Japan's Yen for perfection ( And why the Japanese are the opposite of Indians)

The Japanese believe in quiet hard work and less argument just for the sake of noisy debate. The results show in well how they live.

 |  6-minute read |   23-10-2018
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People are polite, they do not interrupt other people, they speak softly, they are always on time, they are methodical as opposed to chaotic.

And last but not least, they have the cleanest toilets in the world. And I asked if there were loud TV debates where people abused each other – and was told, no.

Five years ago I lived in Japan for two months on a generous fellowship that gathered leaders in various fields from across Asia in Tokyo and introduced them to Japan and the history and concerns of the nation. Ever since, I have been entranced, partly because on the civilizational scale, I have never seen people so different from us Indians, in manner and form, as the Japanese.

japan1-copy_102218074937.jpgNo, it's not a cliche. The Japanse are always calm and polite. (Photo: Reuters)

Last week, I returned to Japan to take part in a seminar and give a lecture at a university in Tokyo. The differences were again reinforced – as was my fascination with the land of the rising sun. The professor at the university had specialised on India (and therefore learnt Hindi as the Japanese cannot swing it with English as Western scholars can).

She told me that it was a struggle to get Japanese students to ask questions as they considered it impolite to challenge speakers and some were conscious of their poor English, although every word I spoke was translated.

She was therefore delighted that four students did ask questions that ranged from the caste system to political funding to #MeToo and the genius of Indians in Information technology. A rather delightful touch was a student who came up to me after the lecture to ask about 3 Idiots, a movie that has a cult status in Japan where parents also pressurise their children into careers.

She had also seen Bahubali and Dangal with Japanese subtitles.

3-idiots1-copy_102218075515.jpgThe Aamir Khan starrer is hugely popular in Japan. (Photo: Facebook)

I later contrasted the conduct of Japanese students with my recent experience in Hindu College, Delhi University, where a talk that I gave invited a volley of questions – including some by those who did not attend the lecture but arrived in the end to ask questions.

We do love an argument in India, often just for the sake of hearing our voices and opposing whatever point is being made. The professor, who knows India well, said quite seriously to me that in India you must “keep talking and talking or someone else will fill up the space! We Japanese admire the Indian ability to talk with so much confidence”.

indian1-copy_102218080416.jpgThe argumentative nature of Indians is so famous, even Amartya Sen wrote about it. (Photo: Farrar, Straus and Giroux)

Today the Japanese live in an economically powerful nation that does not have the military capacity to engage in war. After World War II Japan forever renounced the use of force or war. Once upon a time, however, the Japanese imperial army was considered one of the cruelest in the world and its occupation of the Korean peninsula was still a flashpoint between the nations.

While I was in Japan, I read a report about how Tokyo has sounded out North Korea about a plan to establish a liaison office in Pyongyang aimed at resolving the issue of the abductions of Japanese nationals by North Korean agents. Japan lists 17 nationals as having been abducted by North Korea in the 70s and 80s.

As Tokyo is hosting the 2020 Olympic Games, it wants to welcome the North Korean contingent without the acrimony of the past. In 2002, the Japan-North Korea Pyongyang declaration touched on the “tremendous damage and suffering” Japan caused to the people of Korea during its colonial rule that ran from 1910 to 1945.

That Empire came to an end when the US dropped two atom bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki on August 6 and August 9, 1945. People melted. The Empire vanished.

hiroshima1-copy_102218081236.jpgThe bombs that changed Japan forever. (Photo: AP)

Since then, the US has maintained bases in Japan – now at the invitation of the Japanese. Currently, about 54,000 military personnel are on Japanese soil, the largest overseas contingent of US military. The US has pledged to defend Japan in the event of an attack on the country. A complicated and dramatic past makes the Japan story compelling.

Being in Japan is a delight for me as I am quite happy to eat fish and Miso soup for breakfast and sushi for lunch. In Japan, I also look at people’s faces and tell myself that this island nation has given the world Ninja warriors, the most advanced hand-drawn and then computer generated animation called Anime, and produced genius such as the filmmaker Akira Kurosawa and Haruki Murakami, who rank as among my favourite living novelists. (I’m not getting into the bullet trains that the Japanese are working hard to promote in India).

sushi1-copy_102218081533.jpgThe Japanese have a desire for perfection in all things – culinary to literary and cinematic. (Photo: Facebook)

Currently, the Japanese are also moving on schedule to get Tokyo prepared for the 2020 Olympics. Taxis now sport the Olympic logo and the old and fascinating Tsukiji fish market that I have visited in the world’s highest fish-consuming nation has been closed down. The day I landed in Tokyo, a new wholesale market called Toyosu opened for business. I’m sure it will be very modern and impressive but I felt a little pang for the fascinating Tsukiji.

I’m also certain everything will be ready in time (if not before time) for the Tokyo games.

But what the Japanese are not being able to control is the global warming that is hitting them hard as an island nation. The Olympic Games will take place between July 24 and August 9, when the average Tokyo temperature should be 35 degrees Celsius.

But this year, a heat wave landed many people in hospital as the temperature crossed 40 degrees. The Japanese are worried – but they are also capable of attempting to build the best system possible to minimise the impact and damage.      

Also read: Kalyan Karmakar’s Food Diaries: To Japan and back, with no ‘excess baggage’


Saba Naqvi Saba Naqvi @_sabanaqvi

Eminent political journalist and writer. Author, most recently of Shades of Saffron: From Vajpayee To Modi

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