An Eastern Influence

Yesterday, the Chicago Sun-Times reported that, "every time Daley takes a trip, he comes back with a pad full of notes and a head full of ideas. Last week's trip was no different." The trip the newspaper's referring to was a weeklong trade mission to China and Japan, including a visit to Chicago's sister city, Osaka.

According to the article Daley returned determined to provide high-speed train service to both airports and improve service on trains, also talking about planting trees in parking lots, a "new type of gas station that averts oil leaks", covering construction sites with tarps to contain debris, and speeding up construction at O'Hare. Each item was in response to something he saw in Japan and China, the last item specifically in reference to the speedy construction of Kansai Airport serving Osaka.

After spending a couple in Japan last month, I can sympathize with Daley's situation: seeing the differences between here and there and imagining how things could be improved at home. But the implications of liking something and trying to institute the same in a different locale is important, because the differences run deep and are rooted in culture, social convention, politics, etc. Keeping in mind that change is not immediately attainable, these are some positive differences that I noticed, somem different from the Mayor's political agenda:
Despite the millions of people living in the dense conditions of Tokyo, litter is pretty much nonexistent. I attribute this to a few things: 1. public service workers who clean up parks, streets, etc, 2. respect for the urban environment and its qualities of shared space, and 3. respect for the rules that dictate trash disposal (three categories: combustible, noncombustible and recyclable, with their respective bins). This last item is important, because even though these trash cans are very hard to come by, there is still virtually no trash on the ground. I think that this respect for the rules (in this case due to living on an island and not having much space for landfills) impacts how people think about refuse and what they do with it. It's everybody's concern, not just the government and the garbagemen. Mayor Daley should take a lesson from Japan's garbage collection when he's thinking about the much-to-be-improved recycling program in Chicago, where residents definitely thinks of garbage in a different way.

Train Efficiency
In the Sun-Times article, the reporter recounts that, "Daley and his entourage were in an underground train station when a message board flashed news that their train would be one minute late. When the mayor's party boarded the train, a voice apologized for the inconvenience." While I didn't experience a delay first-hand, my friend Eric told me that if a train is late, slips will be handed out to commuters that they can show their work, so they aren't docked pay, for example. So, to me the extreme efficiency of the train system is just a part of an extremely efficient society overall. Arriving a little late to a white-collar job in Chicago is not grounds for monetary punishment, but my friend's story made me realize it is a big deal in Tokyo. I can imagine this all takes hard work and effort, making it great for a tourist, but probably not very enjoyable for a resident who's a part of making the city and the country efficient. Nevertheless, being able to depend on "public" transportation (the quotes refer to the privatization of Japan's railways, something with good and bad points) would definitely be something for the Mayor to pay attention to, even if a start is only real-time indicators of when the next train will arrive or how late it's running, as mentioned in the article.

As early as the airport outside Tokyo, I got a sense of how important service at all levels is in Japanese culture. From the white-gloved worker at the airport whose sole duty was to help people navigate the ropes at the customs line to the smiling faces at each convenience store, restaurant, or shop, service is helpful and friendly but never intrusive or seeming labored. In Chicago, and probably many other places, people in hourly-wage service jobs tend to look miserable, act disinterested, and be pushy. Of course, not everybody is all these, but it's rare that somebody is not at least one. It seems like Daley wouldn't be able to do anything about this (and it's probably not on his radar, just my frustrated mind), but when he wields his words, a simple "why doesn't the guy or gal behind the counter smile anymore?" does wonders. Basically, when the Mayor bitches, the local business community listens.

Tips and Tolls
Last on this list, but definitely not last on a list of differences between Japan and Chicago, is Tips and Tolls. Recently Chicago was high on a list of restaurant tipping (can't remember where I encountered this fact) with an average of over 18%, higher than New York City. This infatuation with tipping seems misguided, creating a hierarchy of service based on the amount of a tab and percentage given for tip. In Japan, tips are included in the prices of items and services, including restaurants, taxis, and so forth. Prices are higher overall partly because of this, but that can be overlooked when the ordeal of deciding and leaving a tip is nonexistent. Somewhat related is the tolls for highways, so much higher than in the States that if the US instituted Japan's tolls overnight, citizens would probably revolt. An example: to drive about four hours from Tokyo towards Kyoto (reaching roughly Nagoya) cost the equivalent of $70. Yes 70 dollars. But Japan's highways don't have billboards, making for scenic driving. There is very little construction on the roads compared to the US and its ongoing construction creating traffic jams, delays and frustration. But, most importantly, the high cost of tolls influences people to use alternative means of travel, primarily trains. With Chicago's ongoing traffic nightmare, and its public transit problems, Mayor Daley is surely paying attention to this issue.

Lest I start sounding like a preacher for the colonialism of Japanese culture and values, we must remember that Japan's current situation is rooted in hundreds of years of feudal society and a homogeneous population, among other reasons, of course. In a way, the US is an experiment, and the citizens are the guinea pigs, I guess making people like Daley the scientists. But that doesn't mean we can't borrow ideas from other cultures, shaping them to fit our situation, hopefully finding the best means for all of us to live decent, fulfilling lives.