Five things New Zealand could learn from Japan

There were plenty of times on a recent trip to Japan when I could not believe my eyes.

There was the child-sized robot in the knife museum whose sole role seemed to be to perform dances from around the world; the electric police cars so tiny they would have struggled to accommodate Kiwi-sized offenders; the vending machines selling beer which, despite requiring no proof of ID, didn’t have a line of thirsty teenagers out front.

And yet I soon discovered there was always a perfectly logical explanation for the apparent conundrum –even if it took a while for a confused foreigner like myself to figure it out. Much more than the eccentric high-tech society many outsiders believe it to be, Japan has a lot to teach the rest of the world about everything from public transport to how to treat people. Here are five lessons New Zealand in particular could benefit from.

How to be polite

We Kiwis may pride ourselves on being a friendly, welcoming bunch, but we’ve got nothing on the unfailingly polite Japanese.

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There was so much bowing and waving each time we arrived at a hotel that I got an inkling of how King Charles and the rest of “the firm” must feel when they step out in public. And our local guide was the consummate Japanese host, checking to make sure we’d remembered our passports, credit cards and phone chargers each morning; ringing around hotels and attractions when we realised we’d left them behind; and apologising in advance in case attractions didn’t live up to the hype (she needn’t have worried: they always did).

Bowing (ojigi) is one of the most visible manifestations of the respect the Japanese typically show to all others, irrespective of age or status – I spied the cleaners at a Tokyo train station pausing in their work to bow to departing trains.

Bowing is so ingrained in Japanese culture that people do it automatically, even when talking on the phone.

Maya-Anais Yataghene/Wikimedia

Bowing is so ingrained in Japanese culture that people do it automatically, even when talking on the phone.

An essential accompaniment to a konnichiwa (hello), bowing is also common in other social situations, such as when saying goodbye, apologising, expressing gratitude, congratulating someone, asking for something, showing sympathy… It’s so ingrained in the culture that people often find themselves doing it even when talking to someone over the phone.

This being Japan, there are naturally loads of rules to go with it. A simple nod of the head may suffice when you’re among friends, while longer, deeper bows are used when you want – or are expected – to show a deeper level of appreciation or respect.

While it’s hard to imagine us Kiwis suddenly starting to bow down to all and sundry, many of us could make more of an effort not just to treat others with respect, but to show it – and not only to those we think we need to impress. It’s about acknowledging each other as human beings and recognising that, for the most part, we’re all trying to do our best as we flounder our way through this thing called life. A curt “hello” or “morning” with a poker face doesn’t cut it. Try to summon a smile, and find some way to convey your appreciation or respect.

A breakfast tray at Miyama Futon & Breakfast in the mountains north of Kyoto.

Lorna Thornber/Stuff

A breakfast tray at Miyama Futon & Breakfast in the mountains north of Kyoto.

How to eat-well balanced meals

On the island of Okinawa, there’s a saying – hara hachi bu – that you should eat until you’re 80% full, which probably would have saved me a lot of digestive discomfort if I’d listened to it on my trip.

Instead, I overate at every meal, determined to enjoy as much sushi, sashimi, tempura, teppanyaki and mochi (sweet rice cakes) as I could in the country of their origin.

Meals at the traditional-style accommodation we stayed at were beautifully presented, with small portions of fish, meat, vegetables, pickles, rice and miso soup laid out in their own little containers atop a tray. They’re great for ensuring you eat a small amount of a wide variety of foods rather than overdosing on a few.

And then, of course, there are the ingredients themselves which, traditionally, are ultra-fresh (items are often dated by the half-hour in markets), seasonal, and often steamed, broiled, pan-grilled or fermented. I’m no health expert, but this may go some way to explaining the Japanese’s low level of obesity and longevity.

On Okinawa, where women live to 90 on average and men to 84, the people also adhere to the concepts of okigai – knowing your reason to live (what you love, are good at, and the world needs) and moai (having a good support network).

Trains in Japan are set to get even faster.


Trains in Japan are set to get even faster.

How to get from A to B

Given New Zealand’s agonisingly inadequate public transport system, it’s little wonder I was impressed by the home of the Shinkansen – the ‘bullet train’ that zips people between major Japanese cities at speeds of up to 320km an hour. And trains are set to get even faster: plans are afoot for the maglev – short for ‘magnetic levitation’ – to travel at up to 500km an hour by 2027.

Unlike in New Zealand, where our limited interregional rail network is targeted at tourists, Japan’s extensive network, much of which is privatised, enables passengers to tailor trips to their budgets. With trains of different speeds going to the same destinations, passengers can opt for faster services if time and funds allow, and slower ones if they don’t.

The tangle of metro and commuter lines are also amazingly fast and efficient. Which probably helps explain why, again in contrast to New Zealand, so many people actually use it.

A Tokyo toilet with walls made of coloured ‘smart glass’ which enable users to check cleanliness and occupancy before entering.

Carl Court/Getty Images

A Tokyo toilet with walls made of coloured ‘smart glass’ which enable users to check cleanliness and occupancy before entering.

How to go to the toilet

Do I need a toilet that warms and massages my butt, and sprays and dries where the sun don’t shine? Probably not. But, using a high-tech Japanese toilet for the first time, I couldn’t understand why the rest of the world hasn’t adopted them – especially in the era of Covid-19.

Toilets with palm-activated flushes and automatic lids are surely far more hygienic than our bog-standard loos, particularly in public restrooms.

The “toilet slippers” worn exclusively when using the loo are a great idea too. I wouldn’t have minded slipping on a pair before stepping onto the wet floor of the toilet cubicle on my plane ride home.

Sushi from a Tokyo convenience store.

Chris McGrath/Getty Images

Sushi from a Tokyo convenience store.

How to do convenience stores

The Japanese convenience store (konbini) leaves the dairy in its dust. Alongside groceries, snacks, beauty products, cosmetics and alcohol, they sell fresh, tasty and affordable meals that, in many cases, you can either take away or eat on site.

The Japanese talent for making things look pretty and paying attention to detail ensure that, unlike the saggy sandwiches in our convenience stores, they actually look appealing.

We could teach Japanese stores a thing or two about packaging though – wrapping the likes of apples, and strawberries individually isn’t doing the warming planet we all call home any favours.

The writer was a guest of the Japan National Tourism Organization (JNTO).


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