About me.

Andrew M. Mwenda is the founding Managing Editor of The Independent, Uganda’s premier current affairs newsmagazine. One of Foreign Policy magazine 's top 100 Global Thinkers, TED Speaker and Foreign aid Critic

Monday, June 17, 2019

ANALYSIS: Inspired by Japan

Where people, values, mentalities and habits create pure harmony

THE INDEPENDENT | ANDREW M. MWENDA | In February and March of this year, I visited Japan and travelled extensively across that country’s major cities – from Tokyo to Kyoto and Hiroshima to Osaka, the commercial capital of Japan. I was intrigued and impressed by the orderliness and cleanliness of the country. Many people argue that Kampala is dirty and disorganised because it is large; with many people (1.5 million) living in it. Osaka is a city of 19 million people (counting its entire urban area) while Tokyo is 14 million people. The streets of these cities remain spotless clean.

The difference between Kampala and Tokyo is in each city’s sense of community and the attitude of the public towards their cities. My friend Timothy Kalyegira would argue that Japanese are more dedicated to their work than Ugandans. Therefore, city authorities and ordinary city workers in Japan work harder at ensuring clean cities than their counterparts in Kampala who are lazy and uncommitted.

Yet every morning when I am walking or jogging on Kampala streets, as early as 5am, I get intrigued by the punctuality and dedication of the men and women who clean our city’s streets. I wonder what motivates these ordinary folks and their supervisors to wake up this early to work in horrible conditions – dust, traffic, dirt etc. This is the more intriguing because their effort is never recognised. Instead it is abused by us the residents of the city at every twist and turn when we continue to throw more garbage on the streets.

My many and long walks on Kampala streets have taught me that the difference is not in effort of the workers in Japan’s cities as opposed to the ones in Kampala. Rather it is in the attitude of the general population in our two countries. People in Uganda throw garbage wherever they please because they do not value cleanliness in their city. And this could be because there is little sense of community in Kampala. This undermines the efforts of hardworking city workers.

Ugandans, especially those frustrated with President Yoweri Museveni, would like to claim that the city is dirty because of bad leadership. But what is the contribution of each one of us to ensuring cleanliness? A country that needs leaders to instruct people on how to behave for it to achieve its goals is doomed. Leaders’ instructions are only effective when they are in sync with the values, habits and mentalities of their people. Short of this, the cost of enforcing rules would be excessively severe and exceed the benefits sought.

The Japanese are exceptionally efficient and dedicated. This is a shared value and mentality. They respect authority and obey superiors, something I see in Rwanda. People keep time and race to achieve their goals as if inspired by the gods. Take the example of my chauffeurs in the different cities I visited. These people were working for a private company that the Japanese ministry of foreign affairs (my hosts) had hired. I do not know whether it is their culture or their training. However, each time the car stopped, the driver would race at breakneck speed from his seat in the front of the car to the opposite rear door where I sat to open for me.

I have never had the privilege of having my car door opened for me. In any case I always drive myself. But I also find it is unnecessary to have someone open the door of the car for me, even when I am chauffeur driven. So in Japan, I tried consistently to open my own door to discourage my chauffeurs from doing it. But each time the driver would increase his running speed in order to reach the door before I could touch it. I found it strange and while still in Tokyo, asked him not to. He said it is his work.

I had an escort, also working for a private company, which had been hired by the ministry of foreign affairs of Japan, to take me wherever I had official engagements or private meetings. She was, like all Japanese, punctual and polite to a fault. She was surprised I always kept time and told me a story of a Ugandan lady she once escorted. The lady never kept time even once. This Ugandan (she did not name her) would come 20 or even 30 minutes late, yet seemed not to recognise she had done anything wrong.

I spent nine days with this lady, driving in the same car, having meals together, visiting museums, factories, theatres, libraries, site seeing around the different cities etc. She was very kind and patient with me, and friendly – a great host so to speak. Finally when I had to say bye to her, I behaved like a good American (or human being) would do. I went to a shop and bought her a gift. In America, tipping someone for a good service is basic courtesy; in fact it is impolite not to do so. But my Japanese escort was horrified (and I mean horrified) by this gesture and turned it down.

She told me I did not need to give her anything because this was her job. Then a battle ensued where I insisted that in my culture this is a courtesy I had to do while she insisted I didn’t have to do it. After a few minutes of back and forth, she realised I was determined to have her accept the gift and she relented. She opened the gift and expressed such appreciation beyond whatever value was in the gift. I promised to return to visit Japan later this year in July and that I would look for her so that we can meet again.

Throughout my stay in Japan and having visited about seven cities I could not find an obese person. Yet this is a rich country with a per capita GDP of $39,000 ($44,000 by Purchasing Power Parity). There are many countries in this income bracket, but most especially the USA, have high percentages of their people over weight. I searched online and found that only 3.6% of Japanese are obese. Indeed, 66.5% of Americans have a Body Mass Index (BMI) above 25 (making them overweight) compared to 25% in Japan.

Good diet makes Japanese look much young than their age. For all the time I spent in Japan, I hardly saw old people. Most people I met in offices, restaurants, markets, streets, museums etc. looked young. This was contrary to my first experience when I first visited Europe, the USA and Canada in the mid 1990s. Coming from a young country (the median age in Uganda is 14) where seeing elderly people is a rarity, I was intrigued by the mass of old people in airports – in Brussels, Paris, London, Toronto, New York, Washington DC etc. I wondered what possesses these elderly people to be traveling this much.

With time I realised that these nations have large percentages of their people in old age compared to Uganda. Therefore, the issue was not that old people in Uganda do not “roam around”. They are too few to be seen, only 4% of our population is above 60 years, 49% are below 14 years. Consequently, at every event little kids below 10 will outnumber the octogenarians by a big factor. Yet Japan, even with the highest population of elderly citizens in the world (33% are above 60 years), does not look old. I was intrigued.

I guess the trick is in Japanese diet, which is low on fat and high on protein. Being an island nation, Japanese eat largely fish and their cuisine has not suffered the introduction of oils and other fattening aspects. In fact Japanese are a contradiction: they have embraced many aspects of western culture yet at the same time retained many aspects of their traditional systems. In this regard Japanese are very much like Ugandans. For instance, Japanese eat their local cuisines yet they abandoned their traditional clothing (which I find elegant) for the Western suits, trousers and skirts and shirts and blouses.

Equally, the political system in Japan is Western liberal democracy but I guess it is held together by specific Japanese traditional values and norms. Japan does not have term limits; an obsession Africa borrowed from the USA which its intellectual elites worship like God. However, the ruling party, the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) of Japan, used to have term limits. Two years ago, however, its current president, Shinzo Abe, amended the party constitution and removed term limits so that he can remain prime minister longer. There was hardly a hue and cry that he is power hungry.

More than that, the LDP has ruled Japan continuously since it’s founding in 1955. It has lost power – and only briefly – twice: 1993-94 and from 2009-2012. So it has ruled Japan for 59 of the 63 years since it was founded. To many Africans obsessed with Western democracy where political parties in power change hands regularly, Japan looks like the quintessential one party dictatorship. The only difference of course is that in Japan, prime ministers do not last long, often they rule for two or three years. Only Eisaku Sato (1964-72) did eight years, and Abe has done more than six.

Secondly, Japanese easily and quickly embraced and mastered Western technology without abandoning their religion and culture. The country remains predominantly Buddhist and Shinto. This is different from Uganda where Christianity and Islam actively fought and overwhelmed out traditional religions. Japan is also the only country I have visited where hardly anyone speaks English. I had to rely on interpreters for most of the time. While most Western liberal democracies have increasingly become multicultural, Japan remained ethnically and culturally homogeneous. Even in the face of a declining population, I did not see much desire to admit many foreigners into the country.

Japan is similar to Uganda on cultural preservation yet different on openness to foreigners. Ugandans have embraced Western education and religion, yet retained a lot of their cultures (look at our marriage ceremonies that mix traditional marriage –kwanjula, gubaba, kweranga etc. – with church weddings). We have also retained our cuisines (at our weddings we mix Western and traditional cuisines into one package) and have also retained our languages. However, Uganda is more accepting of foreigners: Rwandans, Congolese, Ethiopians, Eritreans and South Sudanese all come and settle in our country with little or no hostility.

Japanese are exceptionally polite and treat one another and even strangers with courtesy. I have not encountered a people as polite as the Japanese, perhaps South Koreans. The common feature of Japanese and Koreans is the speed in doing things. You call a waitress in a restaurant and she literally comes running at full speed to address your concern. It is rare for people to be polite and also quick. Yet Japanese (like Koreans) do things quickly and yet retain politeness. Is this a cause or consequence of their rapid development? This is a subject I will address in my next article.


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