Learning from Other Cultures and Other Reflections
I wrote this awhile back but never posted it, so here it is now…
In December 2018 Americans said goodbye to a great man, George H.W. Bush. He knew what it meant to serve and to be a part of a community. As I watched the memorials honoring the late president, I reflected on the lessons I learned about service and community from my own father’s career as a U.S. Naval Aviator and from my family’s time living in Japan. This led me to think about some of the changes I observed during a recent visit to Japan after having moved away as a teenager many years ago.
My trip back to Japan gave me insight on community and managing garbage, as well as behavior modification of a society regarding garbage. We lived in Japan during the mid-1960s to early 1970s. Before going overseas, we had numerous immunizations, since many diseases no longer prevalent in the U.S. were still present in Japan. Upon our arrival in 1965, I was shocked at the amount of garbage and the dirty streets. Open sewer ditches ran alongside many roads. One day, my brother brought home a tiny kitten he found in one of the neighborhood ditches. For fun, my friends and I collected old bottles from street gutters to turn in for candy money.
Fast forward 45 years. The tables have turned, Japan is now cleaner than the U.S., which was one of the changes I observed upon my return to Japan. Everywhere I went the streets were garbage free, even though there were few garbage cans available to dispose of trash. Intrigued, I wondered how the Japanese accomplished this monumental change in less than a generation, so I asked why? The answer, “Parents and teachers, teach children from an early age to carry their trash home to throw away.” Then I asked myself, why haven’t Americans taken the time to teach this simple solution to garbage control? Societal differences are one reason. In Japanese culture it is rude to inconvenience others. Seeing and/or smelling my garbage would mean I am inconveniencing you. To the Japanese, my actions not only affect myself and my family, but also the rest of the community and society at large. Not disposing of my garbage appropriately would be a lack of consideration of others, and an embarrassment.
This philosophy of consideration benefits everyone. Yes, it’s inconvenient to carry my garbage around until I find a suitable place to dispose of it, and I may smell it longer than I’d like, but it’s worthwhile to be considerate. Which recalls a time when I watched, a passenger in a big Cadillac dump fast food leftovers in the middle of a parking lot in Sacramento. There were garbage cans in the lot, so what motivated this disgusting and unnecessary behavior? Why didn’t the people think about how their behavior affected others traveling through that parking lot? Would it be so hard to either carry the bag home or put it in a trash bin? Wouldn’t it, in the big picture, be considerate to dispose of their garbage properly, and serve the community by making it a cleaner and safer place to drive and shop.
Somewhere along the line the Japanese decided it would be more pleasant, efficient, and healthier with less garbage around. Someone came up with the idea to teach young school children to develop the habit of disposing garbage in a respectful manner. Amazingly enough after barely one generation it worked. Is it possible that U.S. Americans can learn from the Japanese and make the same decision to change our thinking and behavior about garbage? Think of the money it would save if people picked up their own garbage. People talk about the inefficiency of government, well we are the government, so if we want it to be more efficient, we need to take actions that spends our money more wisely. A way we can do that is by simply picking up and appropriately disposing of our own garbage.
The moral of the story, as my mother would have said, is let us take care of our communities by following the Japanese practice of acting with consideration and by heeding George H.W. Bush’s inaugural exhortation, “We must…give them [our children] a sense of what it means to be a loyal friend; a loving parent; a citizen who leaves his home, his neighborhood, and town better than he found it.” One way we can honor George H. W. Bush’s memory is to leave our communities better than we found them by teaching our children and ourselves to pack our trash and recycle, repurpose, or reuse it in a manner that shows consideration and respect for our fellow citizens.