Man, have we been traveling this little old planet of ours! From Massachusetts to Virginia, New York to Maryland, California to Nevada; we’ve been to Indonesia, Taiwain, Malaysia and now Japan too. Every place is different, although only the US calls itself the best country in the world. So, what does that mean? Is it really? How does one define that? It’s clear that every place has its advantages, but how important is the general happiness of the people? By that metric, I’m sad to say America might be dead last on that list strangely enough.
Oftentimes the discussion turns to opportunity, the ability to move up in the world, and that’s an area where the USA has traditionally excelled. A lot of value is placed there on hope, that one can improve his situation, have a better life than his or her parents. But it’s necessary for folks to believe in it for that to be a true possibility, and I don’t see a lot of hope in the people on the lower rungs of the ladder. It’s a little better on the East Coast, but it doesn’t take a lot of time at the airport in Philadelphia to realize those working at the restaurants for instance have all but given up; they don’t give a shit about their jobs, and lots of customers don’t give a shit about them. LAX is similar with a sense of apathy and lack of interest that’s kind of scary. It’s a monster that feeds itself: there’s NO respect for the little guy, so the little guy responds in kind.
How different is it in Japan? Incredibly so! Politeness is a huge part of the culture here, but it truly goes deeper than that and I firmly believe that fair wages are of paramount importance. When you realize exactly how little some people make in the US, working 40 hours a week, not being able to pay for even the most modest life, especially while their customers can afford to light their fireplaces with $100 bills, that resentment makes a lot more sense. The utter disrespect shown to even the generally well qualified and excellent workers at Starbucks proves the terrible situation. Take the crews at the clubs and theaters we’ve played here: I’m almost embarrassed by how helpful and subservient they are! They apologize for making us wait 30 seconds, even when the cause was not their fault. But most of all, everyone seems truly interested and invested and that last word is the key in my opinion.
You see, it’s really that simple and one place I’ve written about on these pages a few times before proves it: In-N-Out Burger! It’s just a simple fast food place, but the demeanor of its employees could NOT be any more different from McDonalds for instance. The food is a lot better, but that has little to do with it. You know what makes its employees care about their job? The fact that they get a piece of the profit of their particular establishment. Mind you, it’s probably a tiny piece, but it means hard work literally pays off, and directly so! It’s an example of something else I’ve written about repeatedly and that’s the ‘feedback loop’, perhaps the most important mechanism in the universe. Living is more than surviving, or at least the human psyche wants to make it more. We have a sense of fairness that seems to be built in to our basic blueprint and there are experiments that show that some animals have it too.
In US politics there’s a lot of talk about people’s sense of entitlement, and while I’m not saying there’s not a problem there, I truly believe very few, if any, would expect that someone making sandwiches deserves to make the same amount of money as someone leading a billion dollar corporation. At the same time, it just doesn’t make sense that anyone in a country as rich would have to bust his balls 40 hours a week and not be able to pay for a small apartment and food, making less a week than his boss makes per hour. The lack of resentment that one clearly sees in the faces of the common Japanese worker is not fake; it’s a result of a country that truly takes care of its people, a pace that’s elevated ALL of its people!
Now, everything has a downside; that’s a law of the universe, isn’t it? I’ve never lived here, but in many ways it seems similar to Holland, and I know that place very well! The first ‘problem’ in a highly organized society is the system of classes it introduces and the US was of course built on the idea of trying to abolish such a rigid structure of social layers. To a large extent, even the way you talk determines the possibilities you have in the rest of your life. It’s a topic for a future piece, but something very important nonetheless.
Something else, that’s very different here from my homeland, is the subservient role of the female. It’s not apparent in everyday life, but I know that traditionally the woman here in Japan has had no right to an opinion. In general, there is less freedom for everyone to do as he pleases, with very strict rules of conduct in every aspect of life. It’s definitely a system which would not work for any people who have tasted freedom, the way we westerners have! At the same time, when I look at the faces of the hundreds passing by the window of the coffee shop here at the train station, I see a level of peace rarely encountered in the US. And why wouldn’t people be peaceful? This place works! The bullet train GOES! And on time I must add! Food everywhere is excellent, affordable too, all the basic necessities are within everyone’s reach. A bottle of water at the airport is $1 or maybe $1.50, even though the drinking water is perfectly potable.
In the end I think the answer lies in togetherness. That’s what’s truly missing in the US and perhaps western civilization in general. We are so obsessed with ourselves, with advancing our personal situation, that we forget we are on this ride together. More importantly, an individual human is nothing, not even the most extraordinary one! Our strength lies in numbers, in teamwork. It’s a lesson we’ve had more opportunities to learn than one can imagine, but somehow it’s not sticking! Think about sports, religion…… it’s something that is so clear in Indonesia, a place that’s been pulling itself up by its bootstraps. Freed from the rule of my people half a century ago, it’s been growing, its economy now the biggest in South East Asia. Even the poor, living on the street next to rivers that smell like sewers are benefitting; food is cheap and quite good, and the waste of the better off is more than they had before the influx of wealth, so things are looking up, if you know what I mean. It’s probably because it’s such a religious place that there’s a sense of togetherness that’s so sorely missing in my neck of the woods, which is probably the most God-less city on this planet. I’m not advocating more religion, and consider myself a true atheist, but if we’re going to move away from it, we MUST find another way to believe in the collective. It seems like the Japanese have found a way, so perhaps we should stop telling ourselves we are the greatest and learn from others.