Is Japan the most civilized country in the world today?

When one considers what Japan did in World War II – attack most of its neighbors and the US, commit numerous war crimes, treat women in captured countries as “comfort” women, and align itself with Nazi Germany, etc. – one might wonder how I can even suggest that Japan is the most civilized country in the world. Nevertheless, having just returned from a little over three weeks there, it is certainly the impression that I am left with.

Consider what my wife and I observed. There is extremely little crime, no matter if you are in Tokyo, the largest city in the world, or a small rural village. The Japanese are very honest and if you lose something and there is any way to identify the item as being yours, it will likely get back to you. The cities are incredibly clean even though we noticed very few public trash bins (there are recycling bins for cans and bottles). The Shinto religion places a very high value on cleanliness and I assume honesty as well. In areas with a lot of tourists, there are cleaning teams that pick up every scrap of debris. However, most tourists keep their litter and follow the lead of the Japanese.

If you have not been to Japan, you may think that all that bowing is a little obsessive and maybe fake. That is not the impression we got. First, in most situations the bow has been replaced by a head nod which is given even on the street if you make eye contact. Frankly, it is very nice and it is not fake. At times when we needed directions, anyone we asked would typically not only provide directions but would often walk us to the nearest intersection and show us where to go.

Organization is another characteristic of Japanese society. The trains are always precisely on time and so are the subways and busses. If you take a train the markings on the platform show you the car numbers and where the doors open. Electronic signs provide information on the trains arriving, where they are going and which cars are reserved or non-reserved seating – all of it in alternating Japanese and English. The ticket machines for subways have options for numerous languages. It is very easy to get around and if you need help aside from plentiful tourist information booths just about everyone will be happy to help if they speak a little English as most do.

I am a big believer in individualism and entrepreneurship but there is obviously something to be said for the strong adherence of the Japanese to their cultural values. When those values are admirable, as they are in Japan, it leads to the society that I have described above. I should also mention that education, hard work and attention to detail are also important Japanese values.

Some tips

If you are wondering if you should visit Japan (assuming you have not already done so), here are a few suggestions. First, don’t worry about the language, there is a lot of English, especially in tourist areas and big cities. This may not have been the case 5 or 10 years ago, but it is today. Get a Japanese SIM card for your cell phone and use Google Maps for very detailed directions, whether you walk or take the subway. There are an incredible number of tour groups in Tokyo and Kyoto both local (mostly school kids) and foreign from a huge variety of countries but you can do Japan very well on your own, as we did, even as seniors. In fact, as seniors you will get free admission to some sites and more able-bodied Japanese will offer you their seats on the subway. Be gracious, nod and accept the seat. While I rarely used it, Google Translate allows you to point your camera at a menu, click and you will see the items in English superimposed.

Japan has a reputation of being very expensive and I am sure that was true but right now prices are very reasonable. However, they are starting to climb again so go sooner rather than later, if you can. Also, almost all hotels allow free cancellation up to 24 or 48 hours in advance so you can book now, even a year out, to get better prices.

There are two types of hotels in Japan – Western and Ryokans. The latter has Japanese style rooms with mats on the floor and a thin mattress covered by a warm comforter. We tried two and it is an experience that you may want to try but, be warned, you may find sleeping on those mattresses uncomfortable. In Ryokans, shoes are replaced by the provided slippers when you come in. Breakfasts are usually a choice between Japanese or Western. While we were in good Ryokans, the breakfasts were not much more than mediocre.


Byodo-in Temple in Kyoto

 In Europe you will see numerous cathedrals and magnificent as they are you will eventually say, if I see another …In Japan the equivalent is Shrines and Temples – Shinto and Buddhist. We limited ourselves to only the best but still … Nikko is a nice day trip from Tokyo and the Shrines there are very impressive. In Kyoto, Nijo-jo Castle is excellent. 

Nijo-jo Castle in Kyoto as seen through the entrance gate

Of the castles that we visited in other towns, this was the only one where you could see the decorated rooms inside the castle so it is well worth a visit.

In Kyoto, I highly recommend the Gate Hotel (reasonable price, fantastic location in the Gion district which is where there are over 1,000 restaurants, a vibrant nightlife and the old town). It is also walking distance to the main high-end shopping street and the Nishi market which has hundreds of stores, stalls and so on.

Should you go in April, as we did, try to visit Takayama on April 14 and 15 when hundreds of thousands of tourists and Japanese come to the Spring festival with amazing floats and a day and evening parade but only if it doesn’t rain. We were lucky and saw everything on the 14th. It rained on the 15th.

3 of the floats in the Takayama Spring Festival

Prior to the first parade and the exhibition of all 14 floats, these three floats were used as stages for a 45 minute marionette show. It was popular with the hundreds watching but for western tourists it was somewhat slow.

If you go, stop in Matsumoto for one night on the way. Matsumoto has an attractive reconstructed castle but the highlight for us was the City Art Museum of Matsumoto. It features the work of local artists but the name on the museum is Yayoi Kusama. She was born in Matsumoto and the sculptures outside are by her. She is also known as the polka dot artist. Look her up. Inside they have some excellent works of hers.

Masumoto Castle

This reconstructed castle is very picturesque. Inside are exhibits from the days when it was defended by Samurai.

Yayoi Kusuma sculpture outside City Art Museum of Matsumoto

We are fans and also visited her museum in Tokyo but book tickets online in advance. She had an infinity room exhibit in Montreal and tickets were virtually impossible to get. You have been warned.

Elevator in Yayoi Kasuma museum

The Yayoi Kasuma museum in Tokyo has samples of her work from the early days to now. She is 92 and still producing new works and has had exhibitions in numerous countries. Time magazine used her work on the cover for a story on psychedelic art.

Here we are in Yayoi Kasuma's polka dot room

Also in April in Kyoto is the Geisha show, Miyako Odori, which translates to ‘The Dance of the Old Capital’. It is only performed in April and well worth it but again book tickets online well in advance. There are about 100 performers including the musicians, all are Geishas or Maikos (Geishas in training). 

We visited Kanazawa on the way to Kyoto. The Japanese garden (Kenroku-en) there is probably the best in Japan. We also visited the Nomura Samurai house which was very attractive.

A peaceful spot in the massive Kenroken-en garden

In Tokyo, we visited Teamlab Planets after buying tickets online well in advance. The company, Teamlab, was started in 2001 in Tokyo by Toshiyuki Inoko and four friends. It is an international art collective, an interdisciplinary group of artists, programmers, engineers, CG animators, mathematicians, and architects. Their newest art installation is Planets and it is quite amazing. You go through several rooms. In one you go barefoot through water in a dark room and all around you in the water it appears that there are colorful fish swimming. What the images do is determined by the motion of the people in the room.

In another room which is mirrored on all sides including the floor you can lie down and it feels like you are floating as leaves and other objects from nature gently flow around you. You really must experience the whole thing and I highly recommend it.

Sex in Japan

We visited the main red light district of Tokyo, Kabukicho,  which is in the Shinjuku section. It is packed with hoards of people and the signs are brighter than Times Square in New York. While there are hundreds, if not thousands of sex related businesses including love hotels with rooms available by the hour, massage parlours, strip clubs, bars, etc. there are also numerous restaurants and legitimate hotels. Given how conservative the Japanese are, it is strange to see sex workers lining the main street (male and female) with signs advertising their hourly rates. While prostitution is illegal in Japan since 1956, the law refers only to intercourse. Every other sex act is legal. Apparently, the Shinto religion has no prohibition against sex. Also interesting is that the fact that the Japanese sex workers will decline relations with foreigners probably because they do not know the Japanese cultural norms and/or because of the language barrier. So perhaps Japanese culture governs in this sphere of activity as well.

Negotiating with a sex worker

The sign she is holding says 3,000 yen (30 Canadian dollars) for 60 minutes. That appeared to be the going rate but for what I don't know since I don't read Japanese.

Bright lights of Kabukicho

This is just one of the streets in the Kabukicho area. At the bottom of the picture you can see how densely packed the area is with people. Not everyone is looking for sex. Many are just taking in the bustling scene. We met a diplomat and his photographer wife there and had a pleasant chat about the Japanese culture.

The culinary scene

You can have some interesting culinary experiences in Japan. Many restaurants are very small and at some you sit at a counter and watch the chef prepare each dish. In Kanazawa we ate at a tiny place, Tempra  Miyashita, with only eight seats and the evening we were there, only one other couple was having dinner. It was a tempura restaurant and most items were fried with a delicate batter coating. It was mostly fish or vegetables but there was also a small salad, miso soup and a dessert of a few pieces of fruit. The chef spoke enough English to explain what each dish was. Each dish was lovingly prepared and artfully arranged on the plate. The menu had three set meal choices (as I recall the only difference was the number of dishes but exactly what was included was not indicated). So, it is whatever the chef makes. The food was excellent. There are many restaurants like this with numerous small dishes but you will end up quite full even though we chose a smaller number of dishes.

In other similar restaurants, the dishes are done on a grill or a flat cooking surface. In Kyoto, we ate at Premium Pound Gion where we also sat at a counter and watched the chef prepare each dish. In this restaurant the price depended on which type of beef you ordered, Kobe or Wagyu, and the cut. All the other dishes were the same. Again, it was what the chef chose. Tempra Miyashita was excellent but this place was even better.

Main course preceded and followed by other small dishes

At different restaurants we tried all three types of beef that are specialities in Japan: Hida which seems to be available only in Takayama, Wagyu and the most expensive, Kobe. All melt in your mouth. Personally, I liked Wagyu the best. Note that it is much better than the Wagyu beef that you can buy in Montreal.

Of course, you can find every type of restaurant in Japan and many were very reasonably priced.

Most Japanese are slim because the traditional diet concentrates on fish and vegetables and because portions are small but who knew that sweets are huge in Japan. There are numerous shops selling sweets and cafes with dessert treats. They are extremely attractive and very tasty. Matcha is used to make a sweet green tea but it is also used in ice cream, and many sweets. We prefer strawberry ice cream and other flavors but Matcha is really popular in Japan. Apparently, there is even a KitKat chocolate bar with Matcha.


Next article, I will probably return to politics and current issues. As always, allow me to ask you to forward/share this article with those who might be interested and urge them to subscribe. My blog is free and will never have advertising but unless enough people get others to subscribe, it will be hard to get a critical mass. Hundreds of you are already on my mailing list but thousands would be much better.

1 Comment

  1. Fascinating and great tips for our future travels… thank you for the videos and photos… an immersive vicarious experience

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Dr. Bill Steinberg

Dr. Steinberg has a BSc from McGill University, a PhD in Psychology from Northwestern University, and was a professor at Concordia University. He was Mayor of the Town of Hampstead for 16 years and led the demerger battle. He was was awarded the Queen Elizabeth Diamond Jubilee Medal and is currently President of the Cochlear Implant Recipients Association.

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