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Thread: The myth of the organised and orderly Japanese

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    Twirling dragon Maciamo's Avatar
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    Jul 17, 2002

    Post The myth of the organised and orderly Japanese

    One of the most persistent stereotypes about the Japanese is that they are extremely organised and orderly. This is how the Japanese see themselves and want to be seen by others. It is what most books about Japan and Japanese culture will tell you, repeating what they have been told by countless Japanese. But it isn't because everybody believes in something that that makes it true. Medieval Europeans believed that the Earth was flat and at the centre of the universe. Anybody who would have said otherwise would have passed for a madman, or be burned at the stake by the Church as a heretic.

    The Japanese don't burn people for their believes, but their extremely collectivist society will ostracise anybody who goes against the mainstream, anybody who thinks differently or doesn't accept the officially sanctioned cultural stereotypes. Most Japanese know so little about other cultures that anyway they cannot be good judges of their own cultures, as any adjective that is given to a people is only relative to other peoples around the world.

    My point of view is a northern European one, and from this standpoint I cannot regard Japan as an organised country. Obviously for an African, Latin American, Indian, Egyptian or even an Italian, Japan must look utterly organised. But for me it is mostly chaotic, with the exception that people are punctual (though not more than the average in Germanic countries), group-minded, respectful of others and careful in their endeavours. Punctuality may be one facet of organisation, but only a small one.

    Go to any Japanese city, town or village, and all that you see everything is chaos. Buildings are built without any regard at all for aesthetics or urban planning. They come in any shape, size and colour, without the least bit of consideration for harmony (another thing that the Japanese believe they are good at, but obviously only for people's looks, opinions and beliefs, not how they build their cities). Multi-coloured neon signs of any size are place just as chaotically anywhere.

    Streets don't have names, and block numbers are attributed in a helter-skelter manner. Most Japanese, even taxi drivers and policemen, have difficulties finding a house just by knowing the address. This wouldn't happen practically anywhere in the Western world.

    Plants and flower pots are left along the narrow streets in central Tokyo. Bicycles are left cluttering the pavement near all metro and train stations - something unimaginable in northern Europe (the Dutch, who are also fervent cyclists, have well organised bicycle parks near all stations). Electric lines aren't buried nor concealed, but pass above every street, to add more chaos and confusion to the general look of Japanese cities.

    Enter a Japanese house, and you will be lucky to find things well organised. Books on the shelves are rarely organised by category, names and/or size, as I have been taught to do since I was a child. Even when I was six, I couldn't dream letting my comic books in the wrong order of number, or worse of all mixing different series together. Series also had to be organised by the height of books on different shelves (don't put the 30cm-tall encyclopaedia next to the pocket-size books). Clothes also have to be organised by type, season, and even colours (for the shirts on the hangers, for instance). In the kitchen, forks, knives and spoons each have their own compartment in the drawer, and it would be unthinkable to mix them all. This is just a preview of what organisation really means, and I am not even German !

    From my point of view, the Japanese are badly deluded if they think they are truly organised. They may be reasonably organised for business matters (including public transports), because they have to, but everything seems to be forgotten once we get to the private sphere and urban planning. It's as if they are only forced to be organised, by society or out of necessity. It's not a natural urge or a true liking for orderliness. The Japanese don't seem to value orderliness as something aesthetically pleasing. Go to Paris, Amsterdam, London or Copenhagen, and streets will be lined with similar-looking houses, built at similar (or identical) height, in a well-organised whole. Countries where bicycle use is widespread (Denmark, Netherlands, Belgium) will have clearly marked (usually red-painted) bicycle lanes separated from the pedestrian pavement and the road for cars - something that the Japanese have been very slow and fragmentary in implementing, even where pavements are extremely wide by European standard.

    Actually, even public transports in Japan could be seen as disorganised, as a whole, in spite of their punctuality. Travelling in the Kanto and Kansai regions can be quite tiresome simply because of the sheer number of private lines, which are not integrated into a coherent system. Maps that rarely include lines of other companies, and stations from different companies are rarely conveniently located for transfers between lines (one often has to walk quite a bit to get a connection). Besides, each railway has its own tickets, which means that customers have to buy a new ticket every time they change to another railway. That's not what I call a well organised system.

    What is undeniable is that the Japanese take very good care of their customers, are hard-working, care about their appearance (in public), and are obsessed about efficiency. These are all necessary to keep "face". But that doesn't mean that the country is particularly well organised and that people are orderly. The Japanese manage to be efficient despite living a a fairly chaotic country. In this regard they are very unique.

    Due to their collectivist nature, the Japanese are reasonably well organised and orderly as a group, but not so much as individuals.

    The reason the Japanese are so disorderly may stem from the messiness of their language. Ambiguous by nature, Japanese language cannot be accurate even if you want it to. Accuracy and orderliness tend to go hand in hand.

    Incidentally, the Japanese are not a very analytical people (unlike, say, the Germans and Austrians). That is why they make poor psychologists, linguists, and philosophers - all subjects that require a highly organised mind.
    Last edited by Maciamo; Oct 16, 2012 at 19:14.

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