’ve even seen people leaving their suitcases outside toilets in busy train stations, but it would be extremely rare for this sort of behaviour to actually result in anything being stolen. It’s normal in Japanese society for people to have a great degree of confidence that nobody will do them wrong in this way. When a Japanese friend told me about his plans to go to Paris, and I told him to be careful with his bag, he was outraged that there would be such a high risk of his things being taken.
Not only does this confidence apply to belongings, it also applies to your person, or your family. While walking home at any time past nine PM by myself in Manchester city centre has me fearing for my personal safety, in Tokyo getting home by yourself at around midnight isn’t something that women or even young girls make a big deal over. The atmosphere of the city is far less dangerous, and I would have no qualms about going for a late night jog or taking the last train home by myself.
One of the most impossible things for my parents to believe is the fact that in Tokyo tiny schoolchildren (from about five or six) commute to and from school alone. This can involve navigating your way through several huge and intensely busy train stations and bracing packed morning trains, but they do it, and it’s completely normal for them. I’m still sometimes a bit baffled to be on my way to or from class and see a tiny girl in a cute uniform and rucksack about the size of her body beeping through the ticket gate in front of me by herself.
2. It’s bad to be a burden
There are several factors which might contribute to Japanese people’s confidence that they won’t be wronged. For one, the number of police in Tokyo is ridiculously high. There also aren’t as many people living in poverty as there are in Britain, so less people who might be inclined towards criminality for financial reasons. But in Japan, I’m told, and have gained the impression, that even if you were poor you wouldn’t steal. This has to do with the quite distinctly Japanese sense that it’s shameful to be a burden to other people in society.
Whichever philosophical tradition you might decide to trace this back to, it seems that in Japan where collectivist attitudes prevail over the individual, it’s customary to aim to minimise the amount of trouble you cause for everyone else around you. This is from little things, like not making your group of friends feel awkward by complaining that you’re not having a good time, to things like not taking money from anyone, or not committing a crime against another person.
I’ve put this sense of not becoming a burden in the ‘nice things about Japanese society’ column because it means that people tend to always be considerate of your feelings, tactful in social interaction, and generally good members of society who try to make everyone happy. It’s an attitude that many Western countries often seem to lack, and one that makes Japan so hospitable. This isn’t to say, however, that it doesn’t have its bad sides. For example, not expressing feelings that might make others feel awkward often involves people repressing them and never talking them out, and the sense of shame over being a burden often means that people would sooner take their own lives than ask for financial help or steal.
3. It’s not cool to be an awful person
In Britain, for some reason, the cool kid in school (or often by extension university) is someone loud, disruptive, rude, indifferent towards their studies, not particularly pleasant towards women, a bit of a bully, and generally a human mess. In Japan, if you were like this, people wouldn’t like you. In Japan, the cool kid in school is diligent, good-natured, kind to women, helpful, gets good grades and is generally seemingly perfect. The sort of guy who would cuddle a stray cat in the street instead of spray-paint a penis into its fur, find it hilarious and distribute pictures around the school. When I’ve talked to people in Japan about this they’re often bemused at the fact that anyone like the obnoxious Brit described could ever be popular. “But, they’re not considerate and kind? Then why do people think they’re cool?” This has been my question since I was about ten, so I’m glad that people in Japan at least echo my sentiments. Meanwhile, in the UK, awful people continue to be unduly idolised, and lad culture thrives despite being altogether fairly deplorable. You’re unlikely to find a Japanese version of a ‘lad’ here in Tokyo – and if you did, he’d likely be pretty unpopular.
4. Children are polite and mature
The good judgement of character of children in Japanese schools leads me to my next point, being that children here are incredibly independent and polite. I’ve already mentioned that tiny children make their way to school by themselves, and it doesn’t stop here. Japanese children clean their own classrooms and take it in turns to serve meals to other students at lunchtime. After-school club activities are run almost completely by the students alone, as they take measures to pursue their own extra-curricular interests seriously and organise their own events and practices. Every year, or twice a year, a school will hold a culture festival during which the students organise their own performances, or arrange something like a club café which will be open to the members of the public who come to visit the festival. This incredible organisation by students alone continues into university where societies (called ‘circles’ in Japan) accomplish some really amazing things with no outside help.
Students’ maturity can be seen outside as well as inside school, where they’re usually always very polite and respectable people. They aren’t noisy and deliberately annoying on public transport and they don’t hang out on street corners smoking and drinking like many of my classmates in high school.
If any of you are thinking of teaching in Japan at some point, I’m sure your job will be much easier than teaching in the UK!
5. There’s no rigid class division, and no groups of people who hate each other
There are people in Japan who are rich and who are poor. But the idea of economic/social classes and regional/class rivalry doesn’t exist here for many reasons. Firstly, the fact that most people seemingly have similar amounts of wealth and similar living circumstances. There are no social categories deeply rooted in history like there are in the UK, which have been allowed to perpetuate into modern life. There’s no Japanese aristocracy in the way that there is a British one, and on the other end of the spectrum it’s extremely rare to see homeless people in the street even in the most densely populated city in the world.
Secondly, there don’t seem to be any significant wealth gaps between regions in Japan. Tokyo is undoubtedly the centre of activity, but it’s not so obviously the centre of wealth, or of culture. Both Japanese and foreign tourists love to visit other Japanese cities, from far North in Hokkaido to far South in Okinawa, to everywhere in between, not forgetting Kyoto and Osaka. Each city has its own unique cultures and attractions, and people from each city really appreciate the other. Not like in Britain where many Southerners scorn the North as a barren wasteland and Northerners scorn the South for, well, not being like the North, and eating chips without gravy or curry sauce (why would you do this).
Thirdly, there’s no racism or religious phobia in the forefront of the media or everyday life in Japan. Although, granted, this is due largely to the fact that there are no significantly large minority groups in Japan, which behind Korea is the second most racially homogenous country in the world. There is racism in Japan, as there is everywhere, but such racism (mainly among older people) rarely manifests itself, and when it does it’s usually in a much less aggressive or outright accusative way. Still, it’s nice to live in a place where people aren’t constantly slating and collectively bracketing vulnerable minorities.
There are a bunch of other things I could mention in this post, like Japanese people’s love and respect for nature and the miracle that is Japanese customer service. But these are five that are particularly apparent to me as a British person, who grew up in a pretty gross town and went to an average (awful) state school. For someone from another country, for example, the lack of a rigid class system might not come as a surprise like it does to someone from Britain, and if I’d gone to a private school in London I might not be so surprised at the lack of children smoking and picking fights in the street.
I hope that if you visit Japan, you, given your own individual context and experiences, can be as pleasantly surprised as I was about the ways in which Japanese society functions.