Photo by Jusdevoyage on Unsplash
During my year abroad in Japan I realised how my upbringing as a person of British-Japanese descent imparted onto me certain traits. Previously, I thought that these were my own idiosyncrasies but as time went past I began to see these reflected back to me in Japanese culture. I’ve been back in my birth country of the UK for less than two weeks now and immediately found myself in reverse culture shock.
Whilst Japan and its people are diverse in character and ways of thinking, there are certain habits and ideas that offer guidelines on how to live. Ones that perhaps people raised there aren’t even conscious of.
As much as Japan has a lot to learn from other countries, the land of the rising sun also has a lot to offer the world.
1. Keep Calm and Carry On
The UK is famed for its stiff upper lip and ability to “keep calm and carry on” for crises. However, in my experience, the opposite is true. Whilst this may have been true in the war era, present day Britain is panic-central. Its lack of experience with natural disasters mean that British people start to stress when anything is out of the norm. This is exemplified in how heavy snow in 2018 resulted in supermarket fights and panic buying. When the pandemic hit in March 2020, similar events ensued amped up by Britain’s inexperience with national crises.
In contrast, Japan remains calm in the face of national emergencies. In the wake of the 2011 Tohoku Earthquake and Tsunami, the resolve of the Japanese people was impressive. Instead of looting, the Japanese queued outside supermarkets and convenience stores. Similarly, whilst the onset of the pandemic did see the Japanese initially head to the supermarkets in their droves, this only lasted a few weeks or so and was bereft of the sense of panic that plagued supermarkets in the West. My experience of the Japanese lockdown was also that people calmly got on with things the best that they could with supermarkets returning to normal after a brief initial panic.
This calmness has its origins in the Buddhist term and concept Gaman (我慢) that teaches the population to patiently persevere. It’s seen as a defining characteristic of the Japanese national identity and could contribute to how tranquil Japan feels in the face of any kind of national emergency. Being used to the British panicked attitude in regards to any kind of emergency, it took me a while to get used the idea of being calm in the face of an oncoming storm.
As anyone knows who has experienced a panic attack, the feeling of anxiety is not a pleasant one. Living in Japan I began to understand that this Japanese concept, as some researchers have suggested, is not one of blindly persevering at your own detriment. Instead, it is one that teaches you to use your calmness as a weapon against what life throws at you. It’s something that I plan to bring with me back to the UK as it appears to head once again into lockdown.
2. Obedience Is A Strength, Not A Weakness
Modern Western culture emphasises the individual over that of the collective group. Whilst this does allow for a perceived level of personal freedom, it often comes at the detriment to others. The previously mentioned instance of panic buying is a key example. Such an action shows that the person in question is purely thinking about their own individual needs rather than that of the next person who may really need that last packet of pasta.
Whilst this is not unique to Japan, a key strength of the Japanese mindset is that such collectivised ways of thinking mean that following the rules is built-in. In the individualistic West, it is seen as a weakness to follow the rules. It’s a sign that you’re unable to stand on your own two feet. However it’s this kind of thinking that led to many neglecting to wear a mask with disastrous results.
However, in Japan, corresponding to guidelines on public etiquette in the corona era, almost 100% of people donned a mask when leaving their home. Even now, when cases are a fraction of what they were at its peak, they continue to do so. It’s this reason that partly contributed to Japan’s effective response against the pandemic. There’s a reason why no videos of “Karens” refusing to wear a mask in public places came out of the land of the rising sun. Contrary to atypical Western thought, obedience has allowed Japan to return to normal. This is arguably a triumph over the many Western societies such as the US and the UK that continue to flounder as they centre the individual over that of the community.
3. Politeness Goes A Long Way
The Japanese term 「遠慮」(enryo) is the idea that you should abstain from something as a matter of politeness. Principally, this is usually done for the sake of others. This cultural philosophy is embedded within the Japanese virus countermeasures of avoiding the Three C’s. Rather than a full blown lockdown, the government asked the general public to avoid these Three C’s; closed spaces with no ventilation, crowded spaces and close-contact circumstances.
Whilst initially viewed as vain attempt to control the virus compared to European full-blown lockdowns, the policy worked. With a culture of abstaining for the sake of others built-in, the Three C’s allowed Japan to return to normality fairly quickly.
Whilst politeness is viewed in the West as simply an individual treating the other with courtesy, Japan also shows the strengths of this instilled at a societal level. When a culture is inherently polite, abstaining from something is given purpose. For example, whilst I was given the option of travelling across Japan during the pandemic, I like many others chose not to. Moreover, as restrictions eased up with nightclubs and bars opened up, I refrained from going. In other words, for the benefit of others I abstained.
Tokyo currently resembles something similar to how it was a year ago before we ever even heard of the word coronavirus — albeit with no tourists. However, even this is due to change as Japan gets ready to host the Olympics later next year. The world could learn a lot from these three philosophies on life. Its application has allowed Japan to emerge from the pandemic relatively unscathed. And that is something the West should start paying attention to.