And so my days of reprieve have ended. A whopping 14 days away from work, mostly away from Singaporeans and the Singapore culture. 11 days immersed in another country, society and identity.
What have I learnt?
From my first trip there, Japan has always amazed me in so many ways. It is possibly the only country I have visited so far that truly gives me the impression that they are more advanced than the country I come from. I don’t mean just technologically, which is obviously leagues ahead of most other countries, but I also mean their entire culture. The term that kept ringing in my head throughout this trip was: SOCIAL RESPONSIBILITY.
The Japanese are polite and have manners, but no culture is without its dark side. Yes, there is most likely hypocrisy, dishonesty and all kinds of unpleasantries that people hide beneath their facade of politeness, but what impressed me the most this trip is how much more Japanese people are mindful of their own social responsibility. They live in a clean, well-run country but yet, unlike Singaporeans, they don’t seem to take it for granted. I have observed teenage boys in high school being mindful enough to close the windows of the train (which they had opened earlier) when they exited. I have seen a disabled lady in a wheelchair wheeling her way through a maze of single-seater tables in McDonald’s just to clear her own tray after she was done eating. I have never seen a dirty toilet in Japan (it may be wet and gross in some public places, but the seats and facilities were never dirty or with random tissue paper on the floor).
Somehow or other, the Japanese have managed to cultivate a culture of being mindful and considerate of others in everything you do, and that is singularly impressive. I am unable to express how envious I am about this. This pervades not only the actions of their citizens, but even the principles of everything they design and invent. Their one-use train tickets come in small stubs that are easily lost, so they give out a tiny envelope at the ticketing machines of every stations, with a window cut out in the exact place so you are able to see the words on the tickets. Effort has gone into the design of such an envelope to make it larger than the tickets so it’s less easily lost, but yet small enough so it doesn’t become a hindrance. The cut-out window was further designed to make it more convenient for people to see exactly what ticket is inside the envelope without having to open it. This exemplifies what I mean by the motivation of everything they do, invent, design or come up with comes from the convenience of its users being utmost in priority. Effort and money is not spared in achieving this aim.
Because it is the rainy season, train stations provide free umbrellas for people to use in case they forgot to bring them out, but with the kind reminder to please return them when they can. The honour system becomes very important here, and this brings me to my next conclusion: when people are capable of being socially responsible, they can be trusted with more privileges and things. I can foresee many Singaporeans going to Japan and coming back complaining about how Singapore doesn’t have as many privileges. Japanese trains have velvet cushioned seats, why doesn’t Singapore have that? Japanese service staff are always so enthusiastic and polite, why doesn’t Singapore have that? Japan has an amazing variety of shops and brands, why doesn’t Singapore have that?
The answer to all the above questions is: because Singaporeans are not Japanese.
I’m pretty sure the Singaporean government has the resources to install velvet cushioned seats in our trains too, but how long would it last? Honestly, can we trust Singaporeans to be socially responsible enough not to damage or dirty these seats? Or would they simply enjoy the luxury but continue to have that mentality that someone will clean up after them, or someone will repair these seats if they spoil it anyway?
Japanese service staff are enthusiastic and polite, but their customers are also similarly polite. It’s not to say that Japanese don’t get angry at service staff (I witnessed an angry Japanese man raising his voice and scolding a service staff at the JR Information Desk), or there aren’t horrible customers in Japan, but a large majority of them are appreciative and polite. The service staff’s politeness are responded with equal politeness from the customers MOST of the time, and that makes a huge difference. As someone in the service industry, a customer’s response to my efforts could make or break my day. I understand that I’m being paid to give good service, but service staff are still humans after all, not robots. Emotions get in the way, especially if you’ve to do this same thing over and over and over again, for years. In Singapore, I consider it a good day when I meet just one appreciative Singaporean customer out of the many that I have to serve in my work day. In Japan, that’s far from the case. I can tell you that just hearing a sincere “Thank you, I really appreciate your help” from a customer can motivate me more than the customer even realised themselves.
And lastly, why does Japan get everything? They not only have all the big brands operating in their market, but they also have their own special Japan-exclusive products. The reason is again simple: Japanese are willing to spend. When they like something, they go all out. 2PM fans go to their concert dressed head to toe in concert merchandise or their favourite member’s colour. They make entire costumes based on 2PM outfits or colours. They splurge so much money on buying fangoods and merchandise. Is it really that inexplicable as to why 2PM releases a great variety and better fangoods in Japan than in Korea or for their world tours? Their albums and singles in Japan cost at least 3 times as that in Korea, but yet Japanese fans are willing to continuously buy them, and not just 1 copy but several dozens just to get the chance of winning a fanmeet ticket or an autograph session card. Would that happen in Korea, or any other country? Are fans from other countries generally willing to spend just as much as Japanese for that same chance of winning a ticket? I don’t really think so. Maybe a handful of fans are willing, but a majority of fans from other countries simply prefer to go the free or cheap way. There’s nothing wrong with that at all, but that means there’s no room for lamentation that JYPE doesn’t release as much goods for you, or prioritize you as much.
Those who love theme parks and stay near one usually buy an annual pass and go there as frequently as every weekend, whether it’s Universal Studios or Tokyo Disneyland. When it’s Disneyland, they could dress up as their favourite Disney character, or head-to-toe in Mickey merchandise. When it’s Universal Studios, they make entire outfits designed to look like those in their favourite movies, like Survey Corps uniform for Shingeki no Kyojin, Guildmarm outfits for Monster Hunter and not to mention, entire Hogwarts uniforms for Harry Potter. Because they are willing to spend, their consumer culture is thriving so much more than any other country I’ve seen. They have entire buildings for Yamaha, Zara, H&M, Diesel, Uniqlo, etc. Just imagine the variety of products available in these buildings. Before asking again why Singapore doesn’t have this, let’s imagine all these are transplanted into Singapore. The amazing variety of clothes and shops and theme parks available in Japan becoming similarly available in Singapore. Without thinking about how much smaller our population is compared to Japan, can we imagine Singaporeans being able to give these businesses enough profit to make this move sustainable? Singaporeans hold on tightly to money, and that’s part of our culture and heritage. We would rather save the money than to spend it on costumes and frivolities that we would deem useless. So if we don’t have as many shops, then the simple reason is: there are no customers. As far as I could tell from my trip, Singapore has probably roughly the same cost of living as Japan does (though Japanese transportation costs significantly more), though I cannot be 100% sure on this without knowing more about any various taxes and all that, but yet Japanese are simply willing to spend a lot more. Small wonder that businesses prefer to operate in Japan than in Singapore or other countries?
So with that in mind, for those who complain that Japan and the Japanese get more privileges and luxuries and awesome things that Singapore doesn’t, I can only say that Singaporeans aren’t ready for it. We have not yet evolved to become a polite, considerate and socially responsible country, and that is a pre-requisite if we want a sustainable, improved society with all these luxuries in place. Hopefully we will be in the future, but not right now.