The Making of a Culture

First, let me say it has taken me far too long to get back to bloggin (almost a year to be exact). Mostly it’s that Japan doesn’t feel like a foreign country to me, so it’s difficult to find topics to write about that I find challenging. But I will do my best to find more, I promise.

The other day I went to a placed called Gotemba right at the base of Mt. Fuji to get certified in Wilderness First Aid. As I’ve mentioned on Facebook, I’m slowly collecting certifications and licenses so that I am more qualified as a travel professional. This month, it’s the highest level of the Japanese Language Placement Test and next month, it’s my mid-size bus license.

Anyway, the facility where the WAFA (Wilderness First Aid) course took place looked like a cross between a summer camp and Juvie. Named the National Youth Exchange House (my translation), it featured ugly barrack-style dormitories, a huge cafeteria with the worst food I’ve had in a long time, and an open area with two flag poles: the Japanese flag and flag of the National Youth Exchange House. Right next to both Camp Fuji (American Combined Arms Training Center) and Takigahara (Japanese Self Defense Force Base), you could hear mortar rounds being fired for practice all day and the daily wake up/lights out trumpets. Various groups of junior high and high school students came though during our stay for a night or two each, and did activities during the day like hiking, orienteering and campfires. I actually think this aspect of the facility was great: Japanese kids who live in cities are so focused on upcoming exams that they rarely get to go out and be kids.

The title of this blog post, however, came about mainly because of the twice daily flag raising and lowering ceremonies. First, let me say that while patriotism in America is prominent and loud (ie the national anthem before every game), in Japan it exists but it’s subtle. Post WWII, the Japanese flag became a symbol of right-wing extremism rather than national pride, and it is only now returning back to the streets as people start to believe that they have a right to be proud of their country too. Nowadays, national pride in Japan looks more like the belief in Japanese exceptionalism or that the way things are done in Japan are best.

Anyway, during the ceremonies each day four students would assist with the flag raising and flag lowering. Afterwards, they were expected to make a short speech, and inevitably, they would make pre-recorded statements about doing their best at camping or working together as a team or what they should have done better that day. Afterwards, the head of the facility would speak, usually discussing the importance of loud greetings and bows, or the requirement of folding your futon mattress up exactly as the picture shows so that you consider the feelings of the person who will stay next. Then everyone lined up exactly how they were supposed to in perfectly straight lines, bow, and the ceremony came to a formal close.

My continuous reaction to this facility was how Japanese it was. It felt like Japanese school all over again, but more harsh. It also felt like North Korean propaganda, but more nice. I really think the Japanese government got together, thought about how to instill Japanese values like group think, collectivism, and social responsibility, and tailor-made this facility just for that. It really hit home when I was reading a book by Bruce Feiler called Learning to Bow. He says “American schools exist to teach kids how to think, while Japanese schools exists to teach kids how to become good citizens”.

I think each systems’ strengths are reflected in their performances. Japanese schools do great in rote memory performance like math and science because school is not about asking questions but about writing down what the teacher says and memorizing it. It’s about following instructions, much like Japanese companies. “If your boss says a crow is white, a crow is white” goes a famous Japanese saying. American schools perform terribly in the lower levels, but no Japanese universities can compete with any Ivy League school. You cannot do innovative research or write interesting theses when you have never asked the question why.

I hope this doesn’t come off as strictly a criticism of the Japanese system. In many ways, there are really great things about it. Because of its collectivist nature, Japan doesn’t have crime to speak of (only white collar), the trains run on time, and it’s a challenge to find trash on the street. However, the culture of just following the leader and not asking questions has had huge consequences (in my opinion) on the economy. Entrepreneurship is just not that big of a thing. Job security is valued over upward mobility, and if you have a job that pays enough, even if you hate it, why quit? Last week I got a glimpse into where that mentality begins from: the school system. If Japan is to continue to compete internationally, I think it has to keep the best aspects while reforming some of the worst.

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8 thoughts on “The Making of a Culture

  1. Great to see you’re still out there – lots of great memories

    Paul Nesbitt, Ph.D Nesbitt Research Associates 416 508 9261

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    • Thank you Paul! I’m still working for Walk Japan, but getting going on my own business, naganoventures.com. Please check it out if you get the chance!

  2. Fascinating observations. When I am reminded of the austerity and tiredness in Japan, I am sad. When I recall the politeness and genuine care and the feeling that I was accepted as part of a group, I have great joy. Your post could be an article in the New York Times.

  3. I’d heard about some of how patriotism isn’t encouraged in Japan, but it was interesting to hear this assessment again. The bell it rang in my head was that Germany is the same way in that respect. While both countries committed serious crimes against humanity during the 1940s, it is a very difficult thing to walk around ashamed of your country and who you are. I hear the argument in the U.S. that we are not ashamed enough of the atrocities our government has committed, and that is probably true. But the response of the Germans and the Japanese serves as a cautionary tale of what happens when shame is driven too deep.

  4. Thanks for writing Daniel. Your observations have so much value given your cross-cultural experiences!

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