There’s a phrase that Japanese people say to each other after working or hanging out together: otsukaresama. It has no equivalent in English but it’s an acknowledgement of the time and effort – or sweat and tears – that everyone has put in. If only Japan could export the custom.
Exports are a big deal for the world’s third-largest economy. Every year the country’s businesses fill cargo ships and aircraft with €650bn worth of cars, robots, electronics and food destined for the far corners of the globe. But there’s a lot more that Japan can offer to the rest of the world: technologies, policies and practices that have the potential to change other societies for the better.
The 10 ideas we’ve chosen have had a real impact on health and happiness in Japan – and shouldn’t be a hard sell elsewhere. They reduce everyday stress and encourage people to contribute to the greater good. Japan is known for its technological advances but many of these ideas are timeless and can be applied to any country, no matter how advanced it is.
From morning rituals and small giveaways – a hot towel or a how-to guide – to the sweeping regulatory reforms that have made the air in one of the world’s largest cities more breathable, this list of reminders, lessons and – occasionally – oddball ideas is something of a call to arms. Policy-makers, entrepreneurs, educators and anyone who has ever wondered how a poorly resourced country such as Japan has managed to beat the odds when it comes to improving the quality of life of its citizens should take note.
It’s an opportunity to consider another side to Japan’s soft-power potential.
1. ‘Rajio Taiso’
In parks, offices and even on construction sites across Japan, the day starts with a few minutes of calisthenics performed to pre-recorded piano music. The simple twists, back bends and jumping jacks of rajio taiso (radio exercises) have been part of a daily regimen for millions of Japanese for more than 90 years. It can be done anywhere at any time by anyone, from children in school to pensioners at home.
Public broadcaster nhk airs the routine daily to a strong grassroots following. All it would take to transfer the idea to other countries is teachers, recorded music and public space.
2. Bath culture
You’ve had a long day at work and want to run the bath. In Japan all it takes is a push of a button: the tub fills to your desired temperature and level and a jingle plays to let you know when the bath is ready.
Automatic-bathtub systems were first developed in the early 1980s and have become increasingly sophisticated since then. It’s what you would expect from a culture whose tourism industry is built on a long-held belief in the restorative powers of a good soak. There are hurdles to selling expensive bathroom gadgetry in other countries – but think about the gains in wellbeing.
3. Railway-station jingles
Eki-merodiie (station melodies) are a part of the soundscape along Tokyo’s Yamanote Line. Broadcast over loudspeakers at station platforms, these short electronic jingles signal to commuters that a train is about to leave. The tunes, which vary from station to station, might be from movies – The Third Man or the Atom Boy anime – or popular songs; sometimes they’re originals.
Mass-transit operators in big cities should listen up: replacing the standard buzzers and horns with a soundtrack of songs lasting a few seconds could help to make rush hour a little more bearable for commuters.
4. Community volunteering
The pavements around Tokyo are free of rubbish and the flowerbeds abloom – and for that the city’s residents have community volunteers to thank.
Armed with brooms and dustpans, employees from banks and hairdressers sweep up before business hours and on weekends, while green-fingered residents pull weeds and replant seasonal flowers in teams. These small acts don’t require much time. That makes them perfect for shopkeepers and busy restaurateurs anywhere who want to reach out to the community and teach their employees the value of a tidy workspace.
5. School lunch
There’s a reason why Japan hasn’t had an obesity crisis (as other countries have): school meals. Children eat nutritional school lunches that are low on fried food and sugary desserts, and packed with healthy staples: rice, fish and miso soup. Pupils are also expected to take turns to serve and tidy up. The teaching of good eating habits could help to battle obesity.
6. Greening cities
High above street level, a green revolution is under way across Japan. Developers, schools, city halls and citizens are turning barren rooftops into gardens and vegetable patches, and adding built-in planters to exterior walls. Authorities have made subsidies available for greenery on buildings; other cities hoping to counter climate change should do the same.
7. Disaster preparation
Disasters are never far from Japanese minds. The Tokyo Metropolitan Government has helped its citizens to plan for the worst using a well-designed guidebook called Tokyo Bousai: Let’s Get Prepared!
The bright-yellow 300-page tome is packed with maps and useful tips for every household in the event of earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, military attacks and outbreaks of infectious disease. Though the subject matter is heavy, the book features manga and a mascot: Bousai-kun, a three-year-old rhino. Good design, illustrations and whimsy make official pamphlets easier to digest.
When you’re rushing around in busy cities, getting a little dirty is inevitable. Wiping your hands with an oshibori (a small, damp towel) is a standard pre-meal ritual at restaurants in Japan. Cool in summer and steaming hot the rest of the year, oshibori are a refreshing way of getting rid of the city grime. They’re usually delivered on a lacquered tray and are also common in other settings, such as hair salons and in First Class carriages on high-speed trains.
This gesture of hospitality could be replicated in other locales looking to improve and grow their service industry – and even boost tourism.
9. Senior-driver decal
Japan’s elderly drivers are easy to spot: just look for the multicoloured four-leafed clover magnet on the back of the vehicle. This optional symbol for those over 70 (a fifth of Japan’s population) instructs other motorists to drive carefully – and there are penalties for failing to do so. Anyone who veers in front of, or crowds, a car with the clover mark can be fined up to ¥50,000 (€400).
Japan’s seniors also benefit from free tickets for public bathhouses and free rides on public transport. Policy-makers struggling to cope with ageing populations might take some pointers from Japan.
10. Diesel restrictions
In the late 1990s, Tokyo’s then governor Shintaro Ishihara spearheaded a campaign to clean up the city’s air by vilifying diesel lorries. Particulate matter and nitrogen oxides – spewed from exhausts and blamed for health problems – were the enemy. By 2000, Tokyo had passed Japan’s first-ever ordinance to crack down on diesel vehicles, partnering with neighbouring prefectures and prodding the petrol industry to switch to cleaner fuels.
City leaders in Athens, Madrid, Mexico City and Paris and elsewhere are following suit, aiming to ban diesel vehicles by 2025.