Japan was ordinary at first.
We spent the first day struggling through the foreign language and the JR train system in our attempt to get to Shimizu where our host would pick us up from the train station. It was difficult without speaking the language, but it eventually worked and we managed to find our way. We marveled at the small things - drinks in vending machines that we had never heard of, types of food we could have never imagined, and car models that we had never known existed. It was a foreign place, but we found ourselves noticing more similarities than differences: at the end of the day, it was just another hard working, capitalist nation that loves its food, cars, and movies as we do. There was no initial culture shock.
As we got further into our trip the differences finally began to emerge - especially in Tokyo. Ten days of driving around the Japanese countryside, two days in Kyoto, and another two exploring Tokyo, and we had seen no crime. I would not have hesitated to walk Tokyo end to end alone at night. Even in the densest areas, bikes were left sitting on their kick stands unlocked. At no point for those ten days did we a see a bike lock. Our host in Shimizu did not lock his front door or his car while he was away. Even in the safest neighborhoods of the US, I would never dream of leaving my house, bike, or car completely unlocked while away. Especially not in a big city. Yet, the largest metropolis in the world leaves every bicycle unlocked to the trust of 35 million strangers.
We found the sidewalks clean enough to sleep on yet no homeless to sleep on them. They often looked as if the bricks had been laid the day before. Nine out of ten bathrooms were cleaner and smelled nicer than the toilet in my apartment, which I keep spotless. The stalls were their own little rooms with full privacy, toilets complete with electric bidets and playable recordings of flushing sounds to mask unwanted real sounds. Restaurants had sinks to wash hands before and after eating, and additionally provided washcloths or wet wipes. The sick and those who feared getting sick (which was not a widespread problem) wore face masks as if they were statements of fashion.
People were incredibly hospitable and eager to help out, despite their minimal English skills. While I was embarrassed to have arrived in the country and not taken the time to learn their language, the locals were often outright ashamed to not speak better English. “Do you speak any English?” I would sometimes ask. They bashfully would reply, “no” or “only a little bit” and then proceed to speak nearly fluent albeit deeply accented English. We often had subway attendants come up to us and ask us if we needed any help just because we had our maps out and looked lost. When entering the homes of our host’s friends, we were greeted with gifts and home cooked meals. Smiles and bows were exchanged in place of conversations.
Transportation was mind-blowing. Everything worked so perfectly smoothly and quickly that I felt like we were living in the future. The Shinkansen shot us across the countryside quietly and smoothly at close to 200 miles an hour. The subway trains showed up with perfect timing and were extremely easy to understand - with only an intimidating paper map and our sense of direction, we spent two days navigating Tokyo without managing to get lost. Even the bus system was perfect - the buses were modern, clean, quiet, and showed up and left right on time. Our night bus from Shimizu to Kyoto provided us with blankets and slippers. Train stations (which doubled as bus and subway hubs) dominated city centers, spanning multiple city blocks and housing enormous shopping malls, often reaching more than 10 stories tall. The Kyoto Station complex was one of the largest and most complex pieces of modern architecture I’ve ever seen.
We were surprised to find that Japan loves western culture too: French, Italian, Brazilian, and American restaurants were popular. The names of most places in Japan were in English so as to appear more westernized, despite the fact that English is not an often spoken language there. The government mandates that all students study English for six years. American products and companies are found abundantly: KFC, McDonalds, Starbucks, and 7-Eleven. Most cinemas play Hollywood films. And Hawai’i and France are two of Japan’s favorite vacation spots.
As we became more deeply exposed to Japanese culture throughout the trip, their society began to make sense. Emphasis is on the community, not the individual. While America values personality, independence, diversity, capitalism and loves its youthful counter culture, Japan values communalism, cooperation, and strives to put the greater good before the individual. Confucian cultural roots are felt everywhere: the Japanese are too shy and have too much cultural guilt to step out line.
While the intense orderliness and uniformity of cultural background allows for unbelievable societal progress and the lowest crime rates in the world, it felt like a utopia: a statistically perfected society. Yet it often also felt like a distopia. It was alarmingly undiverse at 98.5% Japanese ethnicity. Walking around towns outside of the big cities and even the less touristy part of Kyoto and Tokyo, we got our share of stares from locals. One local even asked us to take a photo with them while climbing Mt. Fuji. With my blonde hair and beard, I stood out. When we did see the occasional tourist, it was a sight worth pointing out. Most tourists were European - we did not see many other Americans. I actually enjoyed being in touristy areas at times because it was easier to blend in and we got fewer stares. The experience made me realize just how much I appreciate the diversity of my home country.
Overall, Japan is an incredibly well developed country, feeling more futuristic than the United States with faster trains, more urbanization, less crime, and cleaner, more orderly, and more navigable facilities and transportation networks. It loves its history, cars, entertainment, and technology. Its people work harder and longer than most anywhere else and feel more devotion to the larger society than most anywhere else - sometimes too hard. For me, it was an opportunity to see an entire civilization participate in perfect cooperation to create safety, cleanliness, and efficient transportation.
I am inspired.