Ode to Japan

Column by Mark Davis.

Exclusive to STR

“The true test of civilization is not the census, nor the size of the cities, nor the crops – no, but the kind of man the country turns out.” ~ Ralph Waldo Emerson

The primary impression I bring back from Japan is respect, mixed with more than a little wonder and a shot of nostalgia. It is a joy to see customer service, cleanliness, politeness, and other erstwhile American traits still taken seriously by young and old. The social fabric of the Japanese people is still woven locally, similar to pre-1960s America. The spirit that bonds families and neighbors is strong and peaceful in nature. Japanese culture remains cohesive even as it evolves into modern times. Japanese culture absorbs foreign ideas judged to be beneficial by adapting them in traditional ways. Americans should be so lucky.

My son lives and works in Japan and has married a Japanese woman with plans to raise my grandchildren there, so I’ve spent a bit of time studying the history, customs and traditions as well as the future outlook of Japan with great personal interest. Japan has modern, technologically advanced cities that are noticeably clean and organized, filled with hardworking, polite, educated and healthy people. There is noticeable absence of many problems that afflict the USA such as crime, obesity, crumbling infrastructure, decaying moral values, whiney social justice warriors marching about or other similar signs of a civilization in crisis or decline. The Japanese must be doing something right.

The amount of space is surprising. Even in the cities there are huge and small parks all over the place. Outside of the cities are forests and hills for miles and miles. Much like if the Smoky Mountains were an island surrounded by the sea. The city centers and surrounding urban areas have many impressive modern skyscrapers, yet most of the housing is two to three story single-family homes on small lots. Shops, eateries and local service establishments are similarly concentrated along larger roadways while smaller stores are scattered throughout the neighborhoods. There still are more neighborhood “mom and pop” stores than is typical today in the USA. The density is only slightly higher than American urban centers, but more efficient and integrated. Although fewer roads are straight for any length in the cities and some two-way roads are only wide enough for one car, traffic is orderly and flows well.

Slums like what are prevalent in the USA’s larger cities are nowhere to be found. There are fewer homeless people and they live in decent tents and under tarps within dedicated, neat areas at local parks. Thus even homeless people are allowed a place to salvage some sense of dignity. These urban outdoorsman wash their clothes under faucets next to the water fountains and are able to keep up habits of personal hygiene. I’ve never seen one panhandling. Charity is provided discreetly with a respect for decorum, like all other social interactions in Japan.

Store, business and public property owners and employees share in customary cleaning rituals that includes the sidewalk fronting their buildings. There are no cigarette butts or trash in the gutters, streets or sidewalks. They do have vending machines along sidewalks with beer in them and no fear of children using them because they have been taught better.

Pondering my American-sized ego in the context of the future of social organizations has resulted in a newfound respect for the Japanese people and their culture. The decline of American culture is painful to observe if easy for many to overlook. Perhaps some simple thoughts gleaned from this wonderful people who live on the other side of the world can help us look at our own culture with a brighter light.

The lessons offered by this prosperous and well-ordered social group can help penetrate the natural tendency for in-group preference. I’ve been raised and educated in the typical American/Euro-centric manner that includes large helpings of both self-glorification and self-flagellation as it pertains to our culture, but I‘ve sought here to find an objective view to compare these two remarkable cultures and hopefully discover some insight into what works well and what doesn’t.

The use of personality trait analysis is a helpful model for this purpose, as society is a grouping of individuals with general tendencies reflected in their culture. The Big Five personality traits are: openness to experience, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness and neuroticism. A summary overview of these traits can be found in Wikipedia. Individuals typically manifest aspects of all of these traits including their corresponding qualities to various degrees and in an infinite number of combinations. So, this method of analysis provides useful observations about general tendencies apparent in social groups.

The criteria for examining, understanding and comparing cultures is inherently subjective, so I will state clearly my biases before relating any perceptions and opinions relating to my view of “reality.” I posit that the ideal society has a culture that promotes liberty, harmony and prosperity. A prosperous, harmonious, free society requires a population that can set goals and organize the requisite cooperation among individuals to accomplish those goals in a way that results in general, if not optimal levels of, satisfaction.

The set of conditions that lead to my ideal society must include a functional hierarchy. A hierarchy based on violence and coercion leads to a dysfunctional society that undermines harmony and prosperity due to a general dissatisfaction. Only a hierarchy based on respect-worthy actions (meritocracy) can lead to and maintain the peaceful cooperation that is the essence of freedom, social harmony and prosperity. The idea of a society without any hierarchy is a naive vision that punishes personal achievement and sacrifices honor and dignity.

Social organizations require some type of leadership or they become rudderless ships adrift at sea destined for turmoil. Without a set of conditions (culture) to develop a functional meritocracy within society, a resulting leadership vacuum will be filled with leaders who take control using violence. The better a culture is able to create and maintain leadership authority based on merit and respect of individuals demonstrating respect-worthy actions, the more likely honor is to be venerated. This can lead to a culture of dignity where people have genuine respect for each other. When choosing the alternative of violence to maintain leadership authority, it is obedience that is venerated; this leads to a culture of fear where people openly disrespect each other.

A culture of honor and dignity must be maintained if people are going to elevate personal relationships above petty conflicts. While the culture in America is transitioning from one that values honor and dignity into a culture that values victimhood and pity, Japanese culture appears to be better at maintaining individual respect for honor and dignity. This by navigating the seemingly fine lines between assertive and aggressive behavior, and correspondingly between confidence and certainty. The former promote healthy leadership principles while the latter leads to authoritarian command structures.

People who value honor and dignity cultivate a desire for virtuous behavior, while those groups of people who elevate the status of victimhood and pity above honor and dignity foster a propensity for bad behavior as they use victimhood status to justify rudeness, theft, and eventually violence. The ability of culture to influence how individuals develop coping mechanisms in social situations that could lead to either cooperation or conflict is a telling characteristic.

One of the aspects that I admire most about Japanese people (genetics) and Japanese culture (environment) is their conscientiousness and agreeableness. I don’t know how much is genetic, but they have certainly developed healthy social environmental influences in their culture. Conscientious people blame themselves first, which is a productive coping mechanism to failures large and small, both individually and collectively. Agreeable people tend to be compassionate and cooperative. There is always a random element to problems we face, it is how we deal with those problems that define us.

Americans are generally higher in openness to experience and extraversion with a mixture of gullible innocence and gregariousness. These traits have led to great innovations in the arts and sciences. Discovery is important and essential to improving living conditions, but sometimes comes at the cost of devaluing conscientiousness and agreeableness. We have come to the point today where many Americans exalt laziness and combativeness while abandoning any desire to discover new ways of doing things better.

Japanese culture has absorbed many of the positive aspects of American culture that has had a strong influence since the 1800s. These economic and cultural ties have led the Japanese to be more open, creative and innovative in the arts and sciences. Hopefully this close relationship can work both ways such that Americans can better recognize the positive aspects exhibited by Japanese culture to help us regain our respect, honor and dignity.

The final trait of neuroticism focuses on negative experiences and emotions. Individuals who fall into the neurotic category tend to be more prone to mood swings and emotional reactivity. It appears today that American society is producing more neurotic people than Japanese society does. Overcoming obstacles, large and small, real or imagined, seem to paralyze many American youth today. Many Japanese elders also think that their youth have had it too easy and have become soft, largely due to American cultural influences, but they have maintained a more positive attitude to overcoming obstacles. This leads to a higher level of confidence in the future which is a stabilizing factor.

Ultimately it is up to individuals to choose how to behave on a daily basis even though those choices are largely determined by influences beyond individual control. Recognition of how much our responses to problems factor into the outcomes of those responses is the basis of responsibility. Blaming “society” or “the system” or other manifestations in our minds of “the other” exposes one’s tendency to avoid responsibility for one’s actions and thus behavioral decisions. When we wish to produce a certain outcome of our actions, conscientiousness and agreeableness tend to result in a desire to take responsibility for those actions and thus become crucial determinants of the success of those actions.

Conscientious people (self-discipline, act dutifully and strive for achievement) are orderly and judgmental, work oriented, respect tradition and like hierarchy. They feel responsibility for group actions while sustaining a meritocracy and individual identities. Guilt and shame are associated directly with conscientiousness. The dominance hierarchy in populations of conscientious people isn’t necessarily based on the threat of violence, but on perceived competence demonstrated through respect-worthy actions. Like all personality traits, this one has positive and negative aspects. Japanese people are high in agreeableness (warm, friendly and tactful) which allows them to more easily deal with the negative aspects of conscientiousness. Being conscientious and agreeable is a good combination of personality traits for a harmonious society.

A harmonious society can foster trust between a growing network of individuals as many become inclined to believe that others are honest and well-intentioned. As trust and respect for each other grows, so does the dignity of each person behaving as expected by social norms. Voluntary adoption of responsibility, good manners and a strong work ethic leading to increased productivity and innovation are what make a society prosperous. People who want to work to better the conditions of their life and their family's lives, even if only to survive, will work many times harder than people forced to work by others, even if threatened with death. Attitude is integral to success because someone seeking positive change is significantly more productive than someone avoiding punishment.

The creation of these social conditions is organic as they spontaneously arise when deemed necessary. However, maintaining these conditions requires human ingenuity and is much more difficult. Developing social cohesion requires developing high levels of conformity as to values and principles to live by; this promotes the ability of members to more reliably predict future events and cooperate successfully. Yet conformity can’t be so suffocating as to not allow innovative thinking. People with non-conforming values and diverse principles disrupt social cohesion by undermining the ability of members to reliably predict future events, making it hard to negotiate agreements. Diversity of core principles undermines social cohesion. One such core principle is the attribution of credit and blame.

It was American John Burroughs who in the 19th Century said, "A man can fail many times, but he isn't a failure until he begins to blame somebody else and stop trying." American culture used to be based on principles that included humble self-reflection and a respect for others, but these principles have waned greatly over the past 75 years. American culture has been diluted with Marxist ideals such as egalitarianism and relativism such that honor and dignity are now equated by many with victimhood and pity. When people are given a cultural option where it is socially acceptable to take credit for the accomplishments of others and to blame others for their failures, then the number of accomplishments will become fewer and the number of failures will multiply.

The Japanese still typically attribute the success of others to internal causes and the failures of others to the circumstances of the situation while being humble in attributing their own success to circumstances and failures to personal decisions. Americans are becoming more egocentric and self-serving, taking credit for successes and ascribing failures to the situation. Bravado and swagger are pompously paraded about as virtues in lieu of hard work and competence. This descent into the abyss of righteous victimhood and self-pity must be reversed in America.

Self-enhancement posits the need for positive self-regard and culture heavily influences individual self-esteem as to whether it is based on personal or collective traits and behaviors. Things change and we must adapt, so context is important if we are to learn any lessons from our successes or our failures. Japanese culture has demonstrated that it has better adapted to changing times than American culture (and Western culture in general) by being better able to value what works well and devaluing what doesn’t. American/Western culture seems to be doing the exact opposite: subsidizing and protecting failure while punishing and destroying accomplishment, all in the name of equality.

American/Western culture has become more neurotic because state power (based on violence) is displacing social power (based on voluntary cooperation) at an increasing rate. In Japan, the state is still considered more of a tool to supplement social networks, customs and traditions, not replace them. That, too, is changing for the worse as the scourge of statism infects more people the world over every day. Unfortunately for the Japanese, they do not have the same level of skepticism of state power that Americans have inherited, so the disease of statism that leads to increased neuroticism among populations could get out of control in Japan, too.

State depredations must not become a scapegoat for all of our problems or diminish personal responsibility for our behavior, but the state must be seen for what it is. The state is institutionalized violence used by the elite for the purpose of controlling the masses, not an agent for peace, honor or dignity. A state-controlled society is not a meritocracy, it is a kakistocracy and relic of our barbaric past. Society can overcome state control when a strong culture that maintains peaceful, virtuous traditions and customs reveals the state to be an obsolete hindrance to individuals in that society. The state purposely increases levels of neuroticism in society to maintain its power over people’s minds.

The six facets of neuroticism are anxiety, angry hostility, depression, self-consciousness, impulsiveness and vulnerability. The level of fearfulness, tenseness and restlessness is ratcheted up daily by American media and academia leading to a tendency for individuals to experience frustration and bitterness, as well as anger. Many have an increasing propensity to experience depressive symptoms, such as loss of energy, difficulty concentrating and sleeping showing discomfort around others with more frequent experiences of shame and embarrassment.

Youth are no longer taught to control cravings or urges, but are allowed to seek satisfaction in excess without guilt or shame. Many Americans today have difficulty contending with stress and are directed to accept dependence on others for support. I used to think that this was a feature of big city living as the rural areas of American have better maintained the core values that helped build this great country, but these features have been maintained in Japanese urban centers to an astounding degree. So it is possible to have large populations that don’t devolve into urban cesspools devoid of men and women who value virtue, honor and dignity.

Japanese people certainly experience all the same facets of neuroticism as Americans, but they have a culture that appears to better mitigate most of them. Japanese culture more often results in a high degree of confidence in the future, which leads to more optimism, social cohesion and adaptability. Of course, this could simply be because on average the Japanese IQ is 105 while for Americans it is 98; intelligence being an obvious advantage when organizing social systems like culture. But it may also be that our respective cultures have influenced the direction that our average IQs have gone over the past 75 years. They have wisely resisted the Western myth of strength in diversity for its own sake and avoided the strife and conflict that comes with it.

The Japanese also seem more open to integrating spiritual enlightenment with philosophical considerations that seems to lead to higher levels of understanding both. It is not uncommon for Japanese to follow more than one religion as they more easily develop personal philosophies of life that include aspects of Buddhism, Shintoism and Christianity among other teachings. This fusion of the world’s various spiritual and philosophical ideas into a more comprehensive worldview has resulted in a very enlightened population relative to other cultures that cling to dangerous, self-defeating delusions. Japan has not fallen prey to the atrocities that have followed Muslim populations in Europe, China and the USA.

The way to transcend mortality is to accept it. Becoming bitter and resentful over this realization is the path to despair and nihilism. Accepting that we are mortal allows one to work on making the best of the life we have. People are born vulnerable and accepting responsibility for one’s place in life is healing. Being resentful of life is horror and lashing out at others to blame is self-defeating. We all have monsters inside of us to deal with and must take responsibility for battling them. History is packed with civilizations that have prospered and then died out, most of them long forgotten. Thank god we have evolved a few cultures that are available to help encourage us.

Encourage means to instill courage while courage is being afraid and going forward anyway. Inner peace comes from self-reflection and growth. Growth involves voluntarily overcoming difficulties. Again, it comes back to attitude, something we can control in our interactions with others. Positive attitudes encourage others while negative attitudes discourage others, so it is easy to see which type of attitude leads to greater social harmony, prosperity, and liberty.

These are the basic dimensions of a functional life that are enhanced by strong cultural influences. Superior cultures provide incentives and motivations to seek what you want and avoid what you don’t want in a peaceful manner. Seeking an optimal situation as to where you would be happiest remains a personal, individual matter. Planning for the future and setting goals increases the likelihood of achieving the optimal situation. People who take responsibility for obtaining what they want typically improve their performance and quality of life.

Superior cultures like what the Japanese have developed and maintain must be appreciated, nurtured and able to adapt to changing times so that their children inherit a future offering hope with honor and dignity. Inferior cultures are underappreciated and neglected with self-defeating adaptations such that their people become nihilistic and arrogant until their children lose hope about the future, embracing victimhood and seeking pity. Since we can’t all move to Japan, Americans must again value the core ideals that made us great (it wasn’t the state or politicians) and reject the ideals that have led us astray. When enough people in society resolve to value honor and dignity, they act virtuously; and then liberty, harmony and prosperity follow. Without honor and dignity, virtue is lost; without virtue, civilization is lost.

In conclusion, we must recognize and accept our faults in order to work and correct them. Arrogance causes people to ignore their faults and perpetuate or even magnify weaknesses. Wanting to become the total sum of one’s errors (professional victims) leads into a downward spiral for the individual and that individual’s culture. American culture is at a critical crossroads. It is possible to improve life by accepting a positive reality and purposely working on changing personal habits for the better. Recognizing that life is suffering and working to change it elevates the human experience above barbarism and allows for enlightenment as to other possibilities. Humans crave civilization in our souls and this feeling manifests itself in our cultures that soothe insecurity and uncertainty about the future. Only we Americans can save our culture from further decline, and the Japanese can provide an inspiration for how to save it.

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Mark Davis's picture
Columns on STR: 63

Mark Davis is a husband, father and real estate analyst/investor enjoying the freedoms we still have in Longwood, Florida.


Glen Allport's picture

Wow! Terrific discussion of the fascinating Japanese culture contrasted with the rotting Marxist Mush of our own. You make good points, naturally, and I especially enjoyed the details about Japan and Japanese society. Japan might be the most interesting modern nation on Earth; weird and wonderful in many ways. You didn't get into the topic of the US pushing nuclear power on Japan or Fukushima and other related problems, but I wonder to what extent we've destroyed the country we helped rebuild after WWII. At any rate, I hadn't given much thought to how Japanese culture, strangely, was helping to protect  early-American values in Japan. Thanks, Mark.

Mark Davis's picture

Thank you for the kind words, Glen. The way the local Japanese people reacted to the Fukushima tsunami and nuclear power plant disaster was amazing; with calm resolve and peaceful cooperation throughout the community with no panic, looting or other social breakdowns. There are some great videos on Youtube showing this. I had that incident and a few other anecdotal examples in my original draft, but it was way too long such that I had to cut it down as much as I could and still, hopefully, get my main points across.

Darkcrusade's picture