The Far East: A Few Pointers

Our Asia correspondent describes a number of foreign practices worth emulating, and others that we can’t emulate, no matter how effective they are

IN MY WANING days as an Asia hand, I have naturally started drawing up a “Useful Tips From Abroad” list. This form of thinking is practically irresistible in Japan, a country that has itself sent out one exploratory mission after another to learn from foreign practices over the past 120 years. Here are some of the tips I’ve gathered:

• Schoolchildren in America should do what most Asian children do and wear uniforms to school each day. The uniforms themselves vary—in Burma they’re bright forest-green longyis, or sarongs; in Japanese high schools they are usually sailor suits for girls and black tunics, modeled on those of nineteenth-century Prussian cadets, for boys; in Singapore and much of Malaysia and the Philippines they are cheery tropical shorts-and-T-shirt ensembles— but the benefits are the same. Uniforms save time and a lot of money for the parents; they promote some sense of purpose and fellow-feeling at school; and while they don’t end competition for status among children, they do shunt it away from one obvious and costly arena.

• U.S. restaurants, hotels, and even taxis should switch to the “service charge included” policy that is almost universal in Japan. When you view the need to tip from within a nontipping culture, it implies that people have to be bribed to do their jobs. It’s no coincidence that in Asia the tipping custom is strongest in Indonesia and the Philippines, where the “always do your best” spirit is so much more precarious than it is in Singapore and Japan.

• Although this sounds even less likely, America should figure out some way to get more of its talented people into government service and schoolteaching, as the Japanese, Koreans, and Taiwanese do. It’s not simply a matter of pay—civil servants in Japan make less money than doctors, lawyers, or industrialists there do—it’s a matter of respect and social standing. Students who have survived the death struggle of Japanese education, making their way into the best department of the best university (the legal-studies department of the University of Tokyo), proudly take places in the Ministry of Finance or the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The permanent bureaucracy is the real power in Japanese life, as it shows by ticking along even when the country can’t find a plausible Prime Minister. We would never want a bureaucracy with such all-encompassing, unaccountable power as Japan’s now has, but we could stand to make a bureaucratic career more attractive than it is now.

· The United States should hold its elections on Sundays, as many other countries do. It makes the event seem more special, and what’s the point of building in a conflict with normal workday responsibilities? (Yes, there would be a conflict with some religious activities, including football, but fewer people are in church on Sunday than are at work on Tuesday.) There’s not a lot else to learn from Japanese electoral politics, but we should follow Japan’s lead and do away with paid TV ads in political campaigns—or make TV stations provide a certain amount of free time to the major candidates. The need to pay for TV ads is what turns modern American candidates into money-raising machines, and we ought to get rid of this temptation to sin.

• The Japanese salaryman’s habit of handing out business cards to everyone in sight can seem ludicrous, but it is actually quire sensible and should be imitated. It ends the awkwardness of “I didn’t quite catch your name ...” interjections. It eliminates the need to scribble down names and addresses on little scraps of paper.

•American houses should be equipped, as those in Japan (and many other countries) are, with small gaspowered water heaters in the kitchen and bathrooms, rather than with one big cauldron in the basement. These flash on immediately and heat water only as you need it for each shower or load of wash.

• If the United States really wanted to encourage frugality and a savings ethic, it could declare that credit cards can be used only in odd-numbered years, or in months with an R. Like many of my neighbors in Malaysia and Japan, I’ve led a mainly cash existence for the past few years, paying for airplane tickets, hotel stays, restaurant meals, and a used car, and often even paying the rent with big stacks of ringgit or yen. Theoretically $500 on a charge slip is the same as $500 in cash, but psychologically they’re quite different, and unless you’re a drug dealer, you spend the cash more frugally. As part of its shift toward cash, America could end its stupid policy of printing all denominations of money in the same color and size. When I open my wallet, I can tell a red Malaysian tenringgit note from a blue-green fifty at a glance. Most countries vary their currencies in a similar, sensible way. Instant-cash machines in America should be like the ones in Japan, which let you take as much money out of your account at one time as you want. (Maybe the way to put this is that America should be safe enough to permit such machines.)

This leads to the first of a number of Asian examples that the United States is better off not following. The Burmese print paper money in weird, nondecimal denominations. The Burmese currency is now issued in bills worth fifteen, forty-five, and ninety kyat. If you try counting to 1,000 kyat (about $20 at black-market rates) by fortyfives you’ll see the problem.

While I’m at it, the United States should also resist the Burmese policy of trying to rename Burma “Myanmar.” Every country has a right to call itself what it wants, but there’s an internationally accepted naming convention that has little to do with local usage. Lhe English-speaking world calls

Deutschland “Germany” and Nihon “Japan.” The Japanese—oops, Nihonjin—call the United States “Beikoku,” and we call Dae Han Min Guk “South Korea.”Everyone understands and no one gets upset. So to outsiders Burma should remain Burma. The Far Eastern Economic Review and a few British publications sensibly resisted pressure from China (that is, Zhongguo) to change the English spelling of Chinese names—for example, the familiar and resonant “Peking” to the graceless “Beijing,” and “Canton” to the ugly “Guangdong.” The new spellings are allegedly closer to the actual Chinese pronunciation, but so what? Westerners aren’t going to pronounce the names correctly anyway, and the Chinese spelling of Western names bears little or no resemblance to their pronunciation. If the Chinese want to write “America” with the characters that mean “beautiful country” and are pronounced “meiguo,”that’s fine. We should have stuck with “Peking” and “Canton.”

I could go on. Japan should follow the American custom of putting the whole country on the same electrical system, (Tokyo and the eastern part of the country get 100 volts, and Hiroshima and points west get 110 volts. It makes a difference for some kinds of equipment.) The rest of Asia, however, should follow the Japanese and American preference for something in the low 100s, rather than 220 to 240 volts. A shock from a 110-volt outlet can be merely annoying; from a 240volt outlet a shock is dangerous.

Japanese contractors should adopt the American practice of using insulation when they build houses.

Japan might give some thought to the daylight-saving concept. Tokyo is at about the same latitude as New York and San Francisco, but because of the way it has set its time zones, the sun rises in the summer shortly after 4:00 A.M. (It goes down around 8:00.) Conceivably this time frame is useful to farmers, but there are not many of them left, and the disruptive early-morning blast of light through the shutters is one more reason for urban salarymen to feel tired all the time.

Japanese restaurants should supply plastic or lacquer chopsticks, the way restaurants in China do, rather than one-use-only wooden ones, known as warihashi. The disposable chopsticks are presumably more sanitary, but the tens of millions that Japanese diners use each day are more than a small factor in the hacking down of rain forests in Indonesia and Malaysia and of woodlands in the American Northwest. Chinese restaurants should teach their employees how to cut a chicken. In most Chinese-style restaurants in China and Southeast Asia, “quartered chicken” means that the chef has taken a cleaver and whacked the carcass a couple of times, as if he were a maniac killer. The Asian restaurateur’s habit of handing out hot wet towels before and after meals should be made mandatory in the United States.

As PART OF THIS compare-andcontrast exercise, I’ve learned which parts of American culture seem particularly uncouth or incredible to Asians. The first time I went into a Japanese post office, bought a stamp, and licked it before putting it on the envelope, people looked as me as if I’d decided to shine my shoes with my tongue. People in Bangkok or Jakarta may wash their dishes in the same canal that someone else is using as a sewer, but even they don’t moisten postage stamps or envelope flaps with their mouths. (Post offices and office desks throughout Asia are equipped with little moisteners.)

I have begun to believe the surveys that place Americans last in knowledge of world geography—particularly in mastery of the simple fact that because the world is round, when it’s day on one side of the earth it’s night on the other. Most of the time I feel quite fortunate to be operating thirteen or fourteen hours ahead of anyone in America. If I have until first thing Monday morning Boston or New York time to complete a task, I really have until quite late Monday night. I will be sorry to give up this procrastinator’s advantage. But I will not miss the 3:00 A.M. phone calls that have come about twice a week. After I grope for the phone and mumble into it, the person on the other end of the line will say dreamily, “Gee. what time is it there?” (One American friend in Japan answers all calls in the middle of the night with a chipper “Good morning!”) I think these calls help explain why so many foreigners in Japan look like subjects of a particularly cruel years-long experiment in sleep deprivation.

I’ve also learned which parts of American culture are broadly attractive to the rest of the world. Our neighborhood in Yokohama contains a Kentucky Fried Chicken, a 7-11, and a BaskinRobbins, all doing brisk business. The shopping mall nearest our house in Kuala Lumpur included a McDonald’s, a Swenson’s, and a Pizza Hut. They were successful not because they were American but because certain traits natural to America — convenience, quick satisfaction of appetites—appeal to people all around the world. Similarly, Walkman-style radios have swept the world not because they are Japanese but because something natural to Japan—small, light, stylish design — caught on everywhere. American fast food, movies, and pop music still dominate the world, or certainly the Asian part of it. This doesn’t make Asia Americanized; it merely indicates that American taste in these areas is something like human taste, discomfiting as that thought may be.

I have even begun to share some of the outside world’s wonder at what the nutty Americans think they are up to. At 5:30 each morning the CBS Evening News with Dan Rather is broadcast in Tokyo, less than twenty-four hours after it is shown in the United States. We tape the show (unless it’s summer and we’re already awake and squinting in the bright sun) and watch it with a sense of amazement that has mounted with the passing months. The show seems more polished, interesting, and informative than its Japanese counterparts; I think this would be true even if I could understand everything the Japanese newscasters were saying.

But the most noticeable thing about American TV news is the whining tone that comes through so many reports. For instance, Ray Brady, the CBS business correspondent, recently said that the latest oil spill was likely to “drive gasoline prices even higher at the pump.” Even higher! Adjusted for inflation, gasoline prices in America are about what they were twenty years ago. Ray Brady might have made Americans feel less sorry for themselves if he’d added that prices “at the pump" are roughly a fourth as much as people pay in Japan. A $l-per-gallon federal gasoline rax. which would virtually eliminate the federal budget deficit, promote conservation, reduce oil imports, and bolster America’s control over its financial destiny and future supplies of energy, would bring America’s prices to only about half the current Japanese level. Maybe someone can make an argument against a gasoline tax, but something like a gasoline tax—some measure to encourage saving and reduce waste—is what America obviously needs at the moment. Or so it seems from here in Japan, the new financial leader of the world.

LIVING IN A FOREIGN culture is, most of the time, exhilarating and liberating. You don’t have to feel responsible for the foibles of your temporary home; you can forget about the foibles of your real home for a while. Your life seems longer, because each day is dense with new and surprising experiences. I can remember distinctly almost every week of the past three and a half years. The preceding half dozen years more or less run together in a blur.

But there is also distress in foreign living, particularly in living in Asia at this time in its history. It comes not from daily exasperations, which after all build character, but from the unsettling thoughts that living in Asia introduces. As I head for home, let me mention the thought that disturbs me most.

It concerns the nature of freedom: whether free societies are fit to compete, in a Darwinian sense. Until the repression in China last summer, many Westerners assumed that the world had entered an era of overall progress. True, environmental problems were getting worse rather than better, and many African and Latin American societies were still in bad shape. But in Asia it seemed possible to believe that people had learned how to make their societies both richer and freer year by year. As countries in Asia became more advanced and prosperous, they loosened their political controls—and as the controls came off, economic progress speeded up. This was the moral of the Korean and Taiwanese success stories, as those countries evolved toward the ideal set by stable, prosperous Japan. Even China, before the summer, seemed to be loosening up, both economically and politically. China’s crackdown made the spread of democracy and capitalism seem less certain than it had seemed before, but even this step backward confirmed the idea that political freedoms and economic progress were naturally connected. Everyone assumes that as China makes its political system more repressive, its economy will stagnate.

I draw a darker conclusion from the rise of the Asian economies. The economic success stories of Asia do not prove that political freedom and material progress go hand in hand. On the contrary: the Asian societies are, in different ways, fundamentally more repressive than America is, and their repression is a key to their economic success. Japan, Korea, Taiwan, and Singapore allow their citizens much less latitude than America does, and in so doing they make the whole society, including the business sector, function more efficiently than ours does. The lesson of the Soviet economic collapse would seem to be that a completely controlled economy cannot survive. The lesson of the rising Asian system is that economies with some degree of control can not only survive but prevail.

The crucial concepts here are “excessive” choice and “destructive” competition. Classical free-market economic theory says that these are impossibilities; a person can never have too much choice, and there can never be too much competition in a market. Asian societies approach this issue from a fundamentally different perspective. They were built on neither an Enlightenment concept of individual rights nor a capitalist concept of free and open markets, and they demonstrate in countless ways that less choice for individuals can mean more freedom and success for the social whole.

The examples of economic effictency are the most familiar. Japanese businessmen have almost no freedom to move to another company, even if they’re dissatisfied with conditions where they’re working. (Of course, they’re technically free to quit, but very few reputable big companies will hire someone who has left another big firm.) This may be frustrating for the businessmen, but so far it has been efficient for the companies. For instance, they can invest in employee training programs without fear that newly skilled workers will use their skills somewhere else. Singaporeans have been forced to put much of their income into a national retirement fund; Koreans have been discouraged from squandering their money overseas on tourism (until this year, only people planning business trips and those in a few other narrow categories were granted passports); Japanese consumers are forced to pay inflated prices for everything they buy. All these measures have been bad for individuals but efficient for the collective. In different ways they have transferred money from people to large institutions, which then invest it for future productivity. To illustrate the point the opposite way: Korea has in the past two years become a more successful democracy and a less successful export economy. Precisely because workers have been going on strike and consumers demanding a higher standard of living, Korean companies have temporarily lost their edge against competitors in Taiwan and Japan.

Yu-Shan Wu, of The Brookings Institution, has suggested a useful way to think about this combination of economic freedom and political control. In communist economies, he says, property is owned by the state, and investment decisions are made by the state. The result is a disaster. The style of capitalism practiced in the United States takes the opposite approach: private owners control most property, and private groups make most investment decisions. The result over the past century has been a big success, but now some inefficiencies are showing up. Japan, Wu says, has pioneered a new approach: private ownership of property, plus public guidance of investment decisions. The big industrial combines of Japan are as private and profit-oriented as those of the United States, and therefore at least as efficiency-minded (unlike state enterprises in Russia or China). But in Japan’s brand of capitalism some of the largest decisions are made by the state, not the “invisible hand.”This private-public approach, Wu concludes, reduces the freedom of people and single companies, but it has certain long-term advantages over the private-private system.

Last year two U.S. companies made supercomputers, the Cray corporation and a subsidiary of Control Data. This year only one does. Control Data abandoned the business, finding it unprofitable. The same circumstances have applied in Japan—difficult but important technology, lean or nonexistent profits for the foreseeable future—but the results have been different, because the state occasionally overrules the invisible hand. It is inconceivable that the Japanese government would have let one of only two participants abandon an area of obvious future technical importance. If Japan left decisions to the invisible hand, there would be no aircraft engineers at work in the country, because Mitsubishi and Kawasaki cannot hope to earn a profit competing against Boeing. But the big Japanese companies keep their aerospace-engineering departments active, in part because of government-directed incentives to do so. (These range from explicit subsidies, like the FSX fighter-plane contracts, to a system of industrial organization that makes it possible for companies to subsidize unprofitable divisions for years.) Eventually, Japanese planners believe, the aerospace expertise will pay off.

Americans should not be surprised by what the private-public system can accomplish. It’s essentially the way our economy worked during the Second World War. People were forced to save, through Liberty Bonds, and forced not to consume, through rationing. Big companies were privately owned and run, but overall goals were set by the state. Under this system the output of the U.S. economy rose faster than ever before or since. (Part of the reason for the rapid rise, of course, was that wartime production finally brought America out of the Great Depression.) For the United States this managed economy was a wartime exception. For the Japanese-style economic systems of Asia it has been the postwar rule. This is not to say that we need a wartime mentality again but, rather, to show that the connection between individual freedom and collective prosperity is more complicated than we usually think. We may not like the way the Japanese-style economic system operates, but we’d be foolish not to recognize that it does work, and in many ways works better than ours.

HERE’S AN EVEN harder truth to face: The most successful Asian economies employ a division of labor between men and women that we may find retrograde but that has big practical advantages for them. Despite some signs of change—for instance, the rising influence of Takako Doi at the head of the Socialist Party in Japan — the difference between a man’s role and a woman’s is much more cut and dried in Asia than in the United States. It is tempting to conclude that a time lag is all that separates Asian practices from American, and that Japanese and Korean women will soon be demanding the rights that American women have won during the past generation. But from everything I’ve seen, such an assumption is as naive as imagining that Japan is about to be swept by an American-style consumer-rights movement.

There is a lot to dislike in this strict assignment of sex roles, it’s unfair in an obvious way to women, because 99 percent of them can never really compete for business, political, academic, or other opportunities and success, I think it’s ultimately just as bad for men, because most of them are cut off from the very idea of dealing with women as equals, and have what we would consider emotionally barren family lives. The average Japanese salaryman takes more emotional satisfaction in his workplace life than the average American does, but less in his relations with wife and children. Nonetheless, this system has one tremendous practical advantage. By making it difficult for women to do anything except care for their families, the traditional Asian system concentrates a larger share of social energy on the preparation of the young.

The best-educated American children are a match for the best in Asia, but the average student in Japan, Korea, Singapore, or Taiwan does better in school than the average American. The fundamental reason. I think, is that average students in these countries come from families with two parents, one of whom concentrates most of her time and effort on helping her children through school. Limits on individual satisfaction undergird this educational achievement in two ways: the mother is discouraged from pursuing a career outside the house, and she and the father are discouraged from even thinking about divorce. The typical Asian marriage is not very romantic. In most countries arranged marriages are still common, and while extramarital affairs are at least as frequent as they are in the United States, they seem to cause less guilt. But because most husbands and wives expect less emotional fulfillment from marriage, very few marriages end in divorce. Individual satisfaction from marriage may be lower, but the society enjoys the advantages of having families that are intact.

The Asian approach to the division of labor is not one that Americans want to emulate, or can. Except in emergencies we have believed in satisfying individual desires rather than suppressing them. But, to come back to the central point, we shouldn’t fool ourselves about the sheer effectiveness of the system that the Asian societies have devised. Their approach to childrearing, as to economic development, is worse for many individuals but better for the collective welfare than ours seems to be. The Asian model is not going to collapse of its own weight, unlike the Soviet communist system. So the puzzle for us is to find ways to evoke similar behavior—moderation of individual greed, adequate attention to society’s long-term interests, commitment to raising children—within our own values of individualism and free choice.

I hope somebody has figured out the answer to this while I’ve been away.

—James Fallows