Asia / Blog / Japan

6 Life Lessons Japan Taught Me

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Since yesterday was the anniversary of the Tohoku Earthquake and Tsunami, and Japan has been on my mind, I decided to share something close to my heart. I lived in Japan for three years and moved just months before the disaster. I will always remember how I felt as I watched the television in horror as the tsunami swept away places I had been to and people I might have met. And in the days following the disaster, I marvelled at how the Japanese people calmly put life back together. There was no rioting; the only looting that occured was instigated by gaijin, foreigners; and people waited in orderly queues for gas and water. I feel like the world can learn so much about strength of character from the Japanese people. They have such an extraordinary social dynamic that it creates a truly remarkable culture and a truly remarkable people. The following are six life lessons I learned from my time in Japan.

Play Your Part in the Greater Whole

The Japanese espouse a team mentality. After the tsunami, the reason people waited patiently in line for gas—some for days—is because the Japanese people value the greater whole over the individual. They understand the bigger picture and the important role they play in it. Self sacrifice and team work are honored while self-serving behaviors are despised. This works for them, because Japan is built on a culture of trust. They trust that the person next to them will do their part, too.

Energy Matters

Energy, health, and enthusiasm are all rolled into one term: genki. It is not uncommon in Japan to greet someone by asking them about their energy levels: “Genki desu ka?” This concept of genki is fundamental to the way Japanese think. Another term, Gambatte, emphasizes the enthusiam and determination of the Japanese people. It means, “You can do it!” or, “Try your best.” These concepts reveal how much energy and effort mean to the Japanese.

Perfect Isn’t Beautiful

The Japanese term wabi-sabi describes the Japanese philosophy of beauty, which celebrates the imperfect and fleeting. In Japan, things that are “too perfect” are actually considered ugly. Things that are fleeting are also cherished, such as hanami (falling cherry blossoms).

Be Humble, Always

Humbleness permeates everything the Japanese do—it is even built into the language and customs. For example, bowing is a common way in Japan to show respect and apologize. And Japanese language features complex rules of honorific and humble speech. They have the most beautiful and polite ways to present things, like I read once on a donut package, “We are most honored to offer you this most humble of donuts.” Like everything else in Japan, there is even an artform to being the most humble. If you receive a compliment, you must deflect the compliment and come up with something that makes you look worse.

Have Pride, Respect Others, and Serve

In Japan, everyone takes pride in his or her position and value in his or her contributing role. If you work at McDonald’s, you are the best McDonald’s worker, and you serve your customers with pride. This translates into a phenomenal service culture in which everyone is treated with diligence and respect. And they do all this without tipping—revolutionary if you ask me! These values also make Japan literally the most hard-working country in the world, because they drive a more culturally enforced work ethic based on pride, respect, and integrity.

Plan for the Future

Japan is rattled by 20% of the world’s earthquakes above 6 magnitude. I felt hundreds and hundreds of earthquakes during the three years I lived in Japan, some as strong as 7.2; yet I watched firsthand how time and time again, Japan’s planning and engineering standards withstood the force of these quakes with little-to-no damage. Another true testament to a nation focused on foresight is that every single car in a Japanese parking lot is carefully and expertly backed into a parking space and at restaurants in which you have to remove your shoes, you will see rows of shoes lined up with toes pointing toward the door, ready for an easy exit. 🙂

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Have you been to Japan and witnessed any of these phenomena for yourself? I’d love to hear about it!

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37 thoughts on “6 Life Lessons Japan Taught Me

  1. Awesome post! I didn’t know a lot of this about Japan’s culture but it definitely seems that the USA could take some pointers from Japan. I think it’s so neat how proud they are about their role in society and how everything they do is for the greater good instead of for the individual (definitely something that is lacking in the USA). Between this post and your post about reasons to ride Japan, it’s definitely moving closer to the top of my must-see list 🙂

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  2. I lived in Misawa for 9 years and two months. I sobbed like a baby the day we left, to return stateside. This is a fantastic post! We left Japan for Las Vegas and it was complete culture shock. The differences in attitudes are astounding.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you so much, Amelia. 🙂 Wow! You lived there a long time! Were you there during the tsunami? I feel the same way. I miss it so much and would go back in a heartbeat! Going back to the States after living overseas is always such a culture shock for me, too! I have a hard time feeling like I fit in…

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  3. Becca, this was REALLY interesting. In Canada, we are always aware with products such as Japanese cars are always quality built.

    And as I read these 6 life lessons that you shared, it really makes sense. This culture is AMAZING, we in North America have so much to learn from their ethics and values.

    It was very heart wrenching for me to witness the news footage, I cannot imagine how difficult this must have been for you, having lived there for 3 years.

    Thank you for sharing this wonderful post! 🙂

    ~Carl~

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes, these are things that I have thought of, too! After living in Japan, I only buy Japanese vehicles. There is a reason they are so reliable! And during the tsunami, I watched the news All. Day. Long for 3 weeks and only stopped crying when I was sleeping. As I watched, I couldn’t help but draw comparisons to what happened after hurricane Katrina in the States and what happened in Japan after the tsunami. Can you imagine people in New Orleans waiting patiently in line for water knowing that there was not enough to go around? Can you imagine a world without looting and rape? We can learn so much from the Japanese. Heaven on Earth is possible. 😉 Thank you for reading friend!

      Liked by 1 person

      • In a sense Tohoku and New Orleans were similar, in that the incoming ocean flooded out those areas, and people were left without the basics. But the people’s responses were poles apart. Your caring comment, written with such deep emotion has really got me thinking about this, and the different cultures that make them unique and special. Sadly, the North American culture, with it’s “me 1st mentality” is very lacking, and extremely unappealing.
        But as we do learn from other cultures, through writings such as yours, Heaven on Earth is indeed possible.
        Thank you my friend,
        ~Carl~

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      • I was thinking the same thing about the differences between natural disasters here and in Japan. People could help each other get a lot farther, but you can’t do that and be first too.

        Nancy

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  4. Wonderful article! We arrived in Misawa a month after the Tohoku events. (Our pack out stateside finished about 8 hours before the quake) We were amazed by the love and support shown everywhere you went. That Fall some of the spouses on base got together and rasied enough to build a new school in Minami Sanriku, one of the towns that was washed almost completely awat by the tsunami. Each year since they help to add something to the community and throw a Christmas party for the kids there. Our time in Japan will always be one of my most treasured memories.

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    • Thank you so much for sharing, Catie! I love hearing about the relief efforts there. I know that they are still ongoing to this day! I’m so happy that there were wonderful people there like you to make a difference. I, too, treasure my memories of Japan. Thank you so much for reading. 🙂

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  5. This is really incredible! I’m traveling to Japan in June and I can’t wait. I look forward to experiencing this amazing culture more. The last time I was there we only went to Hokkaido, which was really great– only we were on a tour and got hurried along on the tourist route, rather than taking time to slow down and really meet people. Thanks for this post! I look forward to reading more! 🙂

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  6. I love this post and look at all of the comments! I have not been to Japan but your eloquent words make me want to move it up on the list of destinations. I love your 6 lessons. There is that ‘be humble’ message. I love that we each have it in a post heading. 🙂

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    • Thank you, Sue! There’s a quote by John Wooden that I think of often, “Talent is God given. Be humble. Fame is man given. Be grateful. Conceit is self given. Be careful.” But living in Japan truly taught me the value of being humble. You should definitely visit! It is such a unique and beautiful place, and the people are incredible.

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