After twelve days visiting the Land of the Rising Sun, I was left with the juxtaposition of specific impressions with mysterious origins. The gardens of Japan are serene and beautiful; her children are healthy and strong; her workers are diligent and respectful; her cities are clean and safe. The Japanese are quintessential Japanese. But, who are the Japanese?
Japan is a country of 168,000,000 people with a landmass the size of California. It has no oil, major mineral deposits nor coal. Only seventeen percent of the land is farmable. Yet, after loosing World War II, this country today has the second greatest economy, very successful auto and electronic industries and a high standard of living for all of its citizens. In addition, because of the rise in the quality of its university system, it no longer needs to send its young people abroad for higher education.
Socialized medicine and a serious work ethic have contributed to the highest life expectancy in the world – 88 years for women and 80 years for men. How has this country, isolated from the rest of the world until 1868, or so, managed to rebound so successfully?
A partial answer to this mystery may lay in two cultural factors. First of all at least 93% of the population practice one of six Buddhist sects, with some non-conflicting Shintoism practiced simultaneously. These religions regard natural phenomenon and respect for those who have gone before highly. Material and personal achievement along with respect for authority are expected norms of behavior. Secondly, mastery of two complex alphabetical systems, which begins at age six, requires focus and concentration. A unique combination of spirit and intellect has helped to produce a nation of over-achievers. This is a nation that smiles and bows to the stranger, but who keeps its motivation secret.