After a short stay in Japan, I have realized that not all Asian countries are alike, especially China and Japan. The few commonalities they share are their physical features and collectivist mindset. Individualism is practically cultural taboo in Japan as well as in China. If you stick out from the crowd, then something must be wrong with you. The culture itself demands that you maintain the group mindset.
Apart from those few similarities, both countries are quite different. Japanese tend to be extremely respectful and polite. For instance, every time you enter a store or a restaurant, the greeter bows to you and welcomes you to their store. Chinese could work on that trait. If you ever tried to board a bus or drive through rush hour traffic in China, you realize that it’s every man for himself. The passing lanes are merely suggestions, and speed limits are guides, not the law. Japanese also treasure cleanliness and order. I’ve heard they have neighborhood cleanup days periodically, and their cities are well-kept for such highly populated areas. They also patiently wait in line for boarding a bus, buying tickets, or purchasing goods. On the other hand, Chinese cities’ largely lack cleanliness because of chemical plants and factories that envelop the city with pollution. And so far, lines don’t exist in China. Whether you’re boarding a bus or buying a burger at McDonald’s, you become part of a living mass of people who push you to your destination.
Economically, Japan and China are distant relatives at best. Even though Japan is a small country, you pay a lot to travel there. It cost me about $80 to travel by train from Shimonoseki to Hiroshima, which is similar to driving from Philadelphia to Harrisburg. In Shimonoseki, a 25-minute taxi ride cost over $30. Land is also a precious commodity, since most of the land is mountainous. Traveling in China is much more affordable. When I took a train from Qingdao to Beijing (5x longer than Shionoseki and Hiroshima), it cost about $85 to get there. And you could probably take a taxi from one end of Qingdao to the other for a $10 fee.
Japan’s geography and population shadow that of China’s. In a country the size of California with roughly 70% of land unlivable, the Japanese must carefully parcel the rest of the land for themselves. However, since China is the fourth largest country in the world, it has little trouble finding room for its 1.3 billion citizens. In Hiroshima, most of the roads were just large enough to allow two cars to pass each other and a fly to pass through the gap. Many of the cars were sedans or smaller types like the boxy Honda Element. Everything seemed miniaturized. China though is quite the opposite. Everything must be expansive to accommodate the mass population. From highway superstructures to the world’s longest bridge, China’s transit system is massive. Many drivers have the latest Hummer or luxury sedan, and they don’t seem too worried about the size.
Linguistically, both countries are different. Japan, ever the polite country, has multiple levels of politeness in its language. From a conversation with friends to talking to strangers, each level requires a different form of communication. They also have two alphabets and Chinese characters, known as kanji. Apparently the Japanese also have tenses in their language too. In Mandarin, there are no levels of politeness in speaking to another person. Mandarin has no alphabet, just a couple thousand characters you have to memorize. Although there are no tenses, the language has four tones, which I think more than make up for no tenses.
While I could discuss many more differences, I wouldn’t want to overwhelm you too much or myself for that matter. As in each culture, these general characteristics apply to the whole culture but not always to the individual himself. If I ever travel to any other Asian countries, it would be fascinating to find what distinguishes them from their neighbors. For any Chinese person reviewing this post, Happy Chinese New Year to you. Technically, its’ New Year’s Eve, but with all the firecrackers exploding around my apartment complex, I feel like I’m in the spirit of the New Year. If anyone cared to know, this year will be the Year of the Dragon, which should bring people good luck and fortune. We’ll see what happens a year from now. See you next year.