I recently took a trip to Japan, and got a first hand look at this centuries-old culture. Although only there for a week, it was enough time to leave a hugely positive impression and inspired thinking about what we as Americans can learn from the Japanese.
It's about the collective. It's hard to believe how well-organized a city like Tokyo can be, with over 34 million inhabitants. From their trains that arrive on time to the minute, to their streets that have no garbage despite the fact there are very few trash bins around (to prevent terrorism), one begins to wonder how it is that everything functions so perfectly for a country that was bombed to smithereens in World War II, a mere sixty years ago. After all, such efficiency is rare to find in any city, even in America (and anyone who has spent any time waiting for a New York City subway knows that's true). To understand this phenomenon, one must dig deeper into Japanese cultural values. For the Japanese, every person has a role to play towards the collective. There is no "me," only the "we" - there is a conscious knowing that whatever one does effects the whole. Even a worker with a menial job, takes pride in their work and does it to the best of their ability because they realize their output will affect everyone else.
This is in direct contradiction to an American mentality, which centers around the individual. Everything from our economics to our work ethic reflects this me- centered thinking, which ends up ultimately separating us from one another. Instead of thinking about taking care of the collective, we think mostly about how to advance ourselves, how to get ahead, usually at the price of others. Instead of rewarding menial jobs, we pay the bare minimum. Instead of making sure our society is safe and healthy, we are a nation that has more guns per capita and charges more for health care and than any other country in the world. When you spend time in a place that genuinely cares about its people, you begin to realize how nice it would be if we could adopt more of a "we" orientation too.
Respect. It's a word that seems so simple, yet is getting harder and harder to practice in the US. With violence and sex being so prevalent in our media and at the basis of advertising, the quickly developing lack of respect in this country is no surprise. Add to that our instant gratification culture made up of the Twitter generation, as well as children growing up with a lack of attention or discipline with both parents working or divorced, it seems as if respect might be a thing of the past.
Not so for the Japanese. Respect is the backbone of the culture, and its ingrained in their rituals and traditions. Being bowed to as you leave any establishment, even sitting on the 200 mile/hour bullet train, the Shinkansen, by the train conductor as he leaves the cabin, is really a humbling experience. It reminds us of the importance of respect. As human beings it's the basic tenet of how we should be treating one another. If we respected each other, would we feel the need to commit acts of violence on each other? Would we have such high rates of criminal activity, more so than other first world countries? How can we bring respect back into our value set, and teach it to our kids and make it part of our culture? We can look to the Japanese, who practice the value of respect daily, and make it the forefront of how they interact and even do business.
Innovation. If there is one thing the Japanese are known for, that's innovation. And there is plenty of it in Japan. They have perfected the art of taking something that exists and making it better. Take the 7-11 convenience store, for example. They are everywhere in Tokyo. It's where one goes to use the ATM instead of the bank and buy quality essentials on the cheap. What they've done is taken a US-based business model, and innovated it to fit the needs of their market. The consumer demands an experience that is efficient, cost-effective and of high quality, and this can be seen in something as simple as going into any 7-11. A vastly different experience from the 7-11 you'll find in the US.
And you see this in just about everything in Japan, from the diverse selection of international restaurants that are just as good, if not better than the country it originates from (I had one of the best cappuccinos I've had outside of Paris), to their amazing toilet seats that warm the seat, send a splash of water and play a water sound to enhance the whole experience. Everywhere you turn, there is some sort of innovation that makes so much sense and makes you go 'wow'. The creativity it takes to stimulate this type of innovation goes back to the notion of collaboration that is such a deep part of Japanese culture. Comparing this to the innovation in the United States, again we see a lag behind the Japanese in many ways. With budget cuts to education, science, the arts and so on, innovation is hindered and with it our competitive advantage in the world. We can't just rely on Google and Apple for innovation if we want to keep our edge. We must foster it in everything from our schools to our organizations and make it a standard in our culture, as the Japanese have done.
For the many positive traits one can notice in Japan, there are also those that need developing. They are far from perfect, as we see from the ongoing Fukushima disaster. But as an American who takes pride in being "Made in America," I think we can learn a thing or two from other cultures, and I'm grateful for getting a chance to experience a bit of Japan. I'll definitely be back.