American parents could serve their children well to take them on vacation to Japan, provided that the parents have the time and money to invest in such a trip. As a parent of two young children, I was astonished to find that this culture – so different than any other culture I’d ever seen – could teach and reinforce so many lessons we want our American children to learn.
The subject brings to mind the recent book by the always-provocative Amy Chua with co-author Jed Rubenfeld, The Triple Package. Its subject has been discussed extensively in the media about how Japanese values lead to success in many different realms, and my week-long experience of Japanese culture showed me some of the terrific cultural values firsthand – values that would be good for any child to learn.
To begin, respect for order is dominant in Japanese culture. When a popular store opens in the morning, for example, amorphous crowds don’t gather at the entry; they are directed by a store employee who comes out to the sidewalk and guides the group to maintain a single-file line to avoid causing a disorderly flow on the sidewalk. Makes perfect sense, right? But reviewing this lesson with a child can be beneficial, allowing the parent to explain the value and need for order and efficiency.
Most striking, I found, was the Japanese culture’s emphasis on plant life. I am not exaggerating: In the new Shiodome area, a business district filled with skyscrapers gleaming like vertical, elongated Rolls Royces, the Tokyo real estate boom continues. Cranes dot the sky in this area, and bulldozers and the like work behind tall fences that mark off the construction zone. On the temporary fences of construction zones, small pictures of trees and flowers abounded, and every fence in the area included some sort of plant motif. Can you imagine that in the United States? What is so interesting is the fact that the construction company – and larger culture overall – considered the visual factor for people walking by. Using a fence with a plant graphic provides a way to reduce the ugliness of the construction zone and exchange it with something beautiful, while simultaneously leaving the ‘viewing audience’ with a symbol of life and health.
Plants can be found everywhere in Tokyo, and all across Japan, as well. The respect the Japanese people have for their plants and public spaces is unlike anything I have seen in the States. For example, in Ginza, Tokyo’s super-busy shopping Mecca, small flowers lined the curbs on a major thoroughfare. The state of the flowers was pristine: standing erect as a result of proper care, as well as no one trampling on them! Can you imagine what would happen to tiny flower beds lining the ground in the heart of Times Square? They would never last – let alone thrive.
Another facet of Japanese culture that surprised me was the relative quiet of a city teeming with people. Take a quick jaunt to the area known as Shibuya, and you’ll never have seen so many people in your life! As I walked on the streets of Tokyo, I occasionally found myself talking with my (American) travel companions at a volume level that I quickly realized was louder than the Japanese men and women around me. People don’t call out to each loudly from a distance as they readily would in the States. Again, they show restraint and respect for the people around them by not disturbing anyone else. As I navigated my way through the city, I learned to become more conscious of my impact on others’ overall: not rushing, talking loudly, or trampling on some flowers to get to where I needed to go.
A friend and psychologist colleague of mine told me a few years ago to visit Japan, after she returned from her own mind-bending voyage there. “I’ve never seen such an efficient culture,” she marveled. After my own trip, I concur wholeheartedly. Because it’s a long flight to Japan, it hadn’t occurred to me take my kids with me. On the trip, however, I realized that exposing my kids to this culture would have been more valuable than the same week spent in an American school. When my children get a little older, I hope to take them to Japan so that they can breathe in the way another entirely different culture operates. It can be valuable for parents to ask their kids to think about what the disadvantages and benefits are of various cultures, especially with a culture that seems to do as many things right as Japan does.
Cultural psychologists help us to understand the ideology – or psychology, really – of Japanese culture that contrasts so significantly with American culture. Heine (2011), for example, explains that in the United States, individuals are more likely think of themselves as independent and individualistic, while in Japan, individuals are more likely to think of themselves as obligated to society and interdependent. This clear distinction appears to underlie so many of the cultural differences in respect, order and cleanliness that are so apparent when traveling between the cultures.
Though children could benefit the most from a trip to Japan, the truth is that each of us – from birth to old age – is probably better off visiting any culture and comparing it to their own.
Heine, S. (2011). Cultural Psychology. San Francisco: W. W. Norton & Co.