Does the experience of living in Japan make you a better person?

By Amy Chavez, RocketNews24

We all know that living abroad gives you an opportunity to have a greater understanding of other cultures. If you’ve ever lived somewhere other than your home town, even the other side of your own country, you’re bound to be affected by the things you experienced on the other side.

But we at RocketNews24 wanted to dig a little deeper. We wanted to know how the Japan experience had influenced the behavior of foreigners living here. In particular, we were interested in the impact derived from Japanese culture. We then found common patterns and grouped their answers according to societal, lingual, philosophical, aesthetic, and religious influences.

Here is some insight on living in Japan, from those who’ve lived here:

Societal Influences

The biggest influence on foreigners, as you might expect, was Japanese society itself and her core values. Japan imposes a decorum that few other societies have achieved and, according to our survey, most people felt that just being among nice and polite people was infectious! One person felt that “the general level of politeness has a civilizing effect” while another said: “The general niceness and benevolence of people makes me want to be nicer too,” and several admitted: “I’m a much nicer person than I was before.”

Others claim having gained a greater ability to put other people before themselves, and to do so more often. The advantages attributed to these abilities were a greater sense of cohesiveness, harmony among society, humility (less ego) and improved manners. As one person I recently spoke with who had visited Japan said, “We could all learn from Japan to exercise better manners. After all, good manners are free — they don’t cost anything.” So it appears that we benefit from living among good role models.

Regarding “consideration for others,” one person said that “Japanese people exercise this [consideration for others] in every public place (not talking loudly, keeping to queues, following rules properly, etc.) and if you choose to follow their example, it makes you a more considerate citizen.”

Some also experienced a heightened level of awareness of the people around them. “I’m more sensitive to an individual’s feelings and needs and to the intricacies of interpersonal relationships.”

This heightened level of awareness came up in almost every aspect concerning Japanese society, catapulting people to superior degrees: I’m more aware, I’m nicer, I’m more respectful, more considerate, more tolerant…”

It’s not that one was exactly unaware of things before they came to Japan, but that they have benefited from further exploration of certain aspects of being, and have chosen to assimilate these facets. Thus: “Japan taught me to be even more respectful of those around me, especially my elders or seniors,” and “I have come to expect higher levels of service and professionalism, from others and from myself.”

So it seems that Japanese society has the ability to tug you more in the direction of good, perhaps even meritorious, because virtue is expected rather than being offered a mere guideline.

More specific insights into the culture were: “I learned how people can simultaneously give up their individualism for an ordered society, and yet at the same time retain their individualism in their hobbies and interests,” and, “I learned that you can be outstanding without standing out.”

Another person reflects on her life saying, “I’m less outspoken now that I’ve lived in Japan. I do still speak my mind, but I think about how it will affect others first, or how it will affect processes.”

Gratitude was another point foreigners valued having learned in Japan. “Expressing thanks for the service of others, whether ancestors, parents, lovers or those one has dealings with,” has come to be regarded as an important life skill for these inhabitants. Learning to be tolerant was also attributed to the island nation because of the innate foreign aspect of the Japanese culture. “Since in Japan there are many cultural things a Westerner is not used to, such as sitting on the floor, there is a lot of tolerance involved. After it is accepted, it has a chance to become an acquired taste. That makes one a better person with a wide open heart for the unknown.”

Japanese Language Influences

A couple people said they gained insight on the country and culture by studying the language. Certain concepts such as “ichinichi ichizen” (one day, one good thing) made them consider more deeply how they lived their lives. Ichinichi Ichizen means that while it’s not always easy to do good deeds, we should try to do just one good thing, no matter how small, every day. Another example was “ichigo-ichie,” which literally means “one chance, one meeting” and encourages people to value their encounters with others. Not only may you never meet that person again, but even if you do, it will inevitably be under different circumstances, emphasizing that each encounter should be treated as a unique experience.

Philosophical Influences

Many of Japan’s principles for living can be found nestled in Zen koans or in Japanese concept words. One such concept that has helped at least one person organize their life is that of "ikigai" which refers to your “purpose for living,” an inward journey explained in the below infograph. Other life concepts such as enlightenment, "wa" (harmony), "mushin" (no mind state) and "wabi sabi" are embedded in Japanese culture and may come to the surface during our time here, prompting us to reconsider some aspects of our lives.

Influences in the Arts

The essence of Japanese culture can be found in the tea ceremony, according to another person: “Style, silence, respect, form, service to others, taste, and much more.” There is deep meaning behind even the smallest gestures in the Japanese cultural arts, such as the tea ceremony, where every aspect of making tea is valued to the point that it must be practiced over and over with the goal of achieving perfection.

Another aesthete reconsidered art and beauty after her experience in Japan. “Beauty in Japan is quite different from that in Europe. I have learned to love Japanese pots which are often very irregular but totally charming.” Purposefully crafted to be uneven, such characteristics, even blemishes, provide a unique flavor to a piece.

Secular Education

Many people agreed that they were impressed with the clear separation of religion and education in Japan. “They do a very good job of teaching children morality without tying it to theology.” While goodliness and cleanliness are often connected to religious rituals and beliefs in other cultures (the paternoster “Do unto others as you would want them to do unto you” from the Bible or The 10 Commandments, for example), “Japan taught me that one can be nice even if they do not follow any religion. Being considerate to others, being clean inside and outside, being on time, etc. seem to be the common rules followed by everyone here.”

Experiences from Japan’s Dark Side

Of course, not everyone has benefited by coming to Japan. While the more sanguine might say that even bad experiences are good because they teach us how to deal with adversity, one can also argue that no one should have to endure injustices. In particular, having to return to your home country because of labor disputes, unfair contracts, corporate exploitation, or visa complications is all too prevalent in Japan. I doubt anyone who has fallen prey to violations of The Hague Convention and Japan’s international childhood abduction laws (which have allowed Japanese women to take children away from their fathers with little recourse), is something anyone would feel is a good experience. Yet these things do happen, and several people admitted to having been victims of the system, with varying results.

Read more stories from RocketNews24. -- “I think I love you…”: Romantic confessions from around the world -- Nine reasons why Japanese men hesitate to say “I love you” -- Freaky veggies trending in Japanese groceries, possible precursor to real-life “The Last of Us”

© Japan Today

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Nice article. Only disagreed with one point. "Not talking loudly"

I find that lots of people scream their private conversations. I often ask people to tone it down. I do it politely and they always comply.

3 ( +5 / -2 )

Shonanbb, that's quite true. I've experienced that on occasion.Sometimes it's their headphones. You'll see the Japanese people so inconvenienced giving them the stink-eye or shrugs and snorts and eye-rolls to each other but the perps are failing to "read the air." However, in these situations no one is willing to actually say anything to the person giving offense. So, being a considerate non-Japanese person who is quite willing to take charge, I'll be the one to lean over and sweetly say, "Your volume is a little bit...." Problem solved.

That's one thing I have learned during my time in Japan. How to graciously solve problems without necessarily doing it the Japanese way. Or doing it half the Japanese way when no one else is willing to do it.

1 ( +1 / -1 )

"I doubt... VIOLATIONS of The Hague Convention and Japan’s INTERNATIONAL CHILD ABDUCTION... is a good experience"

I doubt it very much... :-(

0 ( +1 / -1 )

This is an interesting subject. In short, yes it does.

I think above all, living in Japan teaches one more about themselves than anything else. I guess that could be said for anyone living abroad. Living here is not easy, and I think the art of survival is only reserved for a very small minority of expats. After almost a decade year, I concede that Japan has gotten the better of me. I totally respect those that have survived in Japan for a long period of time.

I'd say the biggest lesson has been learning how to be more resourceful, tactful & patient in difficult times. Times are tough here, and the pay is miserable. Learning how to adapt to increasingly testing times (especially since 2011) has been a life-changing experience.

That said, I'd liken my time in Japan to the Kübler-Ross model (Google it). I'm at the final stage now where I've come to terms with my decision to move back home. I don't like the direction in which Japan is heading, nor are my job prospects looking any 'greener'. Japan is a fantastic country, and one that will forever be part of my life, but I've just had enough of the lifestyle (or lack thereof). "Life is what you make it" and all that jazz, but there are many 'constraints' in day-to-day life here that just don't exist back home.

So, I take the lessons I've learnt with me here in Japan & make the journey back home this year.

3 ( +5 / -2 )

The Japanese, with their zest for life, taught me to enjoy life more and always see the funny side of things.

2 ( +4 / -2 )

i visited japan quite often, enjoyed the people, culture, scenery, transportation, food. such a beautiful place to live.

0 ( +2 / -2 )

Lets turn it around and say the more of us outsiders will be living here the better a country this island will become to the global community.

0 ( +3 / -3 )

Personally, I think it did.

2 ( +2 / -0 )

If you are a bad seed, Japan will help you be a better bad seed. If you are a 'good person' you will be a better person.

You are you are, and Japan will just become more of who you are.

0 ( +3 / -3 )

Another way that Japan has made me a better person is to show me more clearly which personal habits and beliefs are simply brules (bllsht rules as Vishen Lakhiani puts it). It has allowed me to discard more of those from both cultures and develop a poise and aplomb with my own set of guiding rules. There is an awful lot of middle ground for very aware and refined people of any culture on the continuum between the extremes--rogue cowboy of the West and Borg of the East.

I would like to read Chavez on the "Dark Side" of Japan. There is so much more than custody cases that might be explored: shaming, hazing, physical and emotional abuse, racism, sexism, fascism, harassment, and on and on. However, as soon as anyone holds a candle to that, they're labelled as haters and told to go home.

There are expat journalists who have done this very well. Very enlightening. But then, I'm one of those people who likes to see everything--the good and the bad--clearly in any culture. Without being aware of it, how could I ever hope to understand this wicked-beautiful but crazy-flawed nation?

4 ( +4 / -0 )

***What a load of BS. When the Japanese abandon honne and tatemae then THEY will become better people and have a positive affect on EVERYBODY, regardless of nationality .

-2 ( +2 / -4 )

Far, far better. Thank you so much, Japan!

2 ( +3 / -1 )

I will retire to Japan in a few years time. There is no better place for me!

2 ( +2 / -0 )

In some strange ways, I'm a far worse person. It used to be natural for me to offer to help someone in need (for example, a mother struggling with a heavy pram, or an elderly person having trouble getting on the bus) but now I just look the other way.

Also, western men lose their good manners after a couple of years in Japan. Some of them learn that they can treat women like dirt.

2 ( +2 / -0 )

Japan taught me that you can survive being polite too. The way Japanese people keep away religion from morality is a perfect model for all countries.

0 ( +1 / -1 )

If you're a good and decent person at heart, certainly living anywhere in the world will make you a better person, including living in Japan.

If you're like the typical bitter expat (or those that have never set foot in Japan but act like they know all things about the nation and its people), then it will only further strengthen your bigotry and ignorances.

1 ( +2 / -1 )

@oldman_13 - Right on !

0 ( +0 / -0 )

I think I became a lot harder as a person and more resilient. That I and I always have food when I drink now!

1 ( +1 / -0 )

That was quite well written sighclops. I don't think I could have expressed it any better as I feel the exact same way. I know most foreigners probably get to this point living here--where the pointless rituals and monopolization of personal time grind you down.

I've tried for the last few years to recapture that original wonder and excitement about living here...but damn it if Abe and Japan Inc. haven't done their level best to drive it out of me.

2 ( +2 / -0 )

Most definitely...Japan´s influence is helping civilize the world...

0 ( +1 / -1 )

"Does the experience of living in Japan make you a better person?"

That's a loaded question, if you ask me. It would be better to keep it open, like "what effect does living in Japan have on you?"

1 ( +2 / -1 )

To be sure, I became a greener person by walking/riding a bike everywhere and using mass transit. And my diet got a hell of a lot better. There are good things to take away from this country/ culture.

1 ( +1 / -0 )

No, but if you think so, it probably says that you are about as non-intellectual as the Japanese are. Japan is a great place to live; but as much as you might 'love the way they live', do you really want to 'think like them'. They are not empathetic at all; they are self-righteously compliant. That's not empathetic; its conservatism.

0 ( +1 / -1 )

I grew up in Japan. Actually I was 8 months old when my parents crossed the Pacific Ocean in a freighter, with 3 young children. That was 69 years ago and yet my heart still yearns for Japan. I often dream of my home in Tokyo where I spent a decade or soI would say they were my formative years. I don't look Japanese, but my inner being somehow IS. There's a lot of beauty there. I should knowI've been married to a remarkable, talented Japanese man for 40 years!! 


1 ( +1 / -0 )

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