My Week in Japan…Seeing What the US is Missing

I’ve been in Tokyo, Japan this week for business meetings, so have spent a couple of days walking the city and riding in the back of cabs from place to place.  In my spare time, I’ve be absorbing as much as I can of Tokyo, walking back streets of shops and trying to experience Japanese culture and cuisine as much as I can.  As I’ve become comfortable in this city, I’ve also become painfully aware of the contrasts between Japan and the US of today that couldn’t be more stark.  Having been in New York just a few weeks ago, Japan seems like the world of George Jetson while the US reminds me of Fred Flintstone’s City of Bedrock.  The streets in Tokyo, even the older narrow ones, are clean, smooth and well maintained.  There is no smell of urine and garbage, no panhandlers, no homeless on the streets.  The cabs are clean, late model cars with white lace headrest covers and white-gloved drivers wearing suit and tie.  The restaurants are soap-and-water clean with friendly service, even in those small establishments where no one speaks a word of English.  I’m perfectly comfortable walking the streets and enjoying window shopping the out-of-the-way stores and bars.  What a place.

Compared to my last trip to New York, this is a different world.  New York has become a cesspool of deteriorating New Deal infrastructure with bone-jarring potholes being slammed into by broken down cabs carrying unhappy passengers in filthy interiors driven by gruff, poorly trained drivers running at life-threatening speeds.   Surrounding the oasis that is central Manhattan is an ever encroaching blight of poor buildings, poor jobs, poor services, and poor people.  The homeless have multiplied in this latest economic turn-down, adding to the already huge population of the chronic unemployed and abandoned mental patients, who in more normal times of past eras would have at least been cared for with a roof over their heads.  Even those with jobs are terrified about threatened unemployment, health insurance companies still dumping “customers” who just happened to get sick, rising food, energy, transportation, and living costs even as salaries shrink.  America’s way of life is threatened, while elected leaders in Washington have abandoned the populace (and their Constitutional oath) for power, money, re-election, and perpetual politics.

Usually, when someone (like me) criticizes the direction of the country and pointing to countries like Japan, Sweden, Norway, and Germany as examples of doing it right, you get the huffy, “Well.  You KNOW they’re socialists.  You want to make us more like socialist countries.”  They also always retreat to the “Not with my money!” retort to any suggestion that we can actually improve the plight of all Americans.  Shamefully, most of the population has bought into the myth perpetuated on a daily basis by Fox News and Rush Limbaugh that government can do nothing good and that the “free market” cures all ills when that assertion is patently and easily proven false.

So.  How is Japan so successful even while the US crumbles?  Are they really socialists?  Do they pay all their income to taxes and “socialized medicine”?  Actually, no.  Japan, which has one of the highest standards of living in the world, is the third largest economy, behind the US and China in size, second in trade.  Life span is longer, health is better, everyone is covered by a privately run health care system.  Oh, and their annual per capita cost for health care is less than half that paid by Americans.  And, everyone is covered.  Highest individual tax rate is 40%, corporate tax rates are 30%.  Individual tax rates are progressive, just as in the US; the more you make, the more you pay.

How are they successful?  First, the Japanese are for Japan.  It is a collaborative society based on respect of others, and their ancestors.  They feel a real responsibility to contribute to the greater good, not just their latest video game purchase.   Their investment horizons are years-long rather than monthly as in the US.  Even though Japan’s doctors are fiercely independent, they also work in a system that requires coverage for all; pre-existing conditions are non-existent, and no one is turned away, even visitors and illegal immigrants.  Because everyone is in, the risk is spread, insurance companies strictly regulated and administrative and treatment costs driven down.  Everyone is better off.  Contrast that to the US, which is the increasingly popular every-man-for-himself culture, whose health care system is designed to exclude entire segments of the population to increase profits.  Preventive care is becoming non-existent, the elderly and the poor face decreasing benefits, even as their needs increase.  Genius Governor Rick Perry of Texas boastfully thumps his chest about how tough he is while Texas falls to 50th in health care coverage among the states. (There are only 50, so he’s successfully beat Mississippi to the bottom.  Congratulations, Rick.)  At the same time, darling of tea party conservatives, Governor Chris Christie of New Jersey actually turned down federal funds for a badly needed new tunnel project, killing 6,000 jobs for his citizens while calling for new jobs through tax cuts.  Stupid.

As a society, lead by our elected officials only out for themselves, the US has devolved into an isolationist, jingoistic mob.  Throw in a little xenophobia, bigotry, and ignorance and you have what we see today.  We elect officials who campaign on jobs and reducing the deficit, only to immediately vote in policies that add trillions to that deficit while doing nothing to add jobs.  As long as we are an ignorant electorate, voting for narrow, single issue candidates, we get what we vote for…

Ignorance and decline.



  1. Bobo Amerigo says

    I spent a week in a Japanese city and enjoyed it very much.
    One reason the streets were clean in that town, though, was because the employees (not the janitorial staff) of the large department stores would pick up trash and sweep the street near their stores fifteen minutes before the store opened — downright un-American. :-)
    It’s interesting, the size of the Japanese economy.
    On general interest news shows in this country, when the Japanese economy is mentioned, it’s usually described as flat, static, not growing because of mistakes they made over a decade ago (way back then, when they seemed so threatening).
    Americans know so little about other countries. No wonder ignorant yahoos get elected.

  2. Shortstuff says

    I am constantly baffled by the blindness of Americans who continually vote against their own self-interests….all due to their total belief in the lies and outrageous insanities of Rush Limbaugh (who, by the way, is multi-rich thanks to the fawning mouthbreathers who hang on his every stupid utterance). How can we bring ourselves back from the brink? I’m not sure it’s possible.
    How hard is it to emigrate to Canada? (Sorry, Japan is too small for me).
    Pogo was right. We have seen the enemy and he is us.

  3. RockheadedMama says

    My son and his wife lived in Japan, stationed there with the Navy. My grand-daughter was born there. They have been back 3 years. They still miss and talk about the wonderful high speed trains, the super electronics — my son says the cell phone he had there is still better than the one he has now! My DIL was there, alone, while my son was at sea during almost all of her pregnancy. Son went from ship to labor room! But, my DIL says she felt very safe and was never afraid when she had to walk the almost mile from the train station, even late at night. My son told me recently that he misses Japan in many ways. Said he’d move back with no problem, although his fav city was and still is Singapore. Not infrequently do I think about leaving. Although I am 6th gen Texan – the state and so many here are mean, hateful. It feels like being trapped in a disastrous marriage – married to someone you have no respect for and very little affection.

  4. Shortstuff says

    And yet, Sarah Simpleminded McFacebook prattles on about “American exceptionalism”.
    I have news for her and her ilk: people who live in other countries are not all stupid. They can read. They see what’s happening in America.
    Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, Samuel Adams, Thomas Paine, John Hancock, James Madison……those worthy gentlemen must be spinning in their graves.
    We are in the midst of “Idiocracy”.

  5. freeportguy says

    Always remember that ours is a “Government by the people, for the people”. It’s not some faceless monster out to get us, but rather elected officials, and elected by whom, may I ask? Us!
    As long as the population will blindly go (elect) for the empty yet easy, populist and loud slogans such as “Take my country back”, “Big Government is bad” and “Open for business”, and believe sellers of magic potions like “reduce taxes AND deficit”, we are doomed to fail.
    Populism is to politics what hot dog is to a diet: easy, convenient, fast and filling, but not a continuous long term alternative without dire consequences.

  6. alienHunter says

    Hi Bobo,
    I think one thing is true, however. Japan has an ageing population are in real danger of decline because of a lack of new blood.

  7. alienHunter says

    I had a friend that lived in Japan for a few years (He eventually taught English in China and earned a law degree here in the U.S.) His father was a Kansas senator and a WWII Intelligence officer that might have been a really bad influence on him. He said Japan was expensive and harsh for the military because of the disparity in income and cost of living (30 years ago). He also said China was a very paranoid experience for him due to Cold War fears. He eventually ended up in prison for charges I won’t delineate here. His favorite thing was the women, of course…the perennial downfall of the weak man. :O)
    p.s. This post is totally pointless but I wanted to do mah thing.

  8. offshore778 says

    You couldn’t be more right. Either we succeed collectively or we fail collectively. That’s what a government for, of, and by the people really means.
    Japan has been around for a long time, Bob, and they’ve made at least a few mistakes that I can think of. We will get there. You and I may not live to see it but we will. Maybe we should start with a little faith in our country. Not some politician, but genuine faith in the US of A and our countrymen. We’ve done some great things in the past 234 years and its not over yet.

  9. glennkoks says

    “Ignorance and decline” You will not get an argument from me. However I would point out that the Japanese debt in relation to GDP is nearing 200 percent. Which is more than a little scary considering their aging population.
    However, we could sure learn from the Japanese and Europeans on a number of fronts.
    Personally I think it all starts with education. We can’t compete with the developing world in non skilled manufacturing jobs. Our economic future depends on higher skilled trades in computers, medicine, bio tech jobs and energy developments that will fit the needs of the new global economy. We need to spend the money now on Education.

  10. alienHunter says

    I have always agreed with you, but this time I think it is a faceless monster that we are up against.

  11. WindorSolarPlease says

    I agree, I do think the US has fallen behind, especially with the care and education of the US people.
    The surroundings are looking shabby, old buildings that are falling apart and the roads.
    With all this wealth in the US, and we still have people/families in the streets begging for food and shelter? There are more homeless people/families than I have ever seen before.

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