I just returned from a two week work trip to China and Japan. This was my third trip to China, and it was as amazing and full of growth and excitement as ever. China is where the action is at the moment, but this was my first trip to Japan and I found it equally fascinating. While China is bursting with chaotic, creative energy, Japan is a place of methodical refinement – where doing everyday things the right way is an artform.
A month ago, I spent two days in New York City, which was a helpful comparison point when I arrived in Tokyo. Greater New York City is a little larger in size, but Greater Tokyo’s 37 million people dwarfs New York’s population of 19 million, making it the world’s most populated megopolis. Despite this incredible density, Tokyo is the cleanest, most orderly city I have ever seen. I saw only two homeless people, and seriously no trash, even though I don’t remember seeing any cleaning people at work outside the hotel. Very few horns blare, people obey crosswalk signs, and waiting lines are perfectly straight and quiet. That’s not to say it is boring; everywehere you look there is an eye-catching array of lights, signs, art, and shops of every imaginable kind. It is much less diverse than New York. In the three days I spent there, I saw only a handful of obvious Westerners, even in the downtown business and tourist districts.
I love to make new friends and practice a little of the local language when I travel. In China, this is easy, since once you get outside the main cities, the Chinese are incredibly curious about foreigners. They are always watching you with discreet interest. One of my favorite things to do was to turn my head quickly and catch them looking before they could look away. I smiled, then they smiled, and it was easy to converse. This didn’t work the same way in Japan. The Japanese, even on incredibly crowded subways – perhaps because of those crowded subways – have learned to wrap themselves in solititude and block out everything around them. As one university vice president described it to me, “We Japanese live in wooden houses with paper walls. We have learned how not to hear what happens on the other side of a single pane of paper.”
Although just looking and smiling failed miserably, I did find success by doing two things: asking for help and asking for knowledge. Asking for directions on the subway not only got me assistance, but a nice conversation and email follow up. Asking for information on some landmark or piece of Japanese culture yielded history lessons and lots of smiles. A few times, all my traveling companions and I had to do was stand in the subway station and look mystified, and before long someone would come by to explain the map, help us buy tickets, or personally escort us to our trains. I had the clear impression that in Japanese culture, helping someone was a weighty matter that should be done right, as if you were welcoming a guest.
Actually, that was one of my strongest impressions of Japanese culture overall – this shared sense that anything worth doing is worth doing right. Customer service, whether in hotels, restaurants, or train stations should be impeccable, even if that means hiring twice as many people as you need. Any time we entered an establishment we were properly greeted. When the ticket taker on the train moved from one car to another he bowed when he entered and again when he left. Everything made, sold, wrapped, cooked, driven, or said was done with efficiency and care. It was a striking difference from the U.S., where customer services is typically spotty, if not jarring.
As a symbol of this insight, the picture above is the sushi lunch that we were served by one of our university partners. Sushi would not be my first meal choice, but this simple boxed lunch was a work of art. Every piece was cut, formed, and wrapped perfectly; placed in a bowl with complementary colors and a matching placemat.
While Japan certainly has its own weaknesses and issues, this is a cultural value I could learn something from. Simple, beautiful excellence – doing the small things well – is a joy that could punctuate the busiest days if I let it.