What the United States can learn from Japan

I just got back from a 10-day trip to Japan, and was amazed by how efficient, thoughtful, and clean it was. Americans love to think of the United States as the “best” country in the world, but when traveling to countries like Japan, it’s clear that we have a lot to improve on.

Here are some things the United States can learn from Japan:

Thoughtful and efficient physical world UI

Every time I was getting confused where to go, or needed an umbrella, or had to go to the bathroom, the solution was right in front of me. It was almost eerie. The physical environment has been so thoughtfully designed that it accounts for people’s every need.

Behold, the all-in-one automatic sink (soap, water, dryer) and the umbrella dispenser as you’re leaving the subway (in case it’s raining).

Importance of art and music in public space

I feel that in today’s United States government, art and music are considered “extras” — nice-to-have rather than essential. But when used intelligently, they can actually enhance public space.

I loved how each subway station in Tokyo had a unique 5-second musical jingle which played as each train arrived. This served two purposes: making it easy to recognize each station, and providing an auditory cue for when to get on the train.

And, there were cute cartoon characters on nearly every informational sign. This made dry and boring instructions more relatable, and probably more effective.

Individual responsibility for cleanliness

I have never been anywhere as clean as Japan. Not only do people not litter, they pick up any litter that they find. In America, the philosophy seems to be “Well I didn’t do it. Why should I pick it up?” or “Why should I be clean if others are going to make it dirty?” Japan is the opposite.

Which is only possible because of…

Collective thinking

When you trust others to help create a good environment, you feel the responsibility to do the same yourself. This creates a feeling of pulling for the same goal. I’m afraid this feeling is extremely rare in America these days, in favor of a distrustful “everyone for themselves” mentality.

Pride in work, no matter what the job

In Japan, traffic cops were directing pedestrians with pride. Clerks at 7–11 were unfailingly polite. I’m not sure why this is — better benefits, higher pay, cultural norms? The net result is that everything works better and faster, and mutual respect becomes contagious.

A sustainability mindset

Perhaps the biggest difference I noticed between the United States and Japan is the latter’s focus on sustainability. There’s no headlong rush for “biggest” and “best” — instead, the focus seems to be on creating a society that works for everyone over the long term. This is helped by the factors I’ve already mentioned: when people respect the environment around them by recycling and cleaning up litter, when subways arrive on time and everything just works the way it should, and when people take pride in their work even if they’re not the richest person on the block.

Modesty and greed are contagious. You could probably make the case that either can create a successful society. But how do you define success?

For me, it’s a country that can treat its citizens well and stick around for a long time. At some point, greed hits a wall. Then modesty must take hold.

Is America at that point?

One clap, two clap, three clap, forty?

By clapping more or less, you can signal to us which stories really stand out.