Japan – Ethics, Democracy, Growth

Human Wrongs Watch

By Roberto Savio*

Tokyo, October 2012. In March 1985, an activist of the Aum Shinrikyo (Supreme Truth) sect, used the garbage bins of the Tokyo underground to hide a lethal gas – Sarin – that killed 13 people and intoxicated a further 6,000. Today, there are practically no more garbage bins in Japan, but the streets, and the stations, are impeccably clean. People keep garbage in their pockets, and dispose of it at home or at work.

**Chinese People in Japan. Kanteibyou Temple in Yokohama Chinatown. Credit: Gorgo | Wikimedia Commons

China, the mother of Japanese culture, is on the other hand very dirty. There is nothing so different as a public toilet in Japan and one in China. Visitors to both countries may wonder why.

Emperors, History

China is now the second largest economy of the world, and has just overtaken Japan, which remains the third. Yet both countries have a strong sense of social responsibility, a commitment to the work ethic, and a common history of a strong central government.

The Japanese emperor, who was elevated to the status of a god during the long military period – which ran from the end of the victorious war with Russia in 1904 until the holocaust of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945 – had always come from the same family since the creation of Japan, albeit as a nominal figure during the Shogun period, which lasted six centuries.

Then, under American occupation which lasted from 1945 until 1952, Japan was pushed by General Douglas MacArthur into democracy.

China has a longer story, always based on an emperor, but who changed frequently when dethroned by rivals and revolutions, which often split the unity of the Empire. Sun Yat-sen started the process of modernizing China in 1905 (Japan had started in 1856), which eventually led in 1949 to the unity of China under the Communist Party.

Different Political Paths; Striking Economic Success

So, after the Second World War, the two countries embarked on totally different political paths. But, besides their national differences (and keeping them aside here), what explains the fact that both had such striking success in economic terms in the global arena?

Well, China and Japan are not alone. South Korea, which shares much of its history with both countries, has also become an economic success story.

Taiwan (another country deeply interwoven with both), is a known success story. Viet Nam is becoming an economic success, and Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar, albeit less quickly for different reasons, will be the next success stories. This is why there is a consensus that this will be the Asian century.

When it celebrated the 500th Anniversary of the Discovery of America on 12 October 1992, Europe was reluctant to put a date on its decline as the centre of the world.

The “Glorious Past”

And one of the campaign themes of Mitt Romney, the Republican candidate for the White House, is that he will bring back the American century that President Obama is abandoning through lack of leadership, and because he is actually a crypto-European who does not believe in the exceptional destiny of the United States.

This is the usual song of re-establishing the glorious past that accompanies countries in decline, and that the ex-colonial powers of Europe all heard before uniting in the European Union.

Buddhism, Confucianism, Ethics

What unites all the Asian success stories is Buddhism and Confucianism.

They both push for strong ethics, but while Buddhism makes the individual responsible for moral progress, Confucianism is a strong philosophical tool for preaching respect of the authorities and elders, for making individual aware that they are a part of their society and for making work the real factor by which to judge their success.

Buddhism split into several sects, but Confucianism has been central to all of them.

 Follow the Chopsticks

In 1957, during a conversation that this writer had with Zhou Enlai, the first premier of the People’s Republic of China, when asked how it was possible to see differences in an enormous continent like Asia, Zhou Enlai answered: “Simply follow chopsticks”.

In fact, the domain of chopsticks ends with India and its subcontinent, and Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines and the rest of maritime Southeast Asia.

Europe and United States also had a religion (not a philosophy), which emphasised ethics and work
as social tools.

This was the Protestantism, and it has been the subject of long debate among academics on the reasons for the different development between North Europe and South Europe, and between North America and South America. The debate extends to participation and democracy, besides ethics.


It is interesting to note that Asia beyond Japan is also where Muslim countries have been able to separate state and religion, such as in Indonesia and Malaysia, where fundamentalist parties have always lost elections and there has been modern industry and a high level of study.

This is not the case of Muslim countries on the other side of the chopsticks frontier, such as Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan.

However, any reading of the relationships among religions, ethics, growth and democracy is now being obscured by the tide of new capitalism and globalisation.

The force of finance has overtaken ethics and institutions in North America and North Europe, and reduced the differences with the Catholic world.

There is a wave of Muslim fundamentalism which is probably a transient phenomenon, but which is affecting all Muslim nations.


And in the Asia of chopsticks, corruption and greed are the cause of the many scandals in the world of finance and major companies in Japan, Taiwan, Korea, Viet Nam and so on. In China, the search for profit is greater than elsewhere and corruption is rife.

According to projections, China will witness a decline after 2050 for demographic reasons, and India will take over as the largest world economy for the rest of the century.

So, the lesson from this shallow reflection of this century, Asian or not, is that we need a global reaction based on values, which are now under siege from this kind of globalisation.

Global Society

One of the major contradictions of globalisation is that far from creating a homogenised global society (along the lines of the so-called “global village”), it is having the very opposite effect – it is creating pockets of nationalism and chauvinism that mark a dramatic recession into what could turn out to be a “war of the jungle”.

Part of the reaction to this globalisation could well come from the millions of people, especially young, who are uniting in a global civil society around the values of democracy, human rights, defence of social justice, dignity of workers, mainstreaming of woman, and defence of the planet.

This unites Buddhists, Protestants, Catholics and Muslims. As this century unfolds, the fact of being Asian or American will make much less difference.

*Roberto Savio, founder and president emeritus of the Inter Press Service (IPS) news agency and publisher of Other News, a personal initiative seeking to provide information that should be in the media but is not, because of commercial criteria. It welcomes contributions from everybody. Work areas include information on global issues, north-south relations, governance of globalization. The author granted permission for publishing on Human Wrongs Watch. Go to Original on Other News. To read this and all “Other News” issues click here.

**Iamge: Chinese People in Japan. Kanteibyou Temple in Yokohama Chinatown. Credit: Gorgo | Wikimedia Commons

Read also:

After Two Lost Decades, Japan Went to Sleep

China, Japan Brewing a Serious Conflict

2012 Human Wrongs Watch

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