Reaching for Respect

Over Christmas break, I was lucky to have the opportunity to travel across the globe to visit my cousin who lives in Tokyo, Japan. The trip was an amazing opportunity not only to see a far-away family member but also to observe and learn about Japan and its society.

At first glance, Japan seems remarkably foreign compared to the United States. Buildings in Tokyo are smaller than in cities like New York or Boston, but the limits of the city stretch as far as the eye can see, even from the 1091 foot tall Tokyo Tower. The immensity and cramped nature of the city emphasize its history, age and diversity and make it feel unlike most planned American cities. I could, of course, continue to list superficial differences between the United States and Japan, from food to clothing to language and beyond.

What struck me the most were the Japanese views on careers and the societal role of jobs in Japan. According to the family member I stayed with, who is a diplomat assigned in Tokyo responsible for informing his government on Japanese culture, the Japanese attribute unparalleled importance to being employed, no matter what job one has.

Of course, being employed is important here in the United States. The US jobs crisis and the economy in general are daily topics of discussion throughout the country. But with an 8.6 percent unemployment rate compared to the 4.5 percent rate in Japan (both figures as of November 2011), it makes sense that there is a certain social acceptability to being unemployed: a person can blame the poor state of the economy rather than a personal failing.

In Japan, there is no acceptability whatsoever. Unemployment is met with relatively complete exclusion from society.

The Japanese, however, stop judging a person once they have learned that one has a job, regardless of the field of work. That is to say, even doing a “menial” job earns one respect from the community and the right to participate in that community.

Furthermore, the Japanese grant that respect regardless of position. All people, from an old man sweeping up leaves in the park to a woman collecting tolls on the highway to a businessman in a $5,000 suit sitting behind a desk are proud of their professions. They are proud of doing their jobs to their best abilities and are proud of their contribution to society.

Clearly, there is little similarity here to American culture.

In the United States, aspersions are cast on those who do not “succeed.” Few are proud, I would argue, of collecting tolls or picking up leaves to the best of their ability, no matter how well they do it. Rather, success is defined by how far you have risen up, how much money you make, or how much power you have.

When I pulled up to a tollbooth on the highway in Japan, the toll collector bowed and smiled, his hands flying to make our change as quickly as he could and to send us on our way with a smile and a laugh at our poor Japanese. Train conductors here bow to passengers they enter and exit each train car out of respect even if they are just walking through. Every exchange, no matter how trivial, between a service provider and his or customer is punctuated by a sincere “how can I help?” and ended with a genuine “thank you very much for your business.” Because of the pride shown by employees in every field, I believe the Japanese have succeeded in a way that is impossible in the United States.

I think this is just a cultural difference. I don’t think it means the United States ought to change. But it does provide a good opportunity to reflect on the role of competition and satisfaction in American culture.

As Andover students, pressures on us to become leaders and successes in the world abound. Andover grooms us for top colleges so that we can get “good” jobs. The goal, of course, is to change the world: to have a bigger impact on world history than the next person and to join a naturally, ceaselessly competitive society.

That’s the American way. And I don’t think it’s a wrong way to structure a society. American cultural views inspire personal achievement, which ends up resulting, necessarily, in national prominence. America teaches us to never be satisfied. I think that’s a good principle to live by, at least in theory.

I wonder, however, if I will ever be satisfied with my life’s future successes or failures, and whether or not I will be respected by my society for them.

And I can’t help but be a little bit jealous of the Japanese. They are afforded a guarantee of respect, intrinsic to their societal views, no matter what they “achieve,” as long as they do what they do as well as they can.

As I stepped out of a Japanese taxi driven, like many here, by a old man in white gloves and a tie, I thought about whether I could be as content as he seemed to be driving a taxi. For me, the answer was no. But for him, it was yes. And even still, he will always be respectable in the eyes of the Japanese and in my eyes as well.

In some ways, I wish I could be a proud taxi driver, not having to think about the next step towards earning respect.

Samuel Green is a three-year Upper from New York, NY.