Relatives who suffered at their hands in the last war might be aghast, but, with no reservations whatsoever, I bow with unabashed admiration to the Japanese.
My own dad remained bitter to the end of his life. He had horrible stories about their cruelty, and particularly about how, each time in the presence of a Japanese soldier, he and his brothers had to bow to him, or got a hard slap across the face, or worse. But the one sustaining force of his rage was that their oldest brother had been beheaded by the occupiers.
Tito Liling’s only crime, as was the noble crime all his other brothers who had come of age to follow him, including my dad, was to resist as a guerrilla. As my grandfather, their father, said with a proud pain in his heart, “What else were they my sons expected to do in time of war?”
Dad died in 2010, a few months shy of 92, before I could try to make my case. But I doubt that he’d have been persuaded by, let alone accept, the miraculous transformation of the Japanese all the same.
Up close, as observed by Vergel and me, in our travels to their country, these modern-day Japanese show none of the beastly traits my parents and their parents suffered in the war. They are one of the most considerate and honest people we’ve known, which makes it always a pleasure to find ourselves in their country. Every visit, in fact, only increases my admiration, and, not without envy, for their self-discipline, cleanliness, and amazing economy of scale and space.
To be sure, the transformation didn’t happen overnight, and it certainly came with a price—no less than total defeat and humiliation; the destruction, by atomic bombs, of Hiroshima and Nagasaki says it all. It may be rather unkind to say it, but that seems to have annihilated the beast in the Japanese psyche, not only in those places, but all over Japan. Thus, humbled and chastened, a new breed of Japanese was born, and not without their emperor’s inspiring example.
In early November this year, we attended the ceremony celebrating the 60th anniversary of Mahikari, an all-inclusive religious organization my husband and I belong to. Mahikari, to me, is Japan in full, ideal transformation.
Walking around the clean streets of major cities in Japan, I noticed there was not one of the garbage bins—except in the very rare and, by the minute consideration in the Japanese planning, strategic.
I thought of the garbage containers back home, half open, often overflowing, with all sorts of discard that missed their target around it, attracting flies, ants, cats and emitting foul odors. We seem to regard trash as a natural consequence of life and discard it without thinking about what happens to it.
The Japanese, for their part, take full ownership and responsibility for their trash. When I asked a passerby where I could dispose of my popsicle stick, she looked at me, a bit puzzled, before saying very politely, “It’s your trash, please bring it home with you.”
The lesson is quickly, embarrassingly learned: I became conscious not to leave trash in the tour bus; I had to bring everything back to our trash-bin-supplied hotel room; I thought twice before eating anything anywhere outside the hotel room or restaurant.
The Japanese also seemed to have given much thought to making daily human activities as pleasant and comfortable as possible. It is particularly obvious in the their toilets, which are equipped for sanitation as well as for preserving human dignity in the worst of times—a scented spray is provided. Every hotel and private toilet has a prewarmed seat and is fitted with warm water sprays that hit their separate marks with just the right temperature and pressure and amazing accuracy.
I love that I’m done without having touched anything offensive—as the Spaniards say, sin tocar. One merely presses the graphically unmistakable symbols on a panel by the toilet seat or, sometimes, on the wall beside you. Toilet paper is flushed and not disgustingly accumulated in the trash bin.
Public western toilets are basically the same, except they have a spray to sanitize the toilet seat or, as in the airplane, they provide a paper seat cover. One could sit properly, because, if you squat out of habit, all spray targets would be missed, which could be a disastrous mess. Most Japanese women carry their own little towels, thus having little use for paper towels, a nice national habit.
As accommodating, considerate, and forward-thinking as they seem, the Japanese can become inflexible, too.
Unthinkable in this age, I thought, the tour operator refused payment in any other currency, only yen. No amount of reasoning could make her change her mind.
She was, however, nice enough to accompany my husband to two nearby banks—two, because there was a limit on the amount to be exchanged, which my husband thought consistent with the national character—spreading the business and consequently the profit.
The Japanese seem mindful of the consequences of every action, from start to finish. No wonder they are among the best prepared for disasters; not only are they good at anticipating, they are cautious. All structures under renovation or construction are wrapped in a thick protective net, as secure as a spider’s web, to avoid accidents from falling debris.
They are minimalist in design without sacrificing aesthetics; on the contrary, aesthetics is foremost in everything they do. They are economical in words, resources, materials, and especially space. The Japanese haiku, their art of bonsai, most manifest in their miniature gardens, their little cars—perfect examples of little being enough and more being a waste. That way, there’s enough for everyone.