Virtue Vibes with Jarrod Blair

#11: Reflections on Japanese Culture

September 13, 2023 Jarrod Blair Episode 11
Virtue Vibes with Jarrod Blair
#11: Reflections on Japanese Culture
Show Notes Transcript

Japan is a beautiful country with a very unique culture. In this episode, I reflect on my time living in Japan by discussing some cultural norms that I admire, as well as some that were quite frustrating. I also discuss how experiencing cultures different than your own can help you to promote goodness in the world. 

Outro music: "Breath of Asia" by Raspberrymusic on Pixabay 

Intro music: "Lofi Heavy Chill Bass & Keyboard" by Phill Dillow on Pixabay

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Yo yo yoooo! Do people still say yo? I hope so. Welcome back to the Virtue Vibes Podcast. I’m your host, Jarrod Blair, and today, I’m gonna be sharing some of my reflections on my time spent living in Japan. Because Japan is soo different from my home country, the United States, there’s a bunch of interesting things I could talk about; the healthy and tasty foods, beautiful landscapes, unique traditional architecture, etc.  But this podcast is about ethics, so I’m going to set aside these topics and focus instead on a few cultural norms that are instilled in Japanese people from a young age. Some of these are quite admirable, and I think we can learn some valuable ethical lessons by observing these parts of Japanese culture. I’ll also discuss another cultural norm that brought me a lot of frustration when I was living there, and I’ll share why I think Japanese culture has some room for improvement in this area. Lastly, I’ll share why I think it’s incredibly valuable to travel to, and perhaps even live in, a foreign country at some point in your life.  

  

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The first cultural norm I’d like to talk about is the way that Japanese people take care of what they have. One of the first things you’ll notice when you arrive in Japan is just how clean everything is. Tokyo is the largest city in the world, with roughly 37 million people living there, which is four times larger than the population of New York City. But even in Tokyo, the streets, subways, and walkways will stay suprisingly clean. This was an incredible thing to see. I’ve been to New York City before, and to say New York City is dirty is probably an understatement. The streets and subways were filled with grime, trash, and gum that has been blackened from sitting there for years. And I’m not blaming the maintenance man. The problem is in the attitude’s and ideas of the inhabitants of New York who don’t think twice about throwing their garbage on the ground and going about their day. They're probably thinking, “eh, it’s not my problem. I won’t have to clean it.” And when you have millions of people thinking this way, and let that kind of culture play out over decades, you see the grimy results.  

In Japan, however, things are quite different. One interesting thing about Japan is that in public places, there’s actually no trash cans. Nevertheless, you rarely see Japanese people littering. Instead, people bring their trash home, and separate their trash into 4, yes 4!!! different categories; burnable, non-burnable, recyclable, and oversized trash. A lot of my American friends and family hardly care to separate items into two categories; trash and recycle. So it’s incredible to see how pretty much everyone adheres to these high standards with regard to trash disposal in Japan.  

There’s many other great examples showing how well Japanese people take care of what they have. Japanese people take their shoes off before entering their homes so that dirt from outside is kept to a minimum. They also bathe at night before bed to wash the sweat and grime away that has accumulated through the day to help keep their beds clean. Also, while shopping at a used videogame store in Japan, I realized I had never seen any used game store have so many games with hardly a scratch on the game itself or the packaging. This might just be coincidence, or maybe that particular store had high standards for purchasing used items, but I got the feeling that they treated their games quite a bit better than me and my friends did growing up in the U.S.  

So how are these cultural norms instilled in Japan? Because of my limited understanding of the culture, I don’t have the full picture, but I did get a glimpse of how this might happen while I was working as an English teacher in Japan. In the elementary and middle schools I taught at, they didn’t rely on janitors to do the cleaning. Instead, for 15 minutes at the end of every single school day, the kids were literally on their hands and knees with rags wiping down the floors, clearing off the chalkboard, disinfecting the bathrooms, and wiping down the windows. I have a hard time even imagining kids from schools in the United States cleaning up after themselves in this way. I think it’s cultural norms like these cleaning sessions that really help to develop respect for one’s surroundings, which ends up making Japan a clean and beautiful place to visit and to live in.  

 

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Another Japanese cultural norm I admire is just how much they value social harmony. Japan is one of the safest countries in the world, and I definitely felt it while I was living there. I never felt any threat of violence or harm at all while living there, and that’s not just because I’m a beefy boy with big muscles and an intimidating jaw line. Even my less-beefy friends with normal jawlines felt safe while living in Japan.  

Another example of this emphasis on social harmony can be seen in the low rates of theft. If you lose your wallet on the train, 99% of the time you’re going to get it back with all the money and cards inside left untouched. Someone will usually find it and turn it in to a worker at a train station, they will track you down using your identification card in the wallet and give you a call, and perhaps even mail it to you directly. In comparison to some other places I’ve visited...erhm erhm NEW YORK CITY... that scenario is far less likely to happen. (Sorry for throwing so much shade at new york city today haha. But its accurate shade so it’s all good haha.) 

This kind of culture doesn’t happen by accident. There’s a whole mindset that is passed down through parents, teachers, music, books, and various traditions that help to create such a society. I don’t think I have a specific, concrete example of how this cultural norm is fostered like I did with the schoolchildren cleaning every school day, because I only have a limited experience of Japanese culture. But in general, I think that people are encouraged to place an extremely high value on living in social harmony with the people around you.  

 

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There are some truly amazing benefits that come from this strong emphasis on social harmony. But interestingly, it’s closely related to one of my biggest sources of frustration while living in Japan. You see, the emphasis Japanese people place on social harmony often stops them from valuing direct, honest confrontation as well as any forms of individual expression that go against the grain. People don’t want to stand out, and people don’t want to cause a fuss. 

 If you’ve been listening to this podcast for a while, you already know how much I value open and honest disagreements. We can figure things out together, and improve them! But at my workplace in Japan, it felt like there was pressure to stay quiet about my concerns and to instead just suck it up and trudge along with the group. I understand that every little concern of each worker can’t always be accommodated, but I still think it’s important to welcome direct feedback, even if it’s critical, so that at least some of the most helpful criticisms can lead to positive change. 

This was also the case in my personal life. I think Japanese people tend to not be very direct, and so it was hard to get a read on how someone felt about me. In my ignorance, I’m sure I said and did a lot of stupid things while living in Japan, and I may have hurt some people’s feelings, but even if a Japanese person was angry about something I said or did, I would probably never hear about it. Instead, in an effort to protect social harmony, they would remain polite and kind, all the while growing colder and distant to me inside. I’ve always wanted more open and honest relationships in my life, so this dynamic was frustrating for me at times.  

Overall, I had a great experience in Japan, but it was quite frustrating to experience certain cultural norms that stopped people from being open and honest, and stopped them from giving direct feedback. It definitely made me appreciate some of the cultural norms that I grew up with here in the United States.  

 

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So far I’ve shared a few different cultural norms that I observed during my time in Japan. Some of these norms I deeply admire, and I think we would do well in our pursuit to be good by learning from the example that Japan is setting. I also shared some cultural norms in Japan that frustrated me and made me appreciate some parts about my own culture.  

But now I wanna step back a bit from these particular reflections about this particular country. In general, I think it's super valuable to experience at some point in your life a culture that is very different than the one you grew up with. Not only is it fun to see new sights and to try new foods, but it also grants you an opportunity to experience ethical norms that are quite different, and sometimes even contradictory to the ones you grew up with. This provides you with a sense of contrast, which helps to make visible certain norms in your own culture that you might have never even noticed. I never thought much about my lazy trash habits until I saw Japanese recycling in action, and I took for granted my own comfortability with open and honest conversation until I encountered a different culture that placed less emphasis on it. This kind of contrast really enables you to do something similar to what I’ve done in this episode and determine what parts of each culture you admire and what parts you think need improvement. And recognizing these things is half the battle. Once you can clearly see the good, the bad, and the ugly of each culture, you can use this knowledge to become the best version of yourself and to help others do the same. 

So I truly hope you get the chance to experience another culture in your lifetime. If you haven’t already, go see the world! It’s easier than ever before. We’re some of the first humans who can just hop on a plane and be in an entirely different culture in less than a day. That’s crazy! And if you do get the chance to visit or live in a different culture, I would just say make sure you keep your eyes open, and pay attention to what they’re calling “good” and what they’re calling “bad”, and how those things differ from what might be said in your own country. You can still see all the beautiful sights, enjoy the tasty treats, and let your mind just relax, but by taking a little time to reflect on these differences, you can gain some truly valuable insights that will help you to promote goodness in the world.   

So that’s about all I got for ya. Thanks for listening and safe travels.