What Arabs Could Learn From Japan

In Japan, where the sun eternally shines first on a lively and energetic people, who faced nuclear bombs, experienced the humiliation of American occupation and the ugliest forms of destruction, but who rose up to the challenge with the determination to build and the will to excel and lay the foundations of an effective state with robust institutions.  In half a century of hard times, Japan has become a model to be emulated and a beacon for the rise of nations from under the rubble to salvation from American hegemony.

As soon as you arrive in this unique country, you realize that here is a different culture you have not experienced anywhere else in the world.  The Japanese greet you with repeated bows to show their respect for your humanity, not your position.  Coming from the Arab world, one is surprised to find that time is measured in minutes not days, months and years.  My escort from the foreign ministry bows and asks permission to explain where we are going and the plan for the next few hours.  She tells me that we need 13 minutes to reach our meeting place, which means we have two minutes to visit the nearby temple where young people start their day praying for God to guide their steps in their new job.  Arriving at the meeting place, you find someone waiting for you to give you visitors’ cards and accompany you to another place without saying a word.  You enter the meeting room to find chairs for the official receiving you and his assistants surrounded by two rows of chairs for young men and women whose number exceeds the number of the officials taking part in the meeting.

You watch the young people sitting quietly, fully absorbed in writing down, while the discussion goes on between you, the guest, and your hosts.  You look at the Japanese official and see him holding a few pieces of paper with Japanese writing on them, which he turns with his fingers every now and then, and notice that your photo is printed on them.  So, it is your resume, distributed to all those you are scheduled to meet.  Looking at these young men and women, I thought how far we are in the Arab world from educating and training our young staff in the workplace, and how right the Japanese are in designing their offices and work places to have a prominent and permanent place for these young people so that they learn from the experience of their elders.

No one asks you whether you want to drink tea or coffee.  You are always offered Japanese green tea in beautiful, colorful Japanese cups.  You wonder why do not we have a national drink, while our land produces plenty of thyme, malliseh, aniseed, zoofa and many other aromatic herbs, flowers and medicinal plants instead of tea and coffee which we do not produce.

Spiritual life in Japan is still as it was hundreds of years ago.  People still go to their temples, have sanctities which they revere and their ritual sacrifices which they believe have an effect on their daily life despite the violent American cultural invasion which aimed at destroying the Japanese spirit.

One of the most interesting aspects of Japanese civilization is that it made a shift from an oral phase, which, unfortunately, is still dominant in the Arab world, to a written phase which leaves no possibility for distraction, interpretation or misunderstanding.  As soon as you arrive in Japan, you receive texts in English which explain your itinerary in detail; something we fail to do and thus we create confusion under pretexts that such and such an issue cannot be mentioned because of its material nature and another issue cannot be mentioned because it is insignificant or inappropriate.  The result in our Arab world is that calls are made and explanations are sought from different sources to illuminate an ambiguity here and there.

There is a tremendous effort in Japan to protect heritage and combine it with what is modern and useful to the new generations, without ignoring or replacing it.  When we arrived in Toba, on our way to Kyoto, I remembered my visits to my home village and the joy I used to feel going to bed with my children and parents the Arab way.  Here in Toba, they asked me whether I wanted to sleep the Japanese way.  When I said yes, they put a beautiful mattress on the wooden floor.  When we went to dinner, we were asked to take off our shoes at the door of the dining room and were seated at a dinner table about thirty centimeters high.

Some officials, members of parliament or government explained their reluctance to travel outside Japan because of their huge workload and also because of recurrent changes in Japanese government.  But still you feel that state institutions function just like clockwork without being affected by who is in government.  What is remarkable also is that officials meet you without cameras or media, with the exception of the foreign minister; and that is because this is part of their job and in furtherance of the institution, not in order to satisfy the officials’ desire to see their photographs in the media or create a spectacle to convince others that they are doing what they should be doing.

Absolute accuracy is a life style in Japan.  So is working silently, modestly and competently not only in political circles, but in the dynamics of every sector your luck brings you in contact with.  They do not talk much; and do not say yes unless they are one hundred per cent sure they are capable of fulfilling what they have promised.  The culture of blabbering, ornamental language and empty promises is non-existent.  Coming in touch, for a short while, with this administrative, moral, social and political system, you acutely feel what is lacking in the Arab world and realize the amount of neglect befalling our culture, heritage, history, our children’s education and the future of our countries.

BOUTHAINA SHAABAN is Political and Media Advisor at the Syrian Presidency, and former Minister of Expatriates. She is also a writer and professor at Damascus University since 1985. She has been the spokesperson for Syria and was nominated for Nobel Peace Prize in 2005. She can be reached through nizar_kabibo@yahoo.com



Bouthaina Shaaban is Political and Media Advisor at the Syrian Presidency, and former Minister of Expatriates. She is also a writer and professor at Damascus University since 1985. She has been the spokesperson for Syria and was nominated for Nobel Peace Prize in 2005. She can be reached through nizar_kabibo@yahoo.com