On honor culture in Japan

I arrived in Kyoto today around 7pm. I should have gotten here earlier but I went the wrong way in the Osaka Loop train, which didn’t really matter, I just had to wait for the longer side of the loop. When I finally got to Osaka Station, I switched to the Kyoto line, tossed my bag on the subway rack and just zoned out into my headphones.

A nice thing about Japan is that people don’t steal things from other people here, at least overtly and rampantly like they do elsewhere. I learned from my friend who’s an English teacher in Osaka that kids get moral training in elementary school, where they are given different scenarios and have to pick the more ethical choice. It permeates the culture.

Once, when I was here two years ago, I dropped my wallet in the train station when I was shifting things around, getting ready to board the Shinkansen to Tokyo. A man came running after me to give it back. Like, running. I was embarassed and thanked him profusely. He was glowing from his good deed. He deserved to be! How lucky that of all the places I picked to do something so stupid, I did it in a country where honor culture is infused into most every being.

It’s not that that wouldn’t happen in New York. It might happen. But what also might happen is that if you fall asleep while commuting home, someone might come along with fabric scissors to cut the bottom of your jacket pocket out to remove your wallet from you while other passengers looked on apathetically. I would never set my bag down on a rack on the subway in NYC.

A friend asked me the other day what I like so much about Japan, and I told him that I feel safer here than in most places. I never really feel totally safe, but here when I want to go on a photo walk, I don’t worry about making myself a target for wearing my camera around my neck. Sure, I’ve gotten my butt pinched at a hip hop show, but I don’t need to worry about getting attacked on the street.

I’m not saying there are no criminals in Japan, or that I think I’m impervious to ill-intended humans. It’s just nice to exist in a place where there is a concerted public effort to make people decent human beings.

You can sense it from the police here too. They’re stationed in places where people are likely to need help, and they really do try to help people. Even the crossing guards. They move with the swift motions of our National Guard. Unlike the lazy cops of New York City, who roll around looking for ways to abuse their power and boost their egos, you get the sense that the cops here are doing things because they understand that their job is to keep people safe.

Yesterday my friend and I rode our bikes past the Chinese Embassy on the way to Utsubo park, a public park filled with rare 🌹roses🌹 that you can just go and frolic in as you like.

Ugh, I so love Japan.

Anyway, there are always guards outside the Embassy. They just have to stand there all day, but they get whistles. I was about to ride through a red light because there were no cars coming, when I saw him get his whistle ready. So I stopped before he blew it. We giggled, like oh no not the whistle. But idk, I wanted to give him that one. I was about to break a rule, but because he was there reminding us to stay safe, I wasn’t just going to flagrantly cross, though he probably wouldn’t have chased me. We watched him count down on his fingers to the exact moment the light changed green. That corner was his life, and he guarded it and the people near it well.

It’s strange to this if them compared with the NYPD. I don’t think a single cop goes into the job there because they really want to keep people safe. It’s always some overcompensation for an inferiority suffered earlier in life. I’m more scared of cops in NYC than criminals, actually. When I see them, I cross the street to get away from them, because you just never know. I always think about that story of the cop who tried to thwart a guy who was on a rampage to kill one if his coworkers outside of the Empire State Building, but the cop wound up shooting 9 pedestrians instead. I think about the time I called the NYPD because a drug dealer who would always come into The Internet Garage when I worked there threatened to murder me, and when they arrived, they were like “So? What do you want us to do about it?” I think about the first time I was stalked while walking home alone at night in Brooklyn, and managed to evade this crackhead. When I called the cops after, shaking with fear, they told me “If he didn’t rape you, we can’t do anything about it.” “You don’t want to send a squad car to patrol the area so that when he tries to attack someone else, you’ll be there if they can’t defend themselves like I did?” “If they get raped and they call us, then we’ll send the squad car.”

Here in Japan, police officers will give you freaking directions if you are lost.

It’s easy to think that because things are a certain way in the US, they have to continue to be that way–that we all may as well defect in this giant Prisoner’s Dilemma, because everyone else already has. But everyone hasn’t. What Japan’s honor culture can teach us is that if we infuse our children with the desire to do good deeds and help people around them, some people will never defect, and the defectors will be shunned instead of rewarded.

Call me idealistic, but I really just want to live in environments where people don’t have to contemplate defecting, whatever the reasons for doing so may be, and especially where they don’t defect for no good reason, just because they are greedy sociopaths. I don’t want to contemplate defecting in retaliation. I just want to do good work and be appropriately compensated by people whose job it is to distribute the good work of others. And yeah, ultimately, I wish we could all just cooperate.

I will dream on.

This post was cross-published on Beacon Reader, an experiment in crowdsourced publishing that has subsequently ceased to exist. RIP Beacon Reader. 



1 thought on “On honor culture in Japan

  1. Bob Mottram

    Also with prisoner’s dilemma, it’s not that it’s wrong, it’s just that in real situations usually there are multiple simultaneous games and so the outcomes in nature are not usually what prisoner’s dilemma would predict.

    Human nature is a lot of things, and it’s not as fixed as some people believe. Culture varies in space and time.

    Teaching everyone an honor code at an early age might help to reduce inequality, because later in life most people would be applying the same rules to each other. The flip side of that is a high level of conformity, with bad outcomes for anyone who can’t or won’t go along with a particular favored ethics.


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