“I loved Japanese culture before even realizing it was, in fact, Japanese culture.” – Kenny Omega
Like Kenny Omega, I’ve loved Japanese culture before I even knew what it was. Growing up in the aftermath of the video game crash of the early 1980s, it was inevitable that my first video games console would be Japanese: the NES. While I was terrible at its rock-hard games, that didn’t stop me from enjoying and endlessly re-playing the first levels of all the Mario games and Double Dragon. My favourite cartoon, Transformers, was American, but it was directly inspired by Japanese robot anime, and it was partly produced in Japan. And my favourite wrestlers, like Bret Hart, had all learned from Japanese wrestling. Even Hart’s iconic finishing move, The Sharpshooter, originated in Japan. All the best American wrestlers learned from the Japanese, who were renowned for their technical excellence and self-discipline.
As the years went by, I progressed from the Mario games to The Legend of Zelda, Super Metroid, Street Fighter II, Secret of Mana, Final Fantasy, and thence to the extraordinary world of Japanese RPGs. Over the last years I’ve spent countless hours with franchises like Fire Emblem, Tales, Persona, and Shin Megami Tensei. I introduced my wife to JRPGs. Now she loves them so much that she even bought a PlayStation Vita, which is basically a dedicated JRPG handheld. Our unplayed backlog at home includes about a thousand hours worth of JRPGs, from mainstream hits like Breath of the Wild, Bloodborne, and Persona 5, to Danganronpa, Blue Reflection, and Legend of Heroes (1 and 2). In the main, we don’t play these games for the graphics (beautiful as they often are), or even for the gameplay. We love them because of their stories, their characters, and for their heart and soul.
I progressed from interest in Japanese video games to anime and movies. I’m far from the biggest anime buff out there, but the likes of Death Note and Kill La Kill rank among the best TV I’ve ever seen. Yoshiaki Kawajiri’s Ninja Scroll is one of my all-time favourite films. At university, I studied East Asian history, specializing in China and Japan. I developed an interest in Japanese cinema, and grew to love the films of Takeshi Kitano and Akira Kurosawa. Recently, I’ve made an effort to study the films of Hayao Miyazaki. I’m now of the tentative opinion that he’s the greatest filmmaker of all time. And I’ve watched a lot of films over the years.
Inspired by the incredible music featured in anime and JRPGs, I developed an interest in Japanese pop music. Scandal and Babymetal are now two of my favourite bands. I even like AKB48. The wholesomeness, sincerity, positivity, and catchiness of the music lifts my spirit. I also like the fact women are so positively represented in Japanese pop. Nobody makes that big a deal of it. In Japan, it feels like pop music is still just… pop music. In the West, pop music has become just one more frontier in the Culture Wars. If the likes of Taylor Swift, Shania Twain, or Kanye West, say the wrong thing (like, anything less than condemnatory about their own President), they’re hounded by the media, and by “fans” on social media.
For all these reasons, we’ve wanted to visit Japan for a long time. I wanted to see what it was like; to immerse myself in Japanese culture; to be surrounded by Japanese people; to see what it was that gave rise to the spirit and passion of all the culture I’ve enjoyed so much. Many of our friends have visited Japan within the last few years, and they all loved it. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that so many, like me, have wanted to visit Japan specifically. Part of it can be explained by a long-standing interest in Japanese popular culture. But I think there’s more to it than that, and it was this “more to it” that struck me so strongly during my all-too-brief stay in Japan.
I think Japanese culture has a positive sense of itself, of its capacity to include and integrate, of its solidity and security, which people in the West both lack and crave.
I should preface this by saying that I know Japanese society is not perfect. Nowhere on Earth is perfect. Japan has its share of problems. Some of them are serious. But Japan does many things very, very well. I think that other countries – not least the UK – have a great deal to learn from Japan, which would benefit our society, a lot. I also have an impression that Japan is trying to work through its problems in good faith. I could be wrong, but I don’t think I am. From an admittedly superficial examination, Japanese society does not exhibit the bad faith, nihilism, and cynicism, which are rampant in the Anglo-American media, political class, and academy, and which are causing great harm in Western societies.
Our stay in Japan began in Shibuya, a major commercial and consumer district in Tokyo. We have heard a lot about Shibuya, of course. It’s an iconic area, often featured in movies and video games. It figures prominently in Tokyo Mirage Sessions, one of my favourite games of recent years. None of what I’d seen remotely prepared me for the real thing. Shibuya’s main intersection, Shibuya Crossing is famous, and it’s a sociological phenomenon in its own right. For a start, it’s enormous. The roads there are very wide, and several wide roads intersect. It is also unbelievably busy and crowded. The Crossing is right outside Shibuya train station, which is the third busiest rail station in Tokyo, and the fourth busiest in Japan (and also the world). Shibuya station alone handles half as many passengers in one day as the entire London Underground network. Think about that for a moment.
Needless to say, the roads are busy, too. There’s plenty of traffic. Anywhere else, this would be a recipe for disaster. How the hell are all these people going to cross the road, I thought? And how are the cars going to get through? In London, New York, or almost anywhere else in the world, you’d expect to see pedestrians nipping in and out of traffic, cheating the red light to try and get across the road as quickly as possible. Sure, most people would behave, but it only takes a few bad apples to cause misery for everyone. On top of that, you might feel physically intimidated or frightened by the sheer number of people, and panic about getting across the road in time before the lights change. Again, in most (all?) other places that fear would be justified. You might expect people to push, to hurry, to jostle you out of the way. The old, children, or the infirm, might expect to get barged over. Or you might be worried that someone would take the opportunity to steal your phone or your handbag.
If the Crossing were in London, any or all of these things might happen. But none of it happens in Shibuya.
Everyone – and I mean everyone – waits for the light to turn green. People wait in an orderly fashion, even though the queue for the Crossing can be ten or twenty people deep. They don’t try and push to be at the front. The lights stay green for a while, which means there’s ample time for everyone to cross. Nobody shoves you or knocks into you. Sure, you might get the odd person who doesn’t quite look where they’re going, maybe because they’re looking at their phone, or chatting to their friend right next to them. But most people pay attention and just walk across.
Crossing the road at Shibuya Crossing was one of the first things I did in Japan and it was an extraordinary, educational experience in and of itself. Tokyo is an enormous city. The Tokyo metropolitan region is the largest and most populous in the world, with around 30 million people. It makes sense that people have to comport themselves in a way that allows them to get along easily with other people. If you’re selfish, or inconsiderate, then chances are that you’ll cause an inordinate amount of disruption and inconvenience for other people. So, there’s a practical reason why people should conduct themselves calmly and in an orderly manner.
You could argue that this also explains why there is no litter in Japan. Let me repeat that: there is no litter in Japan. A pedant might argue there is some litter in Japan. After all, it only takes one person to drop something, which is inevitable. But having visited the busiest and most populous cities in Japan – which are some of the busiest and most populous on the planet – the amount of litter on the streets must be considerably less than 1% of the litter you would encounter on the streets of London. And London is nowhere near as busy as Tokyo. People don’t even tap their cigarette ash on the street. Smokers carry pocket ashtrays around with them and use those to tap their ash and hold their old cigarette butts.
You know what else? There are no public bins in Japan. People carry their rubbish with them until they get to where they’re going.
A cynic might argue that this, too, is merely a function of the populous nature of Japanese cities. After all, in such busy cities, if people dropped too much litter, it might rapidly get out of hand. So it’s just a practical adaptation. But such a reductionist (or constructionist) view doesn’t really hold up. After all, there are plenty of populous cities where people do litter; and where it does get out of hand – or, at least where it gets deeply unpleasant.
Seemingly mundane actions like crossing roads and taking your litter with you speak to some underlying truths about Japan. The most important is that Japanese people are overwhelmingly integrated into a cultural value system which promotes conscientiousness, respect, orderliness, and conformity. Like most things, taken to extremes, these all have a negative side. Indeed, in the West, this negative side is almost all you ever hear about, particularly when considering the upbringing or education of children. But it’s far from clear that they are entirely, or even mainly, problematic qualities; and their promotion certainly seems to tend towards the development of a more harmonious society.
I get the train and the London Underground to work every day, and every day I see people talking loudly on their phones, eating smelly food, putting their feet on seats, and doing their make-up. People explode and threaten others due to the slightest perceived infringement of their personal space. So many people act with no consideration or respect for their fellow man, or even for their own dignity. I saw none of this kind of behaviour, at all, ever, during my time in Japan, even when on busy commuter trains (which are, if anything, busier than their London counterparts). On the London Underground, you’ll often find moronic, attention-seeking station staff performing platform announcements in ludicrous voices, as if they’re auditioning for a job narrating a children’s gameshow. In Japan, the train staff are all impeccably dressed, and they carry out their duties with the utmost care. They turn around and bow to the passengers each time they leave a train carriage.
As we were on holiday, most of our time in Japan was spent in hotels, shops, bars, restaurants, and so on. This meant we encountered a lot of people in the service industry. Like Britain, the service sector accounts for a huge proportion of the Japanese economy. But the service ethos in Japan could hardly be more different. In the UK, customers are often treated with contempt by service staff, who see their jobs as beneath them; who resent doing work they think has no value, for people they despise, which they are compelled to do by forces outside their control. It’s true that service work can be boring and unsatisfying – especially if you perceive it to be meaningless and deserving of contempt. But it’s quite different in Japan. Everyone who served us – and this includes local 7-11’s and off licenses we visited in the dead of night – did so with grace and honour. Most were very polite; some were exceptionally welcoming, kind, and considerate; and this was often in the humblest of places. At times, I could scarcely believe the kindness and humility of total strangers.
In the West, various intellectual and ideological trends have diminished the idea of service. Neo-liberalism has reduced it to a financial transaction. You can get good service, but only if you’re prepared to pay extra for it. Otherwise, expect to be treated with contempt. The socialist movement may have contributed to this, as well, by a tendency to present service positions as inherently demeaning and mindless. The consequence of all this is that service is no longer viewed as a personal, human exchange. In Japan, we found that people act as if service is something that is inherently meaningful. This is both spiritually ennobling and eminently practical. After all, each of us requires service as we go about our daily business, never mind when we go travelling, go to the hospital, or whatever. That’s an inevitability of the human division of labour. We can’t do everything on our own, and why the hell would we want to?
As if it needed to be said, I should point out here that you don’t tip in Japan. People in the service industry don’t serve you well for mercenary ends. They serve you well because it is the right thing to do. If you see service as something that has inherent value, then you’re more likely to do it well, and you’re more likely to enjoy doing it. The benefit of this compounds: if you do it well. then the customers you’re serving are more likely to enjoy your service and show their genuine gratitude. Then, if you do this long enough, you’re likely to become really good at providing a service, and really good at your job. You might even learn to do it beautifully. Finally, if you do something beautifully and attentively for someone, and you do it with nothing but kindness and nobility in your heart, you might find that you touch them to the bottom of their soul.
I experienced this kind of service on a couple of occasions during my time in Japan, and they were some of the most moving and humbling experiences of my adult life. In the West, so many of us tend to think of ourselves, deep-down, in a nihilistic manner as beings undeserving of respect or esteem. That’s true for some of us, sure, but not for most of us, despite our flaws. It’s a spiritual malaise that has pervaded our culture over the last couple of generations. But when someone you don’t know acts as if you are someone of value, it can be a powerful tonic. It’s so easy, so simple, so beautiful, and so tragically rare.
The kindness of strangers in Japan was not confined to those we met in the service industry. We visited a lot of bars in Japan. We loved the bar culture there. Japanese bars tend to be smaller, and more personal, than what you find in the UK or America. Sometimes it’s literally a bar, with seats for four people, and a bartender. In the Golden Gai section of Shinjuku, Tokyo, there are about 250 bars like this. More often than not, you’ll start talking to the other customers, and the bartender. But even in larger bars, people will try and talk to you, and include you in what they’re doing (probably karaoke); even when they have poor English, and you have worse Japanese.
People might have partly been interested in us because we were from overseas, and we were obviously out to enjoy ourselves; but the warm welcome we had always felt genuine. I’m sensitive to this, because I have a radar for suspicious over-friendliness in London; everyone here has one, because there are so many predators about. With the obvious exception of Shinjuku street touts – whose menace is apparent because they behave so differently from everyone else you meet in Japan – the people we met were uniformly lovely. It may be the case, though, that Osaka people are even friendlier than Tokyo people. They certainly told us that was the case, and the suggestion seemed to be borne out by our own experiences (even in Tokyo, many of the most gregarious people we met were from Osaka).
Conformity to a shared system of values is obviously a big part of Japanese culture. It’s inevitable that there will be a downside to this. People are different. Some of us are natural nonconformists, due to our personalities; others might have difficulty conforming due to their appearance, or because they have a non-Japanese parent. The stories you hear of bullying in Japanese schools, which is part of enforcing conformity, can be pretty unpleasant. This is a problem. However, it’s far from clear to me that the goal itself (a high level of conformism and shared values) is bad, even if some of the methods or side-effects are undesirable and wrong.
We went to a pretty big J-Pop concert when we were in Tokyo, and it was a fascinating experience. Concerts in England are often unpleasant affairs: congested, dirty, with rubbish and detritus everywhere, disgusting toilets, and selfish and inconsiderate behaviour from many in the audience. The concert we went to in Japan was a seated affair, but everyone stood in front of their own seat during the concert (aisles kept clear), and danced on the spot during the songs. More than that, everyone performed the exact same moves at the same time, such that the crowd itself almost became part of the show. The attendees were dancing, but each person was also an organic part of something larger (the crowd), which in turn had an organic relationship with the music and the band.
At times I was watching the crowd in front of me rather than the band on stage. You can argue the point, but I’d say there’s something to be said for this way of doing things, versus the chaos and uncertainty of concerts in the West, which tend to fall somewhere between anarchy and a bloody mess. I’ve seen people busted open and carried out unconscious in Western concerts, never mind all the fights and (yes, it happens) groping. It must make it a lot easier for the kids and teenagers to dance as well, as they have some idea of what to do, and maybe worry less about looking like an idiot while trying to figure it out for themselves. Well, I suppose, unless they get the moves wrong. Like I said before, nowhere’s perfect.
At the end of the concert, the band went off-stage waving at the audience, and the audience were waving at the band, too; everyone, teenagers, grown women, and salarymen in suits. It felt innocent, and fun. It felt good to be a part of it.
You know what else? Nobody took any photos of the band while they were on stage. I didn’t see a single phone out during the concert. Why? Because you weren’t supposed to. The band didn’t want you to. As simple as that. None of this, I paid for my tickets, I have a right to take photos, fuck you.
I suppose this is one of the most basic lessons of my time in Japan. People have democratic rights. They understand what those rights are. But the collective value system, articulated through the actions of each individual, tends to place more emphasis on their responsibilities than on their rights.
The audience members, dancing in front of their seats, found joy in their individual expression, but also in the fact that they were part of something bigger. They could each have done something different, something aimless, whatever they wanted, but it would have remained specific to them, and the combined effect would have been less than the sum of its parts. Instead, each individual performance was contributing to something larger than mere personal enjoyment.
This is an example of something that was pointed out to me by an English friend who has worked in Japan for a number of years. I told him I thought it was wonderful that people thought their jobs – even “menial” ones, by Western standards – had value. They wanted to do them well, diligently, and many aspired to do them in a beautiful manner. He replied that it wasn’t just that they thought their jobs were inherently meaningful. They are seen as meaningful because they contribute to something larger and more important – they are an integral part of the harmonious functioning of society.
This is truly profound. In this way, the qualities and contribution of the individual have acknowledged value in themselves, but they are also understood in a context which gives them meaning through the orderly pursuit of agreed social values and the collective aspiration for a good society. If you internalize this, then almost any social action or role, no matter how small, can become meaningful and worthwhile. Each of us has a role to play. Nobody is useless or without value.
It doesn’t solve the inevitable suffering of life, not to mention the suffering caused by inequality and by evil. People in Japan still get sick, they still get old, and die. Japan is more prone to natural disasters than most countries. Japan is the only country to have been the victim of nuclear weapons. There is still inequality in Japan, along various axes. Life is far from perfect for women in Japan, though from what I saw, it seems much better than it is in almost all other parts of the world. There are bad people in Japan who do bad things; but it seems they have fewer opportunities to cause harm than their equivalents in other countries.
Japanese people did many atrocious things in the twentieth century. I can’t begin to recount the extent of the horrors perpetrated by the Japanese military in the Second World War in this piece. The Japanese occupation of China and Korea was one of the worst things that has happened in human history. Iris Chang was an American historian of Chinese descent who studied it a great deal and wrote a powerful book about just one aspect of the Japanese occupation, called The Rape of Nanking. The subject matter is so horrendous that it seems to have contributed to her depression and eventual suicide at the age of 36.
Every person has within them the capacity for evil. All countries, all nations, are capable of performing evil, too. Just like with individuals, the more powerful the country is, the greater scope it has for doing evil. Japan is no exception. Neither, of course, is Britain.
None of that changes my admiration for how Japan organizes its society today, and for how Japanese people conduct themselves towards one another, and orient themselves towards reality.
Japan is changing, too. It has an ageing society, and like Britain, the integration of women into the workforce over the last generation poses significant social questions. Not least is a problem women face when they reach their thirties, which is the difficulty of balancing a career with a family. The birth rate is declining in Japan. Japan doesn’t have an answer to this yet. Neither do we in the West, no good ones anyway. From what Japanese people told me, younger people are rebelling against the traditional value system. Whether this is serious, or whether it’s just the current generation doing what has always been done, I don’t know. But Japan is also faced with cultural pressures from America and Europe. Witness, for example, the self-congratulatory articles in the Western media that Japan is “finally” responding to #MeToo.
On the other hand, part of me suspects that Japanese culture – particularly its video games – are a helpful, if inadequate, corrective to the growing cynicism and anti-humanism of Western culture. After all, one of the reasons people love Nintendo games and JRPGs is their wholesomeness and humanity. It feels good to play them. They give the lie to nihilism and despair. Well, the best of them do, anyway. Even the seemingly bleak Dark Souls – made by that other visionary Miyazaki – is a metaphor for the regeneration of culture, by unifying the wisdom of those who came before with the revitalizing spirit of the new generation.
Japan is a highly ordered society. Much of the popular culture I love from Japan is an expression of how Japanese people relax, and explore their creative side, the chaotic side of their natures. That goes for games, anime, movies, and music. It goes for karaoke, too. I was constantly amazed to see unprepossessing salarymen in bars after work belt out classic pop songs, to an inconceivably high standard. Then they’d give you the mic, and encourage and congratulate you with genuine warmth after your own meagre effort.
Due to the coherence and integration of its cultural value system, Japan seems better equipped than most countries to account for demographic and social changes, and to make the necessary adaptations. I certainly hope that’s the case, because Japan felt closer to Heaven than anywhere else I’ve been on Earth. It should only change for the better.
Let’s hope we can too. Truly, we have much to learn from Japan.