Impressions from a special visit of a Yemeni to the land of technology:Japan: Perseverant people, a mighty nation [Archives:2004/772/Reportage]

September 13 2004

By Walid Al-Saqqaf
Editor, Yemen Times

I knew that my 10 days in Japan would be extraordinary. But to say the least, it is also the country that made me baffled, amazed, and inspired at the same time. It is the country that made me believe that nothing is impossible! I have been to so many countries in my life, either on invitations or based on self-motives, but never have I thought I needed to write a long and comprehensive report on a country as much as I did for Japan, the country which I would gladly want to call the country of miracles, and the country closest to 'perfection' compared to all other countries I have seen.
And here I explain why.

The beginning
In 2003, I was informed that the Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs through the embassy in Yemen decided to have me nominated for an information visit of Japan. I welcomed the initiative and had thought of the idea as an opportunity to explore and know more about this fabulous country.
For a very long time, I wanted to visit Japan but didn't find the opportunity. But there it came, and I knew it would be fascinating, especially after I was shown the visit program weeks before it started.
The impressions of Japan started on my first visit to the office of Ambassador of Japan to Yemen In July 2004, H.E. Mr. Yuichi Ishii who, along with the embassy staff, received me with great hospitality and friendly faces. But along with such friendliness came strict disciple and organization to endure that the very tiny details of the trip are clear.
When my journey started, I did realize that friendliness and strict organization do come together in the Japanese society. And that was first revealed to me when I landed on Japanese soil.
Due to the delay of my departure from Dubai to Kansai Airport in Osaka for more than half an hour, I began to worry about the connecting flight to Tokyo, which was supposed to depart an hour after landing. But when I realized that over 50 other passengers were also due to leave on the same airplane, I felt relieved thinking that the other flight would probably be delayed for us to board on the connecting plane. But I was wrong. The connecting flight, which had more than 50 missing passengers, still took off on time, and without us on board. All of us who missed the plane – coming from the Middle East – were shocked and amazed at the extreme accuracy of the flight schedule. We knew that if the same had happened for another airplane in any of our countries, it would have probably waited. We asked the check-in female desk office why it was taking off without us and the response was simple and straightforward. With a smile on her face she pointed to the clock and said, “Sorry, the boarding time is now over and the plane is leaving.” But this is not the Arab world; it is Japan.

Uniformity everywhere
When my escort at the airport received me, I was amazed to realize that she had already studied my personality and learned much from my biography. She even knew what types of dishes I liked and what I didn't, and that was taken into consideration in all the activities carried out during the trip.
It would be obvious for me to try to compare Tokyo to European cities I have been to, and to some crowded American cities as well. The very basic difference I noticed was uniformity. It amazed me to see how Japanese people talk, walk, eat, and live their lives. There seemed to be a mysterious law that they all had to abide to. I had difficulty understanding why this is the case, and why Japanese tend to behave in a way that makes you predict their second move.
But it wasn't long before I solved this mystery.
I learned that the Japanese society is very well organized. To say it differently, it is a group-oriented society. Japanese people prefer teamwork in which individuals have assigned duties to perform and are expected to do their best in those duties. This way they guarantee that the overall performance is excellent. Individual qualities or exceptional characteristics are not of much important. In some occasions it may be a disadvantage for you if you have different hair or want to be seen as 'not like the rest'. People try to think and act as a group. So given a particular situation, I think, almost every body would react the same way.
Taking into account the assigned duties of individuals in their groups, part of the success factor behind Japan is probably the nature of Japanese people in liking to work harder than normal. Japanese are 'workaholics' and usually love their work. But all over Japan there is a tendency to remove the label of 'workaholics' from them. That is something that I had difficulty understanding because for us in Yemen and the Arab world, being named 'workaholic' is a praise that would make our spirits high, even though we know are not at all what the word implies.
On the other hand, Japan's uniqueness is in being a country famous for its ancient gods and customs, but also for its cutting edge of cool modernity. High-speed trains whisk you from one end of the country to another with frightening punctuality in seconds rather than minutes. That cannot be possible unless citizens abided by the law strictly.
In the cities I was first struck by the mass of people. In this mountainous country of 378 thousand square kilometers is a little larger than half the area of Yemen. The vast majority of the 126 million people of Japan live on the crowded coastal plains of the main island of Honshu. The three other main islands, running north to south, are Hokkaido, Shikoku and Kyushu, and all are linked to Honshu by bridges and tunnels that are part of one of Japan's modern wonders – its efficient transport network of trains and highways.

'Underground' Tokyo
Just as the case with the millions of Japanese living in Tokyo, we also had to use the underground metro services to get around. Until we first went to the underground world of Tokyo, I was wondering where those millions are. I didn't see that many people in the streets. They must have been somewhere. But when we arrived to the Shinjuku underground station, where we saw waves of thousands upon thousands of people moving in harmony and uniformity in the wide halls of this spectacular underground world, I realized that there is another Tokyo indeed, and it may be called 'underground' Tokyo.
What I mean by underground Tokyo is literally the part of Tokyo that is below the surface. Believe me, there is a whole breathing and living world beneath the crust of earth in that part of the world.
One look at the highly sophisticated metro network, I came to concluded that it was not a mystery not to find as many people on the surface because there were millions of people moving underground. Tens of meters beneath the surface of the island, there are railway and metro stations, infrastructures for electricity, water, Internet, communications, sewage, and many more cablings and wirings.
Everything is concealed from view and maintained in well-organized channels that are regularly checked. On the surface, trees and green parks can be seen where people enjoy the four unique seasons. I was amazed to see the extreme complexity of technology and modern infrastructure alongside natural beauty and clean air, which we in Yemen are in dire need of.
For a country where space is so valuable, it is no surprise that Japanese people would start building upwards and downwards. One square meter of land in downtown Shinjuku or Ginza could have a value of more than USD 100,000, making Japan the most expensive country to own property in the whole world.
The ability to have it both ways where superior technology and beautiful nature coexists, as I mentioned, seems to be attributed to the degree of organization and strict discipline that Japanese people enjoy. That is something we in the Arab world need to learn from. For us in Yemen, the issue is of particular importance. It is shameful that with a few cars on one crossroad, we jam the traffic and cause a cloud of exhaust gases polluting the air around us, while in Tokyo millions of vehicles move very smoothly with rare accidents and almost no pollution.
When we look at it objectively, we realize that it all comes to disciple and organization.
It is the culture of uniformity and strict abidance by law that makes Japan unique. However, this is now slowly being affected by a wave of immigrants and illegal workers. Japanese are obedient to the established rules and orders. Consensus is highly appreciated in Japanese society.
Some illegal Koreans, Chinese, Brazilian workers and immigrants from all over the world live in Japan and cause some disruption to this harmony. But the problem is that in the case of Koreans and Chinese, one can hardly tell the difference between them and regular Japanese.

Technology everywhere you go
From the electronic doors of taxis that open automatically when you attempt to ride, to the high-speed Internet connections available free of charge in hotel rooms, Japan has indeed proved that is the world champion in technological innovations. I initially had doubts that Japan could be second to the USA or another country in terms of technology, but after the field visits I paid and after realizing how technology has become part of every Japanese family's daily affairs, from using mobile phones to toilet chairs, I have come to conclude with confidence that Japan is indeed the most technologically advanced country in the world.
On the other hand, in most developed countries I visited, I passed by villages and neighborhoods there seemed to be some poverty indicators and a rural type of life, but in Japan that was impossible to see. Maybe I didn't look thoroughly enough, but during the different trips that are made to remote areas by railway through small towns, I would see the same level of technology and services everywhere I go. As my escort once said, “we have no underdeveloped area in Japan”, I have indeed failed to find any area that didn't have huge infrastructures or investment projects. Even in remote small towns electronic vending machines can be found. This may also be attributed to the small geographical area of the country compared to the USA and others. But with an illiteracy rate of 100%, it also surely shows that education and technology have reached every part of the country.

Cultural aspects preserved
What makes Japanese unique is that despite their massive technological progress that surpassed all countries of the world, the national Japanese culture is still preserved with its tiny details. The way people bow to each other, the way they eat and communicate, the fact that family bonds and lifestyles are still maintained despite huge differences in the standard of living and conditions of life today compared to the past, make this country worth of great respect and admiration especially for us in the Arab world where conservative lifestyle and family ties are of great importance.
Trying to understand why this is the case, I discovered that the Samurai culture and other deeply rooted traditions are in the inner minds of Japanese people and make them proud of their roots. The different wars and historical events that took place in Japan only added to their insistence to hold on tight to their rich culture and history.
Indeed, the culture of hard work, discipline and insistence on success is not only a genetic factor in Japanese people, but their generation-after-generation teachings of the importance of cultural values such as uniformity, mutual respect, completing the job until the end, hard work, and discipline, are no doubt a major factor behind the level of development Japan has reached.
However, talking about culture, uniformity and strict Japanese discipline, I must also admit that I had a tough time adjusting myself to the Japanese style of life.
For example, Japanese are ceremonial people. They start work with the morning ceremony. They bow to each other, saying “Ohayo Gozaimasu” or “Good morning” first. Formality creates tension, nervousness and bureaucracy among Japanese themselves, let alone with foreigners.
On the surface, Japan is not actually as different than other developed countries as one may think it would be. On the outside Japan is just as Westerners imagine)-cities of tall modern buildings; businessmen going to work in their suits; everyone sleeping on the train. But despite my short visit, I have come to see that Japan is totally different from the inside, with unusually unique customs and a culture that is different, much different than that of the West.
One interesting thing I have noticed is the fact that due to the extreme speed in the pace of life in Japan, as I could see people running to appointments and having very short breaks for lunch, Japanese people tend to use their extra time with ease and attempt to get maximum pleasure.
For example, when they have the opportunity to stay late at night drinking, they do so in an exaggerated manner, perhaps to forget the pains of the day. Sometimes they may also go for a luxurious meal where they would spend hours on various types of dishes.
To compensate for their days of hard work when they were young, after retirement, Japanese people use their savings to tour the world and spend a lot on their entertainment and luxury. Pensions are now causing a great concern to the economy, especially when we realize that the Japanese population is getting elderly by the year, and those above 50 years of old have great influence and power.
Talking about food habits, I must admit that I have lost some weight during my stay. When I think of Japanese food, the first thing that comes to mind is soyu, which is an inevitable ingredient in almost all Japanese preparations.
Japanese pay much attention to the arrangement and looks of food and one tempts to say 'It is beautiful' rather than saying 'it is delicious' when looking at the food.
Eating raw fish and octopus was something I thought I would never attempt to do in my life, but trying never harms, so I did give it a shot. It was not that bad!
Culturally, Japanese people are peaceful people who prefer to mind their own business. That is why Japan is among the safest countries in the world where people live in peace and harmony, and where you can leave your apartment's door open with no worries.

A day to remember in Hiroshima
Like most visitors to Japan, I ensured that I don't miss visiting Hiroshima City where the first of two atomic bombs was dropped killing hundreds of thousands of people more than half a century ago. When I entered the city, I found beautiful nature, green grass and trees everywhere, and people enjoying life to the maximum.
For a normal visitor, Hiroshima didn't look much different than the rest. It rather seemed to be more lively than many other towns and cities. But it wasn't until I visited the Peace Memorial Park and Museum, when I realized the pain and suffering that the city had to go through. In the museum, I got to know more about the atomic bomb and its consequences. It is truly sad to see how a whole city was wiped out of existence in an instant. But it is also inspiring and amazing to see how Japanese people were able not only to cope with it, but to rebuild their city from scratch after losing the Second World War. They also won the top rank in being the world's largest producer of electronic goods and emerged as the second economy in the world.
Hiroshima resembled to me the other side of Japan. There I discovered that Japanese people hate wars more than any other people on the planet and lean towards peace on every occasion. This is what explains the massive protests against the war on Iraq. It was also the reason behind the country's support for international treaties banning the proliferation and use of nuclear and non-conventional weapons. That is the same reason for having the Mayor of Hiroshima harshly criticize the USA in his peace declaration issued at the Peace Memorial Ceremony on August 6, 2004 for not complying with such treaties and it is the same reason Japanese people criticize USA's current administration for withdrawing from environmental treaties such as the Kyoto Treaty. Shintoism, the indigenous religion of Japan values nature greatly, and that may be another factor behind Japan's interest in protecting the environment, and that is the very reason behind various Japanese initiatives for world peace and protection of nature.

The country closest to perfection
In overall terms, I have come to conclude that Japan is the closest country to perfection, something that -as Arab countries- we are very far away from. I was once looking at the window while in a Taxi in Kyoto, one of the fabulous cities of the country. It was raining cats and dogs that day. I wanted to compare the case if the same situation had happened in Sanaa. In our capital, if its rains continuously for a minute, we would find water accumulating in holes resulting in floods in streets that would cause disruption to traffic and inconvenience for pedestrians. But in Kyoto, it kept on raining for more than an hour, yet I couldn't spot one single incident at any street where water was a few inches deep. All streets were clear from any tiny water floods as the water was channeled through very well organized lanes that would drive it to a perfectly established sewage system built underground. I was amazed at the clear difference between the two cities Sanaa and Kyoto in this specific aspect.
Indeed, Japan in my view is the closest to perfection among all the other countries I have been to. I could have explained why in a more thoroughly manner, but I know time and space don't allow me to do so.
I am glad that I made the visit and got the clear picture. I know that if I had the chance I would go again and again. I did get a clear idea of the country overall, but the people are still a mystery, and to know them better, one can only hope to live with them one day and know how they think and how they succeeded in coming this far.
In my view, we can indeed learn from the Japanese example. Let us take Japan as a model and work hard to reach its level even if it takes centuries.
Who knows? Maybe we can have a similar future. After all, it was a Japanese proverb that once said, “The best way to predict your future is to create it”.
Why can't we create a future that we would be proud of?

Walid Al-Saqqaf
Editor, Yemen Times

This is a group photo with the management of Panasonic Center in Tokyo. I was quite astonished at the level of hospitality and great attention I was given during the visit. I was shocked to find that the company had put my name on the large electronic seen (seen on the building) as a gesture to welcome me.
The tour was a complete tour to the different departments and lines of production and was baffled by the high-tech edge of the future zone, which was the best section of the center.

A visit to Panasonic Center
I was quite astonished at the level of hospitality and great attention I was given during the visit. I was shocked to find that the company had put my name on the large electronic seen (seen on the building) as a gesture to welcome me.
The tour was a complete tour to the different departments and lines of production and was baffled by the high-tech edge of the future zone, which was the best section of the center.

A visit to Suzuki Motor Co.
It was a splendid visit in a hospitable atmosphere. The visit explained how the company grew from a producer of small pedal-driven wooden loom to a giant vehicle manufacturer. Its agents in Yemen are Sabeha Trading Company and Suzuki Yemen (Member of Bamarouf Group).