Since yesterday was the anniversary of the Tohoku Earthquake and Tsunami, and Japan has been on my mind, I decided to share something close to my heart. I lived in Japan for three years and moved just months before the disaster. I will always remember how I felt as I watched the television in horror as the tsunami swept away places I had been to and people I might have met. And in the days following the disaster, I marvelled at how the Japanese people calmly put life back together. There was no rioting; the only looting that occured was instigated by gaijin, foreigners; and people waited in orderly queues for gas and water. I feel like the world can learn so much about strength of character from the Japanese people. They have such an extraordinary social dynamic that it creates a truly remarkable culture and a truly remarkable people. The following are six life lessons I learned from my time in Japan.
Play Your Part in the Greater Whole
The Japanese espouse a team mentality. After the tsunami, the reason people waited patiently in line for gas—some for days—is because the Japanese people value the greater whole over the individual. They understand the bigger picture and the important role they play in it. Self sacrifice and team work are honored while self-serving behaviors are despised. This works for them, because Japan is built on a culture of trust. They trust that the person next to them will do their part, too.
Energy, health, and enthusiasm are all rolled into one term: genki. It is not uncommon in Japan to greet someone by asking them about their energy levels: “Genki desu ka?” This concept of genki is fundamental to the way Japanese think. Another term, Gambatte, emphasizes the enthusiam and determination of the Japanese people. It means, “You can do it!” or, “Try your best.” These concepts reveal how much energy and effort mean to the Japanese.
Perfect Isn’t Beautiful
The Japanese term wabi-sabi describes the Japanese philosophy of beauty, which celebrates the imperfect and fleeting. In Japan, things that are “too perfect” are actually considered ugly. Things that are fleeting are also cherished, such as hanami (falling cherry blossoms).
Be Humble, Always
Humbleness permeates everything the Japanese do—it is even built into the language and customs. For example, bowing is a common way in Japan to show respect and apologize. And Japanese language features complex rules of honorific and humble speech. They have the most beautiful and polite ways to present things, like I read once on a donut package, “We are most honored to offer you this most humble of donuts.” Like everything else in Japan, there is even an artform to being the most humble. If you receive a compliment, you must deflect the compliment and come up with something that makes you look worse.
Have Pride, Respect Others, and Serve
In Japan, everyone takes pride in his or her position and value in his or her contributing role. If you work at McDonald’s, you are the best McDonald’s worker, and you serve your customers with pride. This translates into a phenomenal service culture in which everyone is treated with diligence and respect. And they do all this without tipping—revolutionary if you ask me! These values also make Japan literally the most hard-working country in the world, because they drive a more culturally enforced work ethic based on pride, respect, and integrity.
Plan for the Future
Japan is rattled by 20% of the world’s earthquakes above 6 magnitude. I felt hundreds and hundreds of earthquakes during the three years I lived in Japan, some as strong as 7.2; yet I watched firsthand how time and time again, Japan’s planning and engineering standards withstood the force of these quakes with little-to-no damage. Another true testament to a nation focused on foresight is that every single car in a Japanese parking lot is carefully and expertly backed into a parking space and at restaurants in which you have to remove your shoes, you will see rows of shoes lined up with toes pointing toward the door, ready for an easy exit. 🙂
Have you been to Japan and witnessed any of these phenomena for yourself? I’d love to hear about it!