The answer is no. The end.
In many ways it’s not “fair” to compare the two countries since Japan boasts a developed, high-income economy and China has only been developing for about thirty years or so. In any case, the economic gap between “China” and “Japan” may be huge but the difference between, say, Beijing and Osaka, is less clear. That’s why I intend to focus on the differences between the people in the two countries as I have experienced them.
Among the first things I noticed upon landing in Narita airport would turn out to be two constants in Japan: high prices and polite people. The Japanese are super polite. Every employee greets you with a smile and a slew of Japanese phrases indicating you are welcome and appreciated in their establishment. This cannot merely be summed up to the “customer is god” customer service philosophy which pervades Japan. Even random people on the street are incredibly polite and helpful. The three of us went to Japan with little planning in advance, and wifi hotspots are very rare. We often had to resort to asking locals for help navigating their immense cities. Each and every time we did so, we found someone who was more than willing to point us in the right direction despite his or her inability to speak English. Some people even approached me and asked if I needed help. I loved the sense of comfort and security this evoked. No matter how lost I might become, someone would likely take a few minutes to help me out. It was a great feeling.
In China , this is not the case. Although I have been helped on the street one time during my six months here (when I was trying to set up my phone), this is not a common occurrence, and my basic operating assumption when out and about in Beijing is that I am completely on my own and I should expect no help from the locals.
Japan has an extensive network of railways. To visit Paul and Saori in Toyohashi, we took the Shinkansen bullet train. It took us ninety minutes to arrive at the station this way versus about five or six hours on the regular trains. In fact, many trains in Japan are privately run. Every single train I rode was impeccably clean and very efficient. The trains are usually synchronized so you can transfer to another line without waiting more than a minute or two.
The same is true for the subway systems in Tokyo and Nagoya. I never waited more than two minutes for a subway ride. Tokyo has the most extensive subway system in the world, according to Wikipedia. My inner economist was also delighted to notice that the tickets are accurately priced. A ride can cost between 160 - 290 yen depending on where you are going in Tokyo. That’s about 13 - 22 RMB. As a result, the trains were NEVER overcrowded, and I was able to get a seat a majority of the times I rode. (On the above-ground railways you were pretty much guaranteed a seat if it wasn’t rush hour).
I was surprised to see how many cars there were in Japan given how high-quality their mass transit is. I was also surprised to learn they drive on the left. In both China and Japan the pedestrian legally has the right-of-way. The difference is, in Japan, the drivers actually respect this. Cars routinely stop if they are coming around a corner and a pedestrian is crossing the road (yes, even just one). Some cars even stopped to let pedestrians go before we even started crossing yet. In Beijing, cars won’t even stop for you unless you’re crossing in a group of six or more.
Let’s revisit the subways for a second. What usually goes down when you’re waiting for the Beijing Metro? What happens when the train arrives? All the people waiting to get on crowd around the door before it opens and immediately begin shoving their way into the car as it does. The poor people trying to exit must shove their way out before the doors close.
This spectacle would be appalling to the Japanese, who wait patiently for EVERY SINGLE PASSENGER to exit the subway car before anyone starts boarding. There’s no pushing. There’s no shoving. No clawing or clamoring. And I just want to point out none of this is enforced. There’s no guard or gate preventing them from acting like the Chinese do. They choose to behave in a civilized manner.
Oh, and the Japanese do not stare at foreigners. They don’t seem overly interested in us at all. If they were, their glances were very subtle. The few times I caught someone looking at me they immediately averted their gaze. Staring is considered rude.
When the big earthquake and tsunami hit last year, I read that the Japanese who were displaced from their homes and required food aid lined up neatly in single-file and there were no reports of looting. I thought this was impressive at the time, but it wasn’t until my visit that I realized how civilized these people actually behave. On escalators, people routinely stand on the left so people can walk down on the right if they want. The streets are cleaner than any streets I’ve ever seen in my life. When I first arrived in Tokyo I almost thought I was on a movie set. The streets and sidewalks were spotless. “This is the largest metropolis in the world and the streets are spotless?” My mind was blown. Although I have been back in Beijing for less than 24 hours, I am now acutely aware of how much litter and filth is strewn around everywhere. It’s gross.
The Japanese are incredibly sanitary. Every restaurant gives you a sanitary wetnap with your meal and many bathrooms come with toilet seat covers and built-in deodorizers. A much higher proportion of people walk around with face masks there. Not because of the air quality (which is clean as can be), but to protect themselves from germs. Scientific and medical literacy seems widespread.
The people in Japan seem to share my love of music. Even the same kinds of music. I’ve been listening to Japanese artists for over five years now. Multiple times, in both the big cities I visited, I witnessed impromptu live band performances on the street. These weren’t beggars, either. They were young people trying to promote themselves directly. Each band attracted an audience of pedestrians. We saw tons of music shops selling records and high-quality instruments.
I’ve never seen anything like this in China. Based on their output, the Chinese seem to be the least musical group of people I’ve ever encountered.
The Japanese are also incredibly fashionable. Tokyo especially is home to some of the best-looking people I’ve ever seen. Many of them really seem to care about their appearance. Japanese women love skirts.
Also, I noticed the designs of things (buildings, decorations, etc) in Japan tend to resemble genitalia.
This brings me to another realization I had while in Japan. Until now, China has been the only Asian country I’ve experienced. Based on that experience, I assumed Asian people were naturally (genetically?) prone to be very thin and wiry. Now that I have seen a wealthy Asian country, I have realized how many people in China are malnourished. Body types in Japan resembled those in America moreso than those in China. Many men had ample amounts of body fat and many women were shapely and/or tall.
I will finish my list of observations of the Japanese by sharing my experience of their psychological health based on the behavior I witnessed. Certainly, the things like stopping for pedestrians, going out of their way to help foreigners, standing aside on escalators, not shoving, etc. signify a developed sense of empathy. The few cases of parenting I observed were all positive. Parents were patient and kind to their children. I even saw some parents playing with their kids in a park. It was really cool. The children I observed were both adorable and curious.
In any case, the median psychoclass in Japan seemed to be far higher than what I have experienced in any part of China (save perhaps for HK).
As if to prove this point to me, not even thirty minutes after I got off the plane in Beijing some guy tried to scam my friends and me with a 450 RMB taxi ride home. Oh well. At least that reactivated my fight or flight drive for life in China.
This has been a dichotomy I have been pondering quite often recently. Sometime during late December I made the decision to begin limiting my working hours to those absolutely necessary to pay for my living expenses, plus a small buffer amount to save. The point of this was to simultaneously maximize my leisure time (i.e. the only time that really matters to me emotionally) and minimize the time spent giving English lessons, an activity I find almost universally boring and unrewarding. (Though I hasten to add it’s preferable to working in the retail industry in the USA).
The results have been fantastic thus far. Not only do I enjoy more leisure time to spend in solitude or with my friends, but I have also found I’ve adopted a much healthier perspective toward my line of work. When I do give lessons, I am not nearly as stressed out or emotionally invested in the activity. I find it much easier to express my preferences to the people with whom I must cooperate (parents, agents, clients, etc). This is because the high-stakes perspective I previously held has melted away to a large extent. It’s easy not to take the job too seriously when you only spend about ten hours a week on it. I spend way more time eating each week than I do teaching English!
Now this makes China sound pretty cool, doesn’t it? I work around forty hours a month, which is equal to or less than how much most people work each week! In this respect, yes. China is cool. The economy here is prosperous and I can earn a high hourly wage teaching affluent cityfolk how to speak the Common Tongue.
But at what cost does this prosperity come?
China and, as far as I know, most other East Asian societies are live-to-work cultures. Other places are too. Central/Northern Europe, Canada, and a large segment of US society share this behavioral tendency. People in these places are expected to find jobs, work their way up the career ladder, and make as much money as possible while working as hard as possible. Most people in these societies spend the majority of their lives doing just that. They place value in material goods and the social authority that comes with their station in life (i.e. “I am a hard worker,” “I am an honest, working-class stiff,” etc.) Most people even define themselves based on their occupation! When introducing themselves to a stranger, they will usually reveal their job as a means of expressing social status.
Having grown up in a subculture within this live-to-work paradigm, I now find myself repulsed by it. It’s not how I choose to live. I don’t believe self-respecting people should define themselves by an activity they perform. I think it’s kinda creepy. Are we human beings with feelings and memories, or are we heartless automatons drearily carrying out tasks until we die?
I think people consent to this lifestyle because it’s really easy to dissociate by working. Some people choose to dissociate by smoking crack, but this does not benefit anyone but the crack dealer. On the other hand, dissociation through work benefits many, principally those who run the state and its corporations. For this reason, hiding from one’s emotions by squandering one’s life away in a cubicle is considered socially acceptable, and indeed, everyone is encouraged to do so from the moment we enter state schools. (I may be putting the cart before the horse. I’m not sure what the causal relationship is here. What came first, the state or the social expectations? I don’t really think it’s important.)
Why am I talking about this? Because I am becoming increasingly uncomfortable with the dissonance between my values and those of the society around me in this respect.
Today I taught four children for a few hours. These kids’ lives are being stolen from them in front of my eyes. They spend five days a week rotting in state schools. They are assigned atrocious amounts of mind-numbing homework each day. Then, their parents force them to forsake their free time during the weekends to learn English, science, and American history. I, as their teacher, am expected to give them homework on top of their normal school load. If I don’t give them any, their parents complain. These kids are deprived of all their free time against their will so they will become adults who voluntarily give up their free time to dissociate and meet their other bullshit social expectations. They will become obedient little worker bees to support their parents and their tax farm.
The poor kids have no idea what to do. Those they trust stomp their preferences into the ground and shit on them. Having no outlet for their childish thirst for fun and creativity, they spent most of my class today yelling, running around, throwing things at the window, and climbing on top of the tables. I had never seen them act out that extremely before. I left the lesson feeling extremely frustrated at my employer for various reasons I don’t need to explain here.
The current generation is molding their offspring to become as miserable and lifeless as they are, and I have a front-row seat. It’s sickening.
So I am thinking I may have an easier time tolerating life in a work-to-live society. At least my values will synchronize in that one particular aspect. It is my understanding that this perspective does dominate in some parts of the world. In particular, South American and southern European societies seem much more relaxed in this manner. I am interested in researching those areas to see if life there may be more emotionally tolerable.
Before I’d make the move, though, I want to have some good ideas for ways to make a living doing things I enjoy. Starting a business, buying up property, whatever. As long as I’ll enjoy it and it lets me devote most of my time to what I love the most: maintaining great relationships with amazing people.