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Thread: Belgium vs Japan : David vs Goliath

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    Twirling dragon Maciamo's Avatar
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    Jul 17, 2002

    Post Belgium vs Japan : David vs Goliath

    I will do a very summarised comparison of my country of birth vs Japan, reviewing as many aspects of either societies as possible and comapring them. I encourage all of you to do the same comparison with your country (in a separate thread for each country) as it is an excellent exercise of research and analysis.

    First of all, as the title implies, the comparison isn't fair from the start since Japanese is almost exactly 12.5x bigger in land area, population and GDP.

    Yet, Japan and Belgium have much more in common than it may seem to the casual observer. As I have suggested above, the two countries have the same density of population. In fact, if you look at the list of 230 countries ranked by population density, you will see that the closest country from Japan is no other than Belgium.


    Japan and Belgium also have nearly identical GDP per capita. The latest data (2005) shows that Belgium has a slightly higher one at PPP, but comes just after Japan in nominal GDP per capita. Again, few countries are so similar to Japan as Belgium in this regard.

    Another common point is the importance attached to food. Belgium is often ranked as one of the best European country for its restaurants, along with France and Italy. If we trust the world-famous Michelin Guide, their French reviewers implicitly admit that we eat better in Belgium than in France, as Belgium got more starred restaurant per capita than France. Brussels also has more starred restaurants than any French city outside Paris, beating the 4 French cities of similar size : Lille, Lyon, Marseille and Bordeaux. I won't have to make the eulogy of Japanese food on this forum, as I suppose you all know what I am talking about.

    Another surprising common point is the car production. Japan is a well-known car manufacturer, and Belgium only makes buses. So what is so similar, will you tell me ? Belgium may not have its own car makers, but it does manufacture more cars per capita than any other country in the world, just before Japan (see car production per capita). And the Japanese have something to do with this, as Toyota, Honda and Subaru Europe are all based in Belgium (at least HQ + some factories); Renault used to have a big factory near Brussels, which closed in 1997; Volkswagen manufactures its Golf (and some Polo's) in Brussels (well there have justly been talks this week of moving the site)... So both countries are major car manufacturers. Belgium is also the world's 3rd country with the most vehicles per square kilometres after the Netherlands and Japan.

    Both Japan and Belgium have very centralised economies, with most big companies headquartered in the capital. Both have the No 2 rival city, so that we could say that Antwerp is to Brussels what Osaka is to Tokyo (very similar relationship).

    Finally, both the Belgians and the Japanese are big fans of comics, and both countries are major comic producers (Belgium being the biggest in Europe, and Japan the biggest in Asia).


    Culture is one of the most striking differences. If we want to caricaturise we could say that Japan is an ultra-socialising "we are all the same, so let's chat or have sex" type of society, whereas Belgium is the ultra-individualistic "we are all different, so mind your own business and mingle with people of your milieu" type of society. Belgian people are hyper-critical, defiant of rules, and think that culture equals museums, exhibitions, concerts, debates and documentaries. Japanese people are hypo-critical, obedient, and think that culture equals hot springs, massages, viewing cherry-blossoms, going to hostess bars and reading porn in the train.

    These differences appear most strongly in the press. Go to a convenience store in Japan or a supermarket in Belgium and you will see what are the most popular magazines in each country. In a combini you won't find many men's magazines that do not contain porn, while women seem to care only about fashion, and weddings. Add to that a long of manga mags. In the Belgian supemarket, there is no porn at all (it is only sold in newsagents). Magazines are much more varied, with such sections as home interior, real estate, fashion, history, sciences & nature, economy & politics, royalties & celebrities, sports, games (more sudoku in Belgium than in Japan), video games, hunting & fishing, travel, etc. Basically all you find in Japanese department stores or specialised newsagents, but NOT in combini.

    It seems that Japan and Belgium have inverted the exclusive content of their newsagent vs combini/supermarket. In fact, contrarily to Japan, the sex industry in Belgium is very concealed and unconspicuous. You won't notice it if you don't look for it and know where to look. In Japan you will notice it even if you try to avoid it ; apart from porn in all combinis, love hotels, soaplands, special massage parlours, and other X-rated places abound around all big train stations. On the other hand, one might say that Belgium is "sexually boring" because it lacks the sexually charged atmosphere of Japan. Belgian people are also colder and more suspicious of strangers, especially in Brussels.

    Historical heritage & sightseeing

    This is where the "David vs Goliath" fight takes place. Despite its diminutive size, Belgium has a much richer historical heritage than Japan, as you will see point by point.

    - City architecture and public buildings

    Few buildings in Japan are older than 50 years of age. This is partly because Japanese constructions are traditionally made of wood, and made to be rebuild frequently. Shinto shrines are rebuild every 30 years, even the great Ise Jingu. Wood also doesn't resist as well to weather, and even less to fires. So it is unsurprising that Japan has so few historical buildings left. It is common in the Walloon countryside to live in a house which is between 100 and 300 years old, sometimes even 500 years old. The historical centre of many cities (Brussels, Bruges, Ghent, Namur...) dates from the 15th, 16th or 17th century. Few residential houses in central Brussels (let's say in a radius of 2km from the townhall) are less than 100 years old.

    There are only a few small districts within cities that are worth visiting for their traditional arcitecture in Japan : Gion in Kyoto, the canal district of Jurashiki (a street about 100m long, not more), the small town of Takayama, and the Nagamachi, Teramachi & Katamachi districts of Kanazawa. I have been to almost all touristic Japanese cities and no other has any traditional urban architecture to offer. All this is no match for the historical centres of Bruges, Ghent, Antwerp, Mechelen, Brussels, Leuven, Namur, Durbuy and others.

    - Castles

    Belgium has about 3000 castles, citadels or palaces, with very varied styles (see examples. Japan barely has 12 original castles + about 40 concrete reconstructions. One of the oldest castle still standing in Belgium is the huge Fortress of Bouillon, built 950 years ago (Belgium's equivalent to Windsor Castle). The oldest castle in Japan is the tiny Inuyama-jo, which is a mere 470 years old (half the age of Bouillon).

    For the tourists, Japanese castles are unfortunately all fairly similar in style, so that for most people after seeing one you have seen them all. Belgian castles are so different from region to region and by historical period (esp. the interior decoration) that it is possible to see dozens and dozens without getting bored (if you like castles, of course). Japanese castles have also lost their furniture and interior decoration (if they had any), which makes visiting the baren interior all the more boring. No life-size portraits of the old owners, no luxurious bedrooms, no kitchen with their original utensils, no libraries, great staircases with chandeliers and/or tapestries...

    Even the Belgian Royal Palace in Brussels (well, there are two of them, at least the one in Laeken) is bigger than the Imperial Palace in Tokyo. This can be seen if you compare them at equal scales on a map, or even better on Google Earth or Wikimapia. Here is the Royal Palace of Laeken (in Northern Brussels), the Royal Palace of Brussels (in the centre) and the Imperial Palace of Tokyo (all at the same scale). It is not so surprising when you know that either Royal Palace in Brussels is bigger than Buckingham Palace in London.

    - Religious buildings

    If there is one thing Japan can be proud of, it is to have a few temples around Nara from the 7th and 8th centuries, and thus older than any buildings in Belgium (if we exclude the 4th-century Roman city walls of Tongeren, which are not properly "buildings"). When it comes to the size, beauty and grandeur, however, the greatest Kyoto temples are no match to the Romanesque, Gothic, and Baroque cathedrals of Belgium. Again, Japanese architecture lacks variety throughout the ages, so that after a few temples and shrines we have seen them all (and I did see a lot of them, just to confirm). At least Japan has some Zen gardens with some of its temples to add a bit of variety. My favourite religious places in Japan are both shrines, the Fushimi Inari Jinja in Kyoto and the Ise Jingu. In neither cases it is for the buildings that I like them but for the atmosphere and the natural setting in the forest.

    - Museums & Art Galleries

    Leaving aside the fact that many Japanese museums are overpriced (1,800yen for most of the Ueno Park museums), Japan has very little to put in its museums in spite of its size and length of history. When it comes to Western Art, the best museum in Japan is the National Museum of Western Art. I would have expected better for the world's second economy, but of course Japan is no Western country. Belgium is very well endowed with the Royal Museums of Fine Arts. But again this is normal given the number of famous Belgian painters. This museum has more works by Brueghel and Rubens (and other Flemish painters) than any other museum in the world.

    I also counted more museums in Brussels (93) than in Tokyo-to (44 art museums, 35 museums and 10 galleries, so 89), despite Tokyo being over 10x bigger. Nationwide, Belgium has probably more when you know that hundreds of Belgian castles act as museums too.

    - Natural attractions

    Japan being 12.5x bigger than Belgium, it is obvious that it has more nature, witha wider range of climates and geographical features. 2/3 of Belgium is fairly flat, with 1/3 in the South-East being one of the hilliest region of Europe. But Belgium doesn't have a single mountain. Japan has Mount Fuji, various volcanos (Aso, Sakurajima...) and many great mountain ranges and lakes. Japan also has beautiful beaches and jungle in Okinawa. Belgium only has a tiny stretch of coast (70km), although it is well developed for tourism, with nice white sand beaches, as well as a natural reserve (the Zwin). But there is no comparison with Japan's 29,751 km of coastline (a "mere" 430x more !).

    With so much sea around and the importance fish in Japanese food, it is not surprising that Japan also has plenty of aquariums, including some of the best on the planet (e.g. the Okinawa Churaumi Aquarium, the world's 2nd largest). Belgium not being a great maritime nation like its Dutch, British or French neighbours, it is not the best place for aquaria either. Belgium only has a handful of major aquaria, the biggest of which, Aquatopia in Antwerp, only has 10,000 fish or 250 species in 1 million liters of water, as opposed to 10 millions liters of water for Churaumi.

    Belgium gets its revenge with its top zoo and botanic garden. Indeed, Belgium's biggest zoo, the Zoo of Antwerp, is twice bigger than Japan's bigger zoo, Ueno Zoo, either for the number of species (950 vs 422) or total number of animals (5,000 vs 2,600). The National Botanic Garden of Belgium, with its 18,000 species of plants, also defeats anything found in Japan.
    Last edited by Maciamo; Nov 26, 2006 at 18:32.

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