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Tuesday, Feb. 3, 2009

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CHRIS MacKENZIE ILLUSTRATION

THE ZEIT GIST

What would the locals do?

Paul de Vries sees Japanese solutions to Westerners' woes


In Japan, paper advertisements hang from the ceilings of train cars. In how many other countries would that be a viable advertising option? Certainly not in my hometown of Melbourne. Back in Australia, the majority of those ads would not survive any given Saturday night.

The buttons that train guards push to play those pre-departure jingles: They are fully exposed! Anyone can walk up and push them. And yet nobody does. They would back home in Melbourne.

The fire extinguishers frequently found sitting out by the sidewalk: No one rolls them down the hill at 3 a.m. Amazing!

Fish tanks that are less than fully secured: Oh my! Back home, the occupants of those tanks would greet the Sunday sunrise floating on their backs in a murky goo.

Valuables: When you lose your wallet in Japan, chances are you'll get it back — cash intact and cards untouched.

Salarymen asleep on the train: They are woken at the terminus with a sympathetic prod by railway staff. Inevitably, the bag containing both laptop and wallet is still resting on the overhead rack.

The last train: Hundreds of drunken people sardined into carriages and not a hint of aggression. Back home, guys would be squaring off on every second platform.

Violent crime: The average victim of violent crime in Japan is attacked by someone they know. Random violence is rare. Perhaps this explains why it is so common to see solitary girls and women wandering home on narrow, dimly lit streets — even in the wee hours in the entertainment areas of big cities.

Police apprehension: It has become apparent in the last couple of years that the average member of the Japanese constabulary is not exactly fleet of foot. Could the extraordinary number of wanted criminals who simply walk into police boxes and give themselves up be one of the reasons why?

The incarceration rate: The prison population of Japan tends to hover around the 60 out of 100,000 mark. For most Western nations it is at least twice that number. For America, more than 700.

General politeness: Is there a nation in the world that surpasses Japan? Ditto for hospitality and service.

Why is Japan so courteous, orderly and safe? How can non-Japanese residents help keep it that way? While there is hardly a stitch in Japan's social, economic and cultural fabric that does not seem to contribute to the maintenance of safety and cohesion in some way, I see five factors as being largely responsible for this phenomenon. (Other ideas are welcome).

The first is the general availability of low-skilled work for reasonable pay. This lessens the number of those who commit crime because of financial need.

The second is the inclination in Japan to "spread the wealth around." This greatly cuts down the numbers who commit crime out a perceived sense of injustice.

The third is a loose pact with the forces of organized crime in which the syndicates are permitted to operate in generally non-drug related "fields of endeavor" in return for providing a structured environment for that small percentage of psychopaths that every large population sample throws forward.

The fourth is an acceptance of the inevitability of vices such as gambling and the sex industry, and a determination to incorporate them into society in a way that does the least amount of harm.

The fifth is the predominance of groups within Japanese society and the application of group accountability within them. In "Back to the baths" (Zeit Gist, Dec. 2), I defined group accountability as a process within which all of the members of a group are held at least partially accountable for the indiscretion of one of that group's members. Here it is at work in its most extreme application.

In December 2007, a couple of members of the Kanto Gakuin rugby club were found to be growing marijuana in an apartment. The upshot? The team was banned from that season's competition.

Last December, a member of the Toyo University running club was arrested on a molestation charge. For several days it was touch and go as to whether the Toyo team was going to be scratched from that holy of holies, the Hakone Ekiden, even though the athlete concerned was not a member of the ekiden squad.

For some Japanese this is overly harsh. Others reply, "A team is a team." Nearly all, however, are more than accepting of the concept's most common application: the willing assumption of shame.

In 1999 there was a hijacking at Haneda airport by an emotionally troubled individual who had graduated from one of Tokyo's better universities. That night, when I rolled up to teach an evening English class, my student was looking more than a little shell-shocked. A graduate of the university concerned, he recounted how the press had been making "please explain" phone calls to the university — a fact he had obtained through the old boys' network.

It is ridiculous to suggest that the university had any sort of reasonable case to answer for the hijacker's actions. "Were the alumni angry at the behavior of the press?" I inquired. "Not particularly," my student replied. The university had sincerely expressed its deepest regrets. The e-mails that had made their way around the old boys' network that afternoon were genuinely contrite.

This may all seem a little peculiar to those who have been brought up on the culture of "I," "mine," "me" and "Hey, I pay my taxes!" For the Japanese, however, there is a principle at stake: "There are no individuals. We are all members of extended families that rise and fall together." The broad implication is a general sense of humility and consideration for others that is hardly matched in the West.

An area in which the Western population of Japan (a "team" to which many readers of Zeit Gist belong) is being widely subjected to an application of group accountability is access to rented accommodation. In "Prejudice among obstacles facing non-Japanese tenants" (Zeit Gist, Nov. 18), Jenny Uechi reports that there is a "prejudice" among landlords that "white people" have a tendency to "party hard" within their residences. This is less a prejudice, however, than a simple statement of fact. Moreover, it is only a part of the problem. "We" are generally too noisy, are noisy late at night and are not particularly concerned about obeying neighborhood customs and rules.

The greater problem, however, is the all-too-common reaction when neighbors and landlords start complaining. Regrettably, a disproportionately high number of us respond by going on the defensive. Rather than attuning to the realities of this land, we adopt an "us against them" mentality.

Compounding the problem is the standard response when these tales are retold to Western acquaintances and friends: Rather than being advised to stop acting like jerks and making life harder for the rest of us, the tellers of these tales are often held up for acclaim.

What, then, is the solution to this problem? One option is legislation: to ban landlords from excluding tenants based on their country of origin.

A bad idea. We tried it in Australia in the 1970s. Landlords found ways around it. I'd be very surprised if Japanese landlords were any less sly.

Second, it does not address the problem. The behavior of Western residents is a genuine issue that needs to be addressed. Legislation would only exacerbate the feelings of discontent among the Japanese population. Nothing positive would be achieved.

The alternative solution has two components. The first is education. You cannot live a Western-style existence in high-density, thin-walled Japan! This statement, and the numerous reasons why, is in need of broad distribution.

Second, Westerners in Japan should start taking their cues from the nation in which "We are one" has a legacy that extends back a tad further than January 2009; to accept that a systemic level of less-than-optimum behavior will inevitably have consequences, and to act accordingly when others brag.

Feeling a touch aggrieved? Take comfort in the fact that some Japanese landlords are not particularly interested in males of any persuasion. Females are cleaner and quieter, and many landlords openly state their preference for them. Oh well guys, as usual, it looks like we'll have to make do with the other "nine carriages on the train." Otoko wa tsurai yo ("It's tough being a man.") . . .

Paul de Vries is putting the finishing touches to a book about what the world can learn from Japan. Send comments on this issue and story ideas to community@japantimes.co.jp


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