Weekend Tangent: “If you could change one thing about a society…”


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Hi Blog.  In one of my nights out here in Tokyo (we have a lot of deep conversations), friend HippieChris brought up an interesting question:

“If you could wave a magic wand and change one thing about a society, what would that be?”

I thought I’d pose that to the blog.  Rules are:  What one thing would you change about Japan, and what one thing would you change about your society of origin, if different?  Two places.  (It’s a useful exercise.  It’s actually surprisingly difficult to find something fundamentally changeworthy about your society of origin, since it’s hard for a fish to see the water in the fishbowl until s/he’s been out of it for awhile.)

I’ll start:

The one thing I’d change about Japan would be the lack of “Do Unto Others…”  Not enough people see a problem as something that warrants attention because it doesn’t affect them.  “Hey, that’s your problem, not mine, so why create more bother for myself by considering it or asking for it to stop?”  The lack of a universal, “this hurts people, so stoppit” has created numerous issues for me in my calls for “Japanese Only” signs to come down, for example.  A common attitude:  “Well, it doesn’t affect me”, meaning they’re not going to be stopped by the sign, has let countless apathetics off the hook of caring.  Even if we try to say, “Well, what if you went overseas and it happened to you?” doesn’t always work either:  They just say, “Well, I’m not going overseas.”  For all the trappings of the “Omoi Yari” society, people here are surprisingly diffident about the plights of others, not walking a mile in their shoes.  Magic-wanding that away would take care of a lot of social ills that affect people who aren’t in the majority.

The one thing I’d change about the United States would be the arrogance.  It’s amazing how much ignorance the “We’re Number One” attitude breeds, shutting Americans off to so many cultural influences.  Worse yet, a common assumption that everyone wants to be American, and that every society is eventually going to be (or want to be) like America, makes people blind to alternative ways of life (not a good thing when you’re trying to promote democracy as a system overseas; that ultimately puts more Americans in harm’s way).  A sobering belief that other people might be happy in their “foreign lifestyles”, even might find objectionable the things that Americans take for granted without much reflection (e.g., food as fuel, judging value in terms of money, seeing success as how rich you are, etc.), might open a few doors to a more self-examined life.

These aren’t all that different, actually.  The undercurrent is the need to understand the values and life choices of others, and treat them with the respect they deserve.  But that’s my magic wand.  How about other Debito.org Readers?  I’d rather people offer their visions rather than take apart mine (participate in the exercise rather than be a critic, please).  Go for it.  Arudou Debito in Tokyo

24 comments on “Weekend Tangent: “If you could change one thing about a society…”

  • My view is very similar to yours, Debito. Except that even though I am German, I grew up in Japan and the States and therefore don’t have “my own country” that I feel beholden to. My basic desire for change applies to all cultures around the world: stop seeing yourself as unique and separate from the rest of the world. Culture is a fluid thing; it isn’t immovable or just so. It changes with time and experience. And yet, for example, the Japanese adhere to this rigid idea of who they are and define their social mores according to this rigid view. It automatically excludes everyone else in the world. Americans love to talk about “the melting pot” and how accepting their society is, but the moment anyone criticizes the country (the reaction after the New York tragedy was despicable) it’s “go back to where you came from if you don’t like it”. If people would just stop seeing “us and them” and look at it as “us, with differences”, that would go a long way towards understanding.

    Also, in Japan, I’d get rid of mayonnaise covered pizza!!! In the States, flags EVERYWHERE!

    There is so much more I could write, but I’ll leave it at that.

  • I have been a foreigner for most of my life, having left my birth country (Venezuela) at a young age and raised in the U.S., I have (like the poster above) always felt like a man without a nation. This is why I got it in my head to move to Japan. I figured if I had no nation, I’d go out and get one for myself. Silly perhaps, but then I’m a silly person. But I digress.

    As for Debito’s question, I can honestly say that I reflect Debito’s opinions on that (vis-a-vis Japan and the U.S.). Though I’ve never lived in Japan and thus cannot speak about it, I feel it would be good to inject that society with a little sympathy. It feels like the “gaijin” are fighting a tough battle for rights without the domestic reinforcements they sorely desire, all because “it doesn’t affect me”. That’s very sad, and I think things wouldn’t be half as bad as they are if only more Japanese felt that sort of human-to-human sympathy.

    As for my birth nation of Venezuela, God… where should I start? I supposed I’d put some competence in there. The will and the know-how to finally do things right, and pull that nation out of the third-world and into respectability.

  • Japan: Abolish lifetime employment and institutionalized tenure. There are too many irresponsible chair-warmers dragging the country down. They need to be fired and they need to take some responsibility for themselves.

    US: Re-wire the whole country for mass transit and get people out of their cars. It’s not just a health and environmental issue, but it’s also a social issue. It’s too easy for Americans to ignore the pathetic state of large parts of their own cities which they can currently drive through without directly experiencing.

  • NZ (where I live): crap customer service and unwillingness to take responsibility on behalf of their companies / businesses
    Scotland (where I was born): moaning about the English
    Japan (where I have lived and will again): dichotomising into ‘Japanese’ and ‘foreign’ as though the two have conceptual parity

  • I would change the work ethic in Japan. Instead of live to work how about, work to live. They pride themselves on working longer than any other country but this does not improve their productivity. A lot of the time they are busy looking busy not really being productive.

    In my country I would change the way we see our countries. We consider our countries to be the best examples of how to operate. strange when you think about how we have to constantly repair the systems that dictate the operations of our great nations. Sometimes we should step back and think does this really work? If not lets find a better way. Lets not just adapt and reform a crappy thing.

  • Change one thing about Japan…….. just one?

    How about the culture of dependence? I find people place relatively little value on personal freedom and independence, and give them up in order to live easily. As an example, I’m thinking about the “parasite single” types, sponging off their parents in order to avoid paying rent or doing their own laundry. It has a negative effect on society in many ways, such as lowering the birth rate and raising the age of marriage.

    It’s taught in schools as well, kids learn pretty quickly that the best way to go is to knuckle under to one’s superiors. They don’t get much (if any) practice in decision making and consequences, and it seems to create what seems to me as a rather robotic and leaderless youth.

    As for my country (Canada), I wish people would stop endlessly comparing themselves, their culture, their country, and everything else to the US. Time to get out from under.

  • Japan — I would have the Japanese news media actually go out and uncover corruption, unfairness, bullying, fraud, waste etc. in governement, education, consumer affairs, the workpace. A true spirit of investigative journalism that competed to sell papers/attract TV viewers. A separation of media and state in the public interest. This would bring change in so many areas.

    USA — our seriously dumbed down pop-culture of reality show train wrecks, hollywood celebutards, no-talent pop singers, and paparazzi web-sites celebrating all this. Wow, I sound like an old man……..

  • About Japan, I would change the whole idea that your school history and/or job title decide our place in society, the strict ranking (maybe it’s not written down anywhere, but anyone can tell you that this company “outranks” that one etc). The clear line between “full time” and “part time” workers that has nothing to do with the amount of time or effort you put into your job and everything to do with whether the elite have agreed to accept you as one of their own… eliminating this whole way of thinking would make it more possible for people to change careers if they want to, or if they think they could make more money or live in a place they like better or whatever by doing a different job. The idea that public servants and schoolteachers (really? schoolteachers???) are somehow entitled to a better lifestyle than company workers, who are therefore entitled to a better lifestyle than people who actually do the HARDEST jobs (construction anyone? truckers? cleaning staff? They certainly work a lot harder than the desk jockeys at the shiyakusho do) just reeks of a caste system that never really died. It also makes it virtually impossible for anyone born overseas to have any kind of “status,” as the schools most of us graduated from aren’t at the bottom of the list… worse, they’re not a part of the system at all.

    For the US, the idea that as a country and as individuals, we have no obligation to adjust our own behavior to fit in with others around us. Every time my family comes here, “Well, I’m American, this is the way we do things!” Throwing lawsuits around for silly things like hot McDonald’s coffee and confrontational parents who want to tell the schools how to teach their children. The ME ME ME attitude that is so prevalent in the US only makes me feel uncomfortable now when I go “home.” Japan might not be the perfect example of a good balance between individuality and community awareness, but I personally would rather err in the direction of not causing enough “meiwaku” than causing TOO much.

  • Japan: kitchens large enough for an automatic dish washer. There’s no point in using a food processor if cleaning it by hand in the sink takes longer than just chopping the ingredients with a knife.

    U.S. All bathrooms equipped with washlets; showers and baths with _accurate_ digital temperature controls

  • If I had a magic wand I would change something that in present can be changed only by magic- poverty. I don’t want children to die from malnutrition or because they didn’t receive basic medical care. It is not fair some badly stupid kids from developed countries like Japan, US, Australia, Germany, Italy or UK to cry about having or not third ice cream this day while children in Africa are happy if they have any, I mean really any food(beans, roots)…I hate when some spoiled chicken-brain celebrity boasts with her perfect skin thanks to this or that cream, soap or other cosmetics, and in that time women in Africa don’t have even clean water to wash their babies.
    But this can be done only by magic, and if the question was “What would you change if you had enough influence and political power?” I would only end up women’s discrimination all over the world.Because, Debito-san, women ARE discriminated, not only in Japan. Fortunately, in most EU countries and US people are working on this problem, there are laws and strong organizations who fight against sexual discrimination. In Japan, in the CV you are still required to write your marital status and the number of your kids, and on interviews it is OK to be asked what will you do if your husband is transferred to some far prefecture or abroad, what will you do if your kids get sick and the company is busy…It is OK a woman to “work” as “housewife”, and she is not considered “jobless”.Let alone the crimes against women, went unreported because the victim is “ashamed”. I could go on and on, but the bottom line is-the attitude towards women in Japan must change, and any discrimination against women must end-anywhere around the globe.

  • I spent the day thinking about this. If Debito hadn’t beaten me to the punch I would have said the same thing about Japan. But this is my own:

    Japan: I would make women equal to men in Japan in thought and every other way. WE can only imagine how exponentially this country would improve itself if women were equal.

    USA: I would turn down the competitiveness. Not destroy it, being competitive is good, but the US would be so much better if it went from the 11 it is now to a more realistic 7. Dial it down. Overkill my brothers.

  • Peter McArthur says:

    The thing I’d change about Japan: the acceptance of an earnest display as a substitute for the real thing. People will make a great show of fixing a problem without changing a damn thing.

    The thing I’d change about the UK: our preference for grumbling over action. There’s been some progress, but we still have too many crappy restaurants.

    I asked my Japanese wife the same questions and she said:

    Japan: The belief that everyone should try to be the same. “unique” should not be a term of sarcastic abuse.

    The UK: A lazy service culture. Foreigners with poor English are made to feel sub-human because front-line staff can’t be bothered to help them.

  • Joe Jones, I wholeheartedly agree with you on the US mass transit issue!

    Another thing I thought of is that America needs to switch to the Metric system. Catch up with the rest of the world people! Let’s weigh by kilograms and measure in centimeters and measure temperature by Celsius, darn it!

  • Thank you everyone for your wonderful posts. I had a wonderful time reading them. I think if any one of the suggested changes happened it would be great!

    My wishes:

    In Japan I really wishes every one was more open minded. A wise friend once told me that you cannot convince an ignorant person and it is very true. If every body was more willing to see both sides of the story we would have a lot less problems in the world.

    In America I would like to change the bandwagon mentality of the American population. I think it is far to easy to say I a liberal, republican, American, relgious person etc.so I am going to believe in this other person who is the same as me, rather than trying to make an intelligent and educated decision at the issue at hand.

  • Though I would say there are loads of things needing change in Japan, Debito you really took the words out of my mouth, as I was literally thinking “do unto others…” Only now having been here for so many years, I feel it applies throughout society at large as well as most interpersonal relationships. The lack of this “do unto others” attitude popping up even between family members may not stictly be a Japanese thing… But I see it a lot here, and I wonder how people can actually maintain a relationship for more than five minutes without the person on the receiving end of the bad attitude punching someone out. (Company senpai screaming at the kouhai because he didn’t do x correctly, despite not receiving any direction regarding x in the first place.) We all need to try and put ourselves in other people’s shoes before we speak and act a little more here. As far as I can see it, the patience of a saint is the only thing keeping some people from a long jail sentence.

    In MY home country, (Canada, but I feel this goes for the U.S. too) there are TONS of things we need to fix up, but the one that gets me every time I visit, is a general lack of interpersonal skills in staff… Fast food employees, company receptionists, and many others need to remember that because the customer or client is coming there, your wage can be paid. Therefore, please don’t treat them like garbage, as your behaviour on the front lines reflects (often poorly) on your place of business, and can (often negatively) impact it.

    My two cents. I wonder what today’s exchange rate is…?

  • Japan: People’s minds would magically be expanded from their tiny little petty spheres to more meaningful things. The same day as the dreadful earthquake in Haiti I read a local newspaper in which one contributor wrote in lengthy and laborious detail about how much it annoyed her when people didn’t iron the peg marks out of their clothing. All I could think was “Lady, people are dead and dying in their thousands, and you spend so much time worrying about PEG MARKS!!!!”

    Australia: The culture would lose its misogynistic and down right woman-hating attitude, wherein in order to prove his “manliness” a man must disassociate himself from all things feminine, and demean women to prove to himself that he is superior to them. Interesting that people comment on the sexism of Japan – but I find Japan a much gentler and accepting society on some levels.

  • Japan: I would abolish the Monbusho (文部署) and kick the government out of the educational system. THE MAIN REASON for me advocating the abolishment of the Dept. of Education (Monbusho / 文部署) is so that I can reintroduce the original Kanji characters (繁體「体」字 / 舊「旧」漢字) back into mainstream society again. After they were “hacked and slashed” to bits by the Dept. of Education after the war, the teaching of the characters themselves became more of a wrought learning experience since their true forms, resplendent with five thousand plus years of history under their belt were summarily altered to “ease the memorization” process. Learning Kanji should be a history / literature / writing experience all rolled up into one. Eliminate one, the balance of learning is skewed too much in one direction. In Japan, China, and Korea to some extent, wrought learning is what results when one takes out key particles from the characters which renders them unrecognizable from the TRUE form. (Korea actually is a whole other issue….no time for that now….)

    U.S.A.: Set term limits of 4 – 8 years for ALL branches of government from the local level all the way up to Congress including the Supreme Court. (This should be done in Japan as well) You WILL NOT be allowed to run for the same office again, and you would be BARRED from “pulling a Putin” by creating your own office on the fly!!!!

  • I’ve always imagined that there’s a magic hanko somewhere with which you really could do anything.

    For Japan: All the screaming! Out of cars, in shops, on streets. That was my first thought, but I think I’d go for changing the idea that assuming another person can’t do something is somehow more polite or nice. That assuming that I can’t read is somehow ‘helpful’ or trying to help people do the simplest of things–announcements of which elevator door is going to open. Coddling, I guess is all it is. It leads to all that faux helplessness (particularly in women…ooh that できない!できない! stuff drives me crazy). Maybe this is all connected to a cultural intolerance of confidence. What would Japan be like if people weren’t pretending to be nervous all the time?

    For the US: I’d have people start appreciating education and *knowing* things instead of not. People are always dumbing themselves down and pretending they don’t know things. If you are too well-informed, you’re suspect and intimidating. Ugh. What would the US be like if people weren’t pretending to be stupid all the time?

  • Japan- I want to wave a magic wand and have every Japanese people suddenly understand the merit of failing in order to grow and better oneself from a young age. The ever present fear of failure in every aspect of life in Japan renders the majority of Japanese people impotent to even try new things and support new ways of thinking. This issue is CRIPPLING to this society.

    usa- less religion infiltrating every aspect of life. Ironic that the idea of christianity and organized religion in general is so imbuded in society and especially politics when that was what our founding fathers were trying so hard to get out from under the thumb of.

  • Off the top of my head, it seems to me that both Canada and Japan could use the same medicine: strengthen the middle class. It’s not a flashy wish, but I think if one thinks about it for even a few minutes, our prosperity is a result of the great increase in the middle class during the latter 1900’s. All the other wishes will need the tax base of the middle clash to be actualized. With a strong middle class, all the other wishes are within reach. In other words, I’d wish for 100 wishes.

  • If I may, I’d like to change my prior reply, and state something I’d REALLY love to change about Japan, even more so than the lack of “do unto others”.

    That is, the notion of human respect. The notion that, even though a person is of a different race/origin, he/she is still a person, and therefore no more important or deserving of attention than any average member of the “majority” race. The U.S. actually excels in this (with some exceptions). Most [civilised] people in the U.S., when they see meet a “foreign” person (be they Latino, African, Asian, or European) who speaks at least decently fluent English (even with an accent), and comports themselves like anyone else, they tend to treat that person like anyone else. Heck, they might even become friends. The issue of race never even comes up.

    Basically said, I want to run the same race and jump the same hurdles that any average Japanese is running. In the way I run the same race as any average American here in the U.S. despite being a “foreigner” here, too. NO special treatment, positive or negative. If I get pulled over, let it be because I was speeding, not “driving while foreign”. If I get declined for a job, let it be because my résumé was bad, not because my *face* was bad. If I get lousy service somewhere, let it be because *everyone* gets lousy service there, not just gaijin. I don’t want people to assume I prefer to hear broken English instead of Japanese, like how Americans wouldn’t assume a Mexican prefers to hear broken Spanish instead of English. Et cetera.

    I would make Japan like the U.S. in that aspect. The tacit acceptance that there are foreigners, some of them are here, and that it’s nothing to write home about. I want to be another face in the crowd, a crowd composed of people, some of whom are of a different race, but for all they know/care, no less “Japanese” than the guy next to me. If I could bottle that up and bring it to Japan, I would in a heartbeat.

    Apologies for the long post.

  • One thing i would change in japan is to have more way more immigrants.This would bring so many other positive changes with it. The one thing i would change back home would be to have the Japanese health care system.everyone can access it,if you pay to much on health care you can get a rebate,and the freedom from political interference at the doctors local level.

  • I lived in Japan for a year as an exchange student and hope to live there again.

    If I could change one thing, it would be for the people to no longer “know their place”, so to speak. I was shocked at just how willing people were to put up with being shafted by those in positions of power of them, and how much people were prepared to sacrifice for their work/occupations (I heard the horror stories of people not being paid for two months). If instead of going into ‘gaman’ mode, employees would get angry at their superiors when unreasonable demands are made of them, perhaps the idea that a contract between employer and employees is a two way relationship would take hold.
    This extends to politics too, though to be fair, last year voters did symbolically reject the LDP status quo.

    I am now back in my native Britain.

    What I would change here is the sheer nastiness and negativity of so many people, and which is reinforced by the tabloid media. From the immigrant bashing (they’re either taking all the jobs or scrounging off benefits; PICK ONE) to the more general demonisation of sections of society, I get the sense that we have lost the ability to actually empathise with other people, and have instead started using them as the object of our individual paranoias. When it comes to being asked to do something as a citizen, even if it’s something so small as recycling, people will whine about why THEY should be the ones to take responsibility.
    And for all this pathetic moaning, no one actually has the will to do anything positive to improve things.

  • For Japan I’d like to change the idea that being different from others is bad. I think this causes a lot of selfconciousness in Japan that really holds people back. It makes people affraid to speak their mind in public, try new things, or think a different way.

    For Guam, “USA” I like the change the culture of helplessness. People would rather complain then take action to change anything. Maybe this comes from years of being a colony. If you want to change things here you’ll get plenty of moral support, but no one will help you.

    For the US I’d like to change the every man for himself mentality. It causes others to always be on the defensive. I get so worn out when I go to the mainland, because it feels like I’ve always gotta fight for everything.


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