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We shall drown, and nobody will save us
Most Honorable commenter Handle said in a recent comment on how he finds Japanese culture superior:
The near-universal level of courtesy, honesty, politeness, pleasantness, efficiency, work-ethic, competence, intelligence, self-motivation, willingness to, “go above and beyond the call of duty,” and genuine consideration for the customer, even for a foreigner to whom they show considerable patience, has been an extremely agreeable experience for me.
This is a very common feeling for all those who stay or live in Japan for any period of time. It happens also to a lesser degree in other Asian countries, such as Taiwan, Singapore, and South Korea. The reasons for the courtesy, pleasantness, and the simple prevailing sense of order that one feels in Japan are varied. Some are genetic, some are based on long rooted tradition. But some are pretty simple and straightforward.
Perhaps the best time spent while on college was when I went to the library and rented Lee Kuan Yew’s memoirs. It’s a huge book, hefty and dense too. I skipped class for a week to read the whole thing. Fascinating stuff, I learned a lot. Much of it is about the history of the Chinese community in Malaya, how they fought the Malays and each other. But the most interesting part was the bits where Lee Kuan Yew confesses his political influences.
Lee had just got into college when Japan invades Singapore in 1942. The invasion was a shock for everyone, Singapore supposedly being an impregnable fortress, symbol of mighty Britain and whatnot. Well the Japanese Army got hold of it in just over a week, and lost no time in making themselves the lords of the place. Lee tells in his memories how after the British Army lost, the colonial population was shocked, but also sort of excited. See, whitey has been defeated. Whites were the epitome of authority, they were so awesome that they seemed to create order semi-magically. But now they lost, and to those Japanese which kinda look like us. What followed was that the most uppity and thuggish of the Chinese, Malay and Indian youths starting looting and wreaking havoc in the place. The Japanese were too busy torturing British soldiers to pay attention to the situation on the streets, but they soon noticed, and didn’t like. Lee Kuan Yew tells how patrols of Japanese soldiers went to the streets, and arrested the strongest, most proud looking youths they saw on the streets. No questions asked. They just singled out the young males who looked like trouble. They took them to a close beach, killed them, decapitated some and put their heads on pikes on the main streets of Singapore.
No more lootings or any kind of disorder.
This, along with other targeted massacres of local donors to the resistance movement in China and other enemy civilians are together called the Sook Ching massacres (meaning Purge in the local dialect). The official narrative is that the Japanese massacres of Singapore civilians gave the locals a sense of nationhood, as they were targeted as a political entity separate from their British rulers. The British inability to protect the civilians made them lose legitimacy to govern them ever again, which paved the way to the independence of Singapore. Kinda sounds like the Mandate of Heaven.
But that’s a load of rationalisation crap, of course. Lee Kuan Yew is so fucking awesome that he had the balls to be honest in his memoirs. He says that the Japanese massacres in Singapore told him a lesson that he would find very useful in his future political life: violence works. And overwhelming violence works faster. The Japanese were harsh, cruel devils. But damn did they impose order. Not a leaf dared to move without permission in occupied Singapore. The young Lee must have felt some admiration for the Japanese way of administration because he spent the rest of the occupation learning Japanese to serve as a translation for his new masters. He later was outspoken in his defence for Deng Xiaoping’s actions in Tiananmen square 1989.
I recalled this episode when reading the Japanese news a while ago. Japan today is fortunately a different place from 1942, but it would be false to say that all has changed. Behind the facade of polite, honest, pleasant people you see, there’s a very unpleasant world of bullying, harassment and unreasonable rules.
A 66 year old man in Osaka was arrested after stealing a 10 yen coin from a nearby temple’s offering box. He was taken to court, and sentenced to 1 year in prison. The judge said that yes, 10 yen is a pittance, but it’s money nonetheless, and theft is a crime, so to jail you go. He had been sentenced in first instance to 20 months, which the appeal reduced to 1 year. The news went viral and netizens all around the country were amused. The most common comment was “1 year for 10 yen, that’s some cheap hotel he found”. Indeed.
Law in Japan can thus be very draconian. Don’t think it’s harsh but fair: there’s plenty of stories of policemen raping underage girls and not even being expelled from the force. Corruption is pervasive, if quite petty (it’s a scandal if you steal 1 million yen), and the yakuza are present to an almost comical extent. Still the argument can be made that compared to law in modern western countries, where muggers, robbers and thugs of every kind aren’t even taken to court because there’s no enough prisons to hold them, Japan is in comparison a more just place. It certainly is more orderly and pleasant, if perhaps not more happy and fun. That’s a tradeoff I’m willing to make.