Japan: Where the group truly coheres

What is not to love about Japan? Cleanliness, order, social cohesion, high conscientiousness, mutual respect, industriousness: you see this everywhere.

Japan: the place where perfection is the standard, not the aspiration.

Does this regulation of self and of the society come at too high a price? I think the Japanese would not know what you meant if you asked the question. What price? To belong to the Japanese nation is to be a part of something ineffably great.

To an outsider, it all seems sometimes a little much. Take for instance these signs near or in the escalator at the conference centre.



Forget about the awkward English, which should have said: “Please stand one step apart”. The second sign admonishes one to stand inside the yellow lines inside each step on the escalator. Are any such signs required in a society as polite, well disciplined, and rule abiding?

And then I think of our moronic announcements to the effect that one is now approaching the end of the moving walkway in an airport (duh). There is an especially obnoxious one in the underground passage between terminals at O’Hare Airport.

So stupid signs assuming complete incompetence are common to both cultures.


For an excellent introduction to the core ideas of Japanese culture, I recommend Ruth Benedict’s “The Chrysanthemum and the Sword”. I alert you to the condescending tone of the Wikipedia article concerning the book itself. The crime of Ruth Benedict’s book is to give a guide in clear prose to some of the inner motivations of Japanese people, and this must have offended Benedict’s anthropologist rivals.


Forget the envious sniffing of the anthropologists; it is a truly useful book. (Link to amazon.ca here)

A particularly gloomy appreciation of the influence of the Japanese political system on the national culture is found in Karel van Wolferen’s The Enigma of Japanese Power. The thrust of van Wolferen’s book is that the Japanese political system is a kind of soft, distributed dictatorship, where power is broadly distributed among a leadership class – itself rather small, as elites must be – which acts so as to make effective leadership by the Prime Minister (the Shogun) nearly impossible. Everything nice about Japanese culture, says van Wolferen, derives from its generous and interesting culture, everything bad from its opaque and subtly oppressive political system.


Now that Japan is fully engaged in demographic decline, the menace that the Japanese industrial model seemed to portend in the 1980s to the United States’ leadership has waned.

All of which is irrelevant to the pleasures of walking about the streets of Japan, where you are safer than you ever could be in even the safest parts of North America. Japan may in fact be a heavily disguised feudalistic totalitarian state, but the disguise is highly effective, and as a foreigner you do not have to bear any of the costs of the system, only the benefits of peace and possibly excessive levels of order and good government. Keep your feet inside the yellow boundaries of the escalator steps, though.