Sep 222011

I concluded my last post with the phrase “Singapore truly is a place unlike any other.”

…except, perhaps, for just one other πŸ˜‰

While Singapore does have many unique traits that set it apart from elsewhere in the world, as someone who’s spent more than two years living in Japan, I can’t help but be amazed by the countless similarities that also exist. Because aside from its ethnic diversity and proliferation of English, Singapore is quite simply the most Japan-like country I could possibly imagine.

I know, I’ve mentioned this already. Twice. But it’s just so noticeable that I had to give it a post to itself πŸ™‚

The first time it really struck me was in the subway. Sparkling clean, thousands of people walking quietly in every direction, the sound of fashionable high-heels clip-clopping on polished tile floors, even how people stand politely on either side of the doors to let riders exit before boarding the trains – which are themselves spotless, silent, and fast. During the whole of my stay in Singapore I didn’t see even one mark of graffiti; not so much as a scribble of someone’s name on a subway seat. Everything looked like it’d been put into service one day earlier…and polished a few times since.

And although I can’t claim to’ve scratched the surface of Singaporean culture during my short week-long stay, several Lonely Planet passages confirm that the national psyche is almost eerily identical to that of Japan:

“The value placed on order and conformity means that the familiar East–West cultural clashes found elsewhere in Asia are also common in Singapore. Westerners often complain that Singaporeans are process-driven, either unwilling or incapable of thinking laterally or creatively. Conversely, Singaporeans are often uncomfortable with Westerners’ outspokenness and willingness to challenge authority or accepted norms, seeing it as brash, arrogant and disruptive. These differences can make themselves evident to the visitor in small ways, whether you’re trying to get a coffee chain to serve breakfast two minutes after the allotted breakfast period has ended, or a bank clerk to perform an unfamiliar transaction. Foreigners trying to carry out any task in an unusual or nonprescribed manner often hit a logjam they find baffling, which also creates the potential for problems between expatriate workers and local staff. However, you won’t find many Westerners complaining about how safe Singapore is – unlike many cities in the West, you don’t have to think twice about walking past groups of young men late at night.”

Now swap the word “Singapore” for “Japan” in the above passage and read it again. It describes almost verbatim how I’d characterize life in the region’s other small-but-affluent island nation. Even the concept of 建前 vs 本音 (see here) seems to hold true, as Singaporeans are often so friendly and helpful towards foreigners (and each other?) as to almost feel like an act. Particularly on-duty employees – at convenience stores, in metro stations, and on buses – will proactively offer help if you look lost for even a second, and it’s always executed with royalty-like manners. If you go back and read some of my earliest posts from Japan you’ll find almost an identical series of observations. Never in my life have I been to a native English-speaking country where people are so consistently polite.

As strange as it sounds, I feel like I’ve inadvertently stumbled on “Japan The Second.” Any minute now some wacky anime character is going to appear around the corner, or a 2-foot-tall γŠε©†γ‘γ‚ƒγ‚“ is going to offer me a bowl of steaming hot Udon.

…Okay, so maybe the countries aren’t exactly the same πŸ˜†

  16 Responses to “Japan The Second”

  1. Very interesting to see this! I have been to Singapore but not Japan obviously and I had no idea the two were so similar. There is one thing I feel compelled to add to your comments about Singapore, though. I was there for two weeks and like you I was stunned by the cleanliness, the effortless affluence and everything else. Near the end of the trip I noticed a pickup truck on the road with a bunch of guys in the back. Turns out the “lower class” or “service sector” in Singapore is made up of a lot of migrant workers trucked in from Malaysia every day who have no rights and are treated like animals. So that shed just a little bit of light on how this incredible metropolis keeps itself running. It looks like everyone is wealthy and successful because the society is built on the backs of people working in near slave conditions.

  2. that level of cleanliness is now strange too me…..hehe. I have been in China too long

  3. @Noz: Whoa, interesting…I had no idea! (But I would be interested to know how you found out that they’re treated like animals in near-slavery conditions – that sounds a tad bit extreme :/ )

    @Andy: Haha well…that level of cleanliness is strange for virtually EVERYWHERE in the world. I remember the first time I moved from Japan back to the US – I went straight to visit New York and one of the first things I saw was somebody just toss their McDonald’s burger wrapper on the street. I was appalled and disgusted πŸ˜›

  4. Haha….well….you remember when Bence showed you how to find the trash can here πŸ™‚ My girlfriend now is way cooler in that respect than Bence (or worse depending on your point of view). She cracks me up sometimes, and it just fuels her to do it more, which is great πŸ™‚ My mom is coming to visit next month and will probably be appalled, but I’ll be laughing πŸ˜‰ You would find it comedic too

  5. Oh lord…WORSE than Bence? Hard to imagine considering I never even saw him use a trash can! πŸ˜›

  6. Saitama? That toilet pic is from my apartment in Shijo-Omiya, remember? The same place where we had a two bedroom apartment together for a week back in 2007 (and a little rampage :-D)

  7. Nope…it was taken at G-Cans πŸ˜›

  8. Sorry, you’re wrong here buddy πŸ˜› And I can prove it. Check the timestamp. It just happened to be near (temporally) that other toilet pic from G-Cans saying something like “careful this water flows” plus a pic of how high tech some Japanese toilets can be. Strange nonetheless. I have a similar pic of hand washing instructions from Hyakumanben Makkudonarudo πŸ˜€

  9. Meh, can’t be bothered digging it out Mr. Accuracy πŸ˜›

    Damn tho, another pic of handwashing instructions would’ve been PERFECT! haha

  10. wow- 30 second handwash, in the states its only 20..and I thought we were overly sanitizer oriented.
    @Andrew- yeah when I went to China, I was appalled….I also though am disgusted when I am in NY. Living in Chicago, the trains here are actually pretty darn clean compared to NY, but the cleanest I have been on yet was in Germany- there was even recycling on the train! so much order.
    All this reading is fueling my interest to come out to travel- Andrew there was a sale for an 8 day trip to China with hotels for only $1000 including the flight…. so…the wheels are turning. I hope to come out sometime, it will depend on whether or not I go to Tanzania in May. Kilimanjaro anyone? hah
    ps- sorry for the long posts. I am sick today (boo) so am getting a chance to catch up!

  11. I’m DYING to climb Kilimanjaro! It’s been on my list for years, but other stuff has just always gotten in the way (not to mention it’s effing expensive) πŸ˜›

  12. Rachel……DO IT…..u soooooo owe me a visit! It has been too long

  13. hahaha- we should all meet for kilimanjaro. It IS crazy expensive though. My husband is going there for a month to do a medical rotation, which he gets completely paid for….so we are thinking of having me fly out too…probably the cheapest way to ever do it. not sure. Andy you interest at all??
    Jay and I will talk about China….so much travel- need more money and vacation time!!!

  14. I am SOOOOO in for kilimanjaro!!!!

    But yo still have to come to China!

  15. I’d love to do it too…HIGHLY doubtful this year though, considering that I’m finally in Asia and have gotten my hands on a long-term Thai visa, and still have 3 neighboring countries I’d like to visit once I can finally catch up on work and blogging…if that ever happens! πŸ˜‰

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