As far as Confucian values go, Reid’s argument is right, to the point that the Japanese and, to a more limited extent, the Koreans and the Chinese are concerned. It is hard to spend any amount of time in Asia, or even around Asian families in the West, without noticing the importance of harmony and stability. The importance of staying together, always acting in accordance with expected behaviors, and remembering that the individual is nothing without the larger society are three of the bedrock values that inform many Asian behaviors.
Reid is fluent in Japanese and has made a study of Asian mores his life’s work. He resided in a Japanese neighborhood in Tokyo, instead of living in a more isolated venue with the rest of the Western press. His children went to a superior public school in Tokyo, and he learned to deal with the concerns that came from his Japanese neighbors. He notes that the Japanese do love their rules, but he does so in a respectful way. His book is not a riposte about the annoyances that come from living under such a mighty communal superego but rather a graceful memoir filled with humor and insight into the Japanese way, making it an extremely interesting read. He is one of few Westerners who have been able to blend in so well in a Japanese neighborhood. His analysis of modern Japan and the Confucianism in its background may be off target at times, but in general they are useful to the Western reader and are mostly accurate. His best argument is that members of the narcissistic Me Generation in the United States could learn a lot from Reid’s neighbors in Japan, particularly in the way that they thoughtfully place the community ahead of the individual.
One of the more interesting elements of Japanese culture, particularly from a Western perspective, is that even though the country has developed a host of skills in technology and business, it is the social ethic that takes precedence over economic priorities. Reid describes a ceremony for new employees at a major Japanese company (NEC). The care taken to welcome new employees into the company shows the importance of Confucian ritual, and how its mores bring dignity to life within the Japanese workplace. These ceremonies are quite the opposite of the Friday bacchanalia that apparently takes place in at least some stock firms on Wall Street, if Martin Scorsese’s recent film The Wolf of Wall Street is to be believed. Dignity and grace are far more important in Japanese workplaces than they appear to be in American ones.
Reid is not entirely naïve about the way that Japan works, of course. He understands that his ode to the tightly connected society in Japan is open to criticism, and near the end of the book, he acknowledges the persistent corruption that is simply a part of many societies that overtly embrace Confucian ethics. Also, the fact that Japan is so homogenous racially also makes a communal focus easier to enforce. A similar phenomenon occurs in Scandinavian countries, where the education systems also receive frequent plaudits from the Left in the United States. It is easier to create a common culture of expectations when all, or the vast majority, of the members of a society come from one cultural context. When there are diverse influences, that commonality is difficult to find. One example from the American school system involves Hispanic students in school districts with lower socioeconomic status. During the summer, many of those students return home to Mexico or other countries in Central America to visit family. The importance of family often extends those visits beyond the first week or two of school, and so many of those students end up showing up to school a week or two behind their classmates. While there is also considerable respect for the classroom teacher in Hispanic culture, there is also the expectation that the teacher, as the professional, will handle all of the instruction, and while there may be homework, it is the teacher’s responsibility to prepare the student to complete the homework. At the same time, many American classrooms are going to a “flipped” classroom approach, requiring students to view lectures and presentations online outside the classroom in preparation for an activity at school. When this emphasis on learning outside the classroom runs into a cultural barrier, some students from that one cultural group may show up to school unprepared. This can lead to students falling behind in the classroom. In a homogenous culture such as Japan, all students follow a common set of expectations, making that sort of phenomenon unheard of.
In Reid’s book, there are two issues that I could not overlook. I am also appreciative of the belief in subsuming the needs and wants of the individual to the greater good of the community. However, living under that constant pressure has a price. The conformity in Asia is taught from infancy, to the point where it is an automatic habit that requires no enforcement. The morals of social interaction turn into a mandatory ethic that provides just about no escape. This means that, over time, people have to greet others with a ritual bow, even though they might hate those individuals. In business, professionals are often required by their managers to allow morons to receive promotions because they come to work with a sincere attitude, and workers have to respect management with ritual power, even though they know that the managers are incompetent.
This requirement of respect is one contributing factor to the economic malaise of Japan, a condition that could end up leading to worldwide problems. Crony capitalism has led to billions of dollars in bad loans and massive layoffs within a society that prides itself on its promise of full employment. The cover-ups surrounding the nuclear power plant disaster that polluted much of Japan and the surrounding Pacific Ocean also stem from this culture. The problem is not one of simple economics but instead of general governance. The Japanese people have chosen a political party to lead the country that has built a powerful bureaucracy that is so decadent that it sponges off much of the prosperity that should come from actual free enterprise.
Another element of Japanese society that shows the flaws of this communal emphasis is the political frustration in the country. Part of the belief that the community is more important than the individual is the belief that no one should question the government. Protests are considered impolite in Japan, which is why the leadership in Japan has been able to remain in place despite the obvious flaws that have appeared.
Ideally, there should be ways to find a happy medium between the ironclad respect for authority that informs Japanese society and the rampant individualism in American culture that, among other things, has led to significant disparity in income between the haves and the have-nots. The lessons in Reid’s book are instructive, but so are the limits on a belief in communal priority. Finding that point where the individual believes in the priority of the community while retaining the right to suggest improvements to that community would be a useful development for both American and Japanese cultures.
Reid, T.R. Confucius Lives Next Door: What Living in the East Teaches Us About Living in the West.
New York: Random House, 1999. Print.