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My thoughts on life, movies, and books...

Japan vs USA

I had been surviving in Japan for one year when I was asked to return to the States to testify as a witness in an old case stemming from my adventure in the remote jungles of Papua New Guinea. I was excited to visit the States for five days, and many of my American friends wanted to know how I found the Land of the Rising Sun. I'd tell them how clean, modern, and polite the Japanese people were, but also how alien the country felt to me. And there was nothing quite like a short trip to Murica to highlight these cultural differences.

SECURITY: Unlike the 24-hour American news cycle that constantly reports all the negative events going on in the States, Japan feels very safe. I’ve never experienced road rage in Japan, nor do I ever feel like I’m about to be mugged or that I need to preemptively strike someone with a roundhouse kick.

Despite Japan’s tiny island nation being overcrowded with 128 million people, international check-in at Narita was smooth, and security employees were kind. Nobody had to remove their shoes even though we were flying on a Boeing 777 to Washington DC. This was quite different from my welcome to the USA—the greatest beacon of freedom in the world. Upon landing in our nation’s capital, I noticed the lack of civility from professional airport employees. An airport clerk was shouting as she directed passengers where to go. The Customs & Border Protection officer was more concerned with playing on his phone than doing his job, and then there was TSA…

“I told you to empty your pockets! Stop! Stop! I already told you to empty your pockets!” The absurdity of a “professional” thinking that by yelling louder, somehow it made English more understandable to the foreign tourist. Also, every single person going through this security screening had to remove their shoes and have it go through the conveyor belt examination. How is it that you can fly on a Boeing 777 internationally to the heart of America without removing your shoes, but by God, you better remove them before you board an Embraer for a 35 minute flight to Norfolk?

CARS & PARKING: I was reminded of how much I had missed big cars, big streets, and big parking lots. My rental car was a Ford Taurus, which was not the Taurus my neighbor drove in the early 90's. This one was a bulldog, with a responsive engine and all the gadgets James Bond would want.

In Japan, many businesses don’t even have parking available, and when they do—it usually costs. When I visit the Starbucks in Zushi, I have to walk 5 minutes to the bus station, ride 15 minutes to the main train station, and then walk 2 minutes to the Starbucks. Otherwise, I have to navigate my Mario Kart through narrow roads while avoiding pedestrians, bicyclists, cars, scooters, and trains. Then I have to search in vain for available pay-parking.

FOOD: Ditch the fresh-water eel, beef tongue, and spicy octopus that ANA airlines is always trying to shove down my throat, because I was back in the land where Cheesecake Factory, Waffle House, and Cracker Barrel dominated. One proud customer walked in with a Glock strapped to his hip. Nobody blinked an eye. Keep in mind that 99.9% of the population in Japan has never even shot a pistol before.

CONVENIENCE: When jetlag struck me at 0245 hours, I went to the 24-hour Walmart and marveled at how much STUFF was at my disposal. I’m not aware of anywhere in Japan where I can buy a rifle, car battery, home-office desk, goldfish, Pepto-bismol, and a gallon of milk in the same place!

Early one morning when I wasn’t even hungry, I decided to join the line that had formed at the Chick-fil-a drive through. I was drawn to it like a June bug to a porch light. I think it was just the convenience and thrill of being able to sit in my air-conditioned car and order food while listening to the radio—a luxury not available in Japan. Plus, who doesn’t like those buttered biscuits with chicken at six o'clock in the morning? I was the 4th car in line and realized the Chick-fil-a didn’t even open until 0630. People were already lined up! I quickly threw my Taurus in reverse—using the rearview camera of course, and departed for my next mission.

TIPPING: Unlike in the States where the standard tipping rate seems to hover around 20%, Japan is not a tipping society. I haven’t tried it yet, but I’ve been told by numerous ex-pats, that if you leave a tip, the server will chase you outside and through the narrow alley to give you back the money you "forgot" on the table.

QUIETNESS: I went into Norfolk’s Costco to renew my membership. I love this mega warehouse, and its presence in Japan keeps me sane. They have the mozzarella di buffalo that I absolutely crave from my years of living in Southern Italy. As I was doing a little shopping (because men sizes in Japan don’t seem to go beyond “medium”—probably because of the fresh-water eel and spicy octopus), I was annoyed at how much noise was in the place. I couldn’t believe how loud employees were when talking back and forth to each other. Americans are loud people. It’s something I simultaneously love and despise.

PATIENCE: Remember the 1980s Hollywood movie “Black Rain?” It stars Michael Douglas as a NYC detective who goes after a gang member in Osaka. His Japanese counterpart says: “There are rules here. You must learn patience.” That phrase embodies my entire perception of the Japanese culture. But I think there is a valid reason why so many Japanese exhibit patience to a whole new level. They have more people who live beyond 100 than any other country. They can afford the luxury of patience! I, on the other hand, always remember what my police academy instructor told us: “The average American male lives to be about 70 years old. The average American male police officer lives to be 58!” That’s why I’m always in a hurry. My ticker is a ticking timebomb.

In Japan, every single car must stop before crossing railroad tracks. And if you have ever been to Japan, you know that train stations are everywhere! Imagine the amount of time that is being lost when every car has to stop. Imagine sitting at the same red light as it goes through three cycles of green. Why not just concentrate your efforts on ensuring that the barricade arm works? I found that refreshing in the States when I went over a railroad track, and didn’t have to stop. I know, it's the little things in life that make you smile. But when you realize every breath you take is one closer to death, you try to minimize wasted movements.

BOWING: It’s the standard greeting in Japan—everything from a hello, thank you, pardon me, etc. It’s become so automated for me, that I found myself embarrassingly bowing to people while in the States.

CONCLUSION: The constant barrage of the 24-hour negative news cycle made it out to look like the United States had purchased an economy-plus ticket to the moral equivalence of Hell, and that a race war was running rampant in the streets. I experienced none of that. Contrary to what I viewed on most news outlets, I found all my direct interactions with my fellow countrymen to be pleasant—from the rental car agency, to the hotel staff, to the Walmart employees, to all my dining establishments, the barber who cut my hair too short, etc. I’m enjoying my tour in Japan, but I also look forward to returning to America and enjoying all that makes it such a great country.
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