What’s So Special About Japan?

Posted: April 8, 2011 in Confucius Lives Next Door, by T.R. Reid

In light of the no longer quite so recent Safeway shooting, the various difficulties confronting our society have again been in the spotlight.  It appears to me that the two primary issues confronting us today are 1) moral deficit and 2) lack of national spirit.  T.R. Reid’s 1999 Vintage Books publication Confucius Lives Next Door explains how the Japanese have pulled themselves up from almost complete annhiliation to become highly economically successful while maintaining a remarkable social and communal harmony.  Notwithstanding the recent tragedies which have struck Japan, this is still a must-read for learning from example.

One of the primary methods the Japanese use to encourage good behavior is inculcation.  We in the U.S. had used it successfully for several centuries.  Until the mid-twentieth century we taught our children Judeo-Christian values, reflected for years in lower rates of crime and various now-common social problems.  Because of our current diversity, we are understandably apprehensive about favoring one set of religious values over another, but the fact is that not only many individuals but also most of the traditional world religions have similarity of consensus as to basic moral behavior.  So why can we, as a nation, not promote the values we agree upon?

I personally fear government indiscriminately inculcating values in me which I do not ascribe to, but we must be reasonable.  Governmental influence can certainly be used to control and oppress, but it can also be legislatively directed to promote desirable behavior.  While the United States has been significantly more judicious than Japan in its use of attempting to influence the collective consciousness of its citizens, the 1980’s had the “Just Say No” drug and the 1970’s its “Keep America Beautiful” anti-littering campaigns.  We must not assume that just because we have always done things a certain way it is the best or only way, or that because we haven’t tried something, it isn’t worth trying. Furthermore, we must realistically assess the condition of our country and conclude that it can, indeed, be improved.

We must certainly be prudent about selecting the behavior we want to encourage.  This must not be an opportunity for special interests to promote their agendas.  We must avoid controversial topics a majority of our citizens cannot agree upon.  Nor must we use this as an opportunity to control religious groups, or tell them what they can and cannot teach.  Rather, there must be consensus.  Putting it to a vote would ensure that there is equity and balance in the program.

Many years ago the United States decided to open its doors to all, regardless of creed or nationality.  This has created unique problems of cultural differences which more homogenous nations, such as Japan, simply do not face.  We need to promote and recognize that we are indeed “one nation”; that we face the same problems, privileges, responsibilities, and challenges as our neighbors.  Thus, those in authority must be pro-active in remediating both the moral deficit and lack of national spirit in our people.  While we do not want to be agressively nationalistic, we do want to feel we have something in common with our fellow Americans other than just physical proximity.  We need a sense of community and the recognition that it is indeed a privilege to be an American; that we are all “in it together”–qualities we gain not be talking, but by raising the standard of what it means to be an American.

T.R. Reid’s book is an examination of a people group who have perfected the technique of pulling together as a nation through times of both prosperity and distress. There are lessons here that we can learn.

“T.R. Reid is The Washington Post’s London bureau chief.  He has appeared on Nightline and Meet the Press, and has weekly commentaries on National Public Radio.  Reid graduated from Princeton University and had several careers—Latin teacher, Naval officer, lawyer—before joining The Washington Post in 1977.  He covered Congress and three presidential campaigns before taking over the Tokyo Bureau in 1990, and has written for numerous magazines, including National Geographic.” (quote taken from the book)


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