First published in the BorneoPost Online by Tunku Zain Al-Abidin

The mind works differently when visiting a country you know nothing about, compared to one you think you know something about. In the case of the former, one accepts every new experience as one of discovery. In the case of the latter, every experience either affirms or defies expectations that have built up over years, or, in the case of Japan, decades.

Surely a vast majority of Malaysians have watched an episode of a Japanese cartoon (dubbed in Malay), played a Japanese videogame, formed an opinion about manga, anime, J-Pop or cosplay, eaten Japanese chocolate stored in a Japanese-made fridge after savouring sushi (or even nasi lemak with rice cooked in a Japanese rice cooker), washed with Japanese soap, shopped in a Japanese department store, been cooled by a Japanese air conditioner, sat on or in a Japanese-designed vehicle (including the Proton Saga), or played on a Japanese-crafted musical instrument or read Murakami while wearing Japanese-branded clothes cleansed with Japanese detergent in a Japanese washing machine.

For Malaysians, there is perhaps no other country in the world whose cultural and economic products permeate across so many areas of daily life, subconsciously forming preconceptions of what the country must be like. Although that situation may be changing for younger generations, the legacy of economic policies (and physical skyscrapers) from Looking East still endures, while the history of our nation’s formation cannot ignore the role and subsequent relationship with Japan (as I wrote about two weeks ago after the visit of Crown Prince Naruhito).


Of course, a few days in Osaka, Kyoto and Tokyo is hardly going to provide the traveller with an intimate insight into Japanese civilisation and its internal complexities – but even so it is clear that Malaysians could benefit by emulating some of its superficially prevalent traits.

The most obvious is cleanliness. Even in crowded urban areas, the streets are spotless despite a lack of bins (following a 1995 subway terrorist attack): commensurate with accounts of Japanese sports spectators or delegations cleaning up after events.

An even starker collective embarrassment occurs when going into a public restroom, where the loos are automated and multiple operations are enabled by buttons on the side: a universe away from Malaysian equivalents which are flooded, lack a working flush and toilet paper. (Although bathtubs that play Bach cantatas when full might be superfluous.)

The attitude to cleanliness reflects the meticulous care I saw consistently from those providing a service: from chefs with decades of experience, waiters and hotel staff, whose constant bowing is a culture shock at first – to gentlemen diverting traffic with hand-held signals: while in KL we have cardboard human figurines to control traffic, in Tokyo the humans produce precise robot-like movements.

One of the explanations offered for the apparent civic solidarity in Japan is that it is presented (to varying degrees of agreement) as an ethnically and religiously homogenous society – and I’ve never encountered anything like the Japanese accommodation to both Shintoism and Buddhism. That is alien in Malaysia, but where we might learn lessons from Japan’s demography is in the policy challenges of how to deal with an ageing population.

Politically it is intriguing that Japan has mostly been governed by the same party since 1955 (the same year as Malaya’s first elections), and geopolitically it is obviously much closer to major sources of friction than we are, being a US ally next to China and now contending with a nuclear-threatening North Korea. A few days ago a Japanese battleship escorted a US ship for the first time under new laws that came into force last year, and when North Korea tried to launch another missile, Tokyo’s subway system was briefly shut down.

Thankfully the Shinkansen was working brilliantly as I left Kyoto, and one hopes Malaysia’s upcoming high speed rail projects will be as efficiently run as Japan’s. It is amazing to think that the project was initially mooted in the 1930s: indeed, almost every aspect of public life has a deliberate importance attached to its history: the dates of major policies, ancient castles, silk screens, samurai armours, poems and other art forms are consciously displayed.

The story of the evolution of governance too is widely disseminated – from the shifting role of the emperor through to the rise of the samurai, the shogunates, the Meiji restoration and the post-World War II constitution – endowing a powerful shared sense of a truly unique identity.

Whether that will provide a more successful response to challenges faced by developed economies around the world, including demographic change, geopolitical rivalry and darker subcultures and countercultures, only time will tell. But we should definitely be watching.

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