A few days ago I wrote a post in which I commented that we had taken out my kids from Spanish schools in Spain because the Spaniards are unnecessarily tough on children. As an example I mentioned that in many Spanish cools kids don´t have a choice of food and they are forced to eat whatever food there is. I also commented that the “colleja” an unusual Spanish spanking that involves hitting a kid on the back of his head is still considered acceptable by most Spanish parents as a way to “teach kids a lesson”. But at the same time in my post I recognized that Spaniards, as adults are by far the most organized and ethical people in the Latin world. This includes not only all Latam but also Portugal, Italy and France. I am not saying that Spaniards are a global model but they are more likely to treat you well, less likely to rip you off, than other Latins. They may not be the brightest, something that I attribute to an education that focuses more on memorization than on reasoning, but they are the best behaved and ethical. So the question here is: does being tough with kids pays off in terms of ending up with better behaved adults? My hope is that the answer is no because I don´t endorse some of the practices of the Spaniards vis a vis children. I would like to believe that a system like the American, that relies more in self discipline and rewards, is better.

Now enter Japan in this equation. I include Japan for a personal reason, this is where I landed a few hours ago and where I frequently come for work. And Japan is the most educated society in the world. People here are incredibly polite, incredibly efficient, incredibly professional, almost devoted to doing the right thing. So the question is: How do the Japanese do it? Or in other words, how do they turn their children into adults who are patient, polite, hard working, honest, highly ethical and even quite creative. Are they tough on their kids? Are they extremely demanding? Do they use physical punishment? Do they force kids to eat the food they don´t like as the Spaniards do? If European education is more about treating kids as little grown ups gone astray and American education more about self discipline and rewards, where do the Japanese stand?

Frankly I don´t know the answers but here at the Ritz Carlton, as we have breakfast with Nina, I have been observing young children and they seem to be as well educated as their parents…already. So whatever they do must this great education must start at a very young age.

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Joi Ito on August 24, 2009  · 

This is an interesting but a very complicated question. There are lots of smaller trends, like Japanese education having deteriorated recently because of some government policies and the aging of the population taking its toll, but speaking more generally…

I think one think you can say about Japan is that there is a general pride in one’s work and an understanding that “success” is measured rather locally. I think part of this comes from a history of social classes where samurai, traders, farmers were supposed to focus on their class and there wasn’t much mobility between classes. This may seem “unfair” but it allowed each class to develop a kind of local measurement of success and people didn’t all strive to become the richest person in Japan or the emperor of Japan. There was no “rags to riches dream” so conversely, there was less disappointment about not becoming president.

I also think that the polytheist religion – Shinto, might have something to do with this. This is just speculation, but Shinto is an animistic practice that involves a lot of ritual and the worship of very local gods and superstition that focus really on local rituals which sort of tie into politeness.

Also, “money” has always been a bit “dirty” in much of Japanese culture – my mother who was brought up in a fairly upper-class environment wasn’t allowed to touch money until she was 18. The focus of a lot of Japan is on other metrics and there is a kind of obsession whether you are talking about otaku, hotel staff or car parts engineers who focus on a kind of perfection way beyond any economically reasonable level. It’s a kind of obsession that exceeds efficiency or economics. This sort of attitude that “it’s not for the money” is what makes Japan rather inefficient as an economy but also creates a culture of hard work without tangible rewards.

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Pierre on August 24, 2009  · 

Hi Martin
I was educated the same way in France, at Lycée Hoche de Versailles, 50 years ago.
Times are changing, education too …

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Philippe on August 24, 2009  · 

I think a major factor in children behavior is imitation: children mimic their parents. But when did parents behavior started to be as it is? I think that it’s a result of historical factors. For example, I think Americans are like that because they are a new country that comes mostly from immigrants who needed to organize themselves quickly and efficiently. Joi Ito has also explained some factoirs of Japanese behavior.

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Mike Butcher on August 24, 2009  · 

Er, does anyone care to mention the realitively high suicide rate amongst men? Or the bizarre attitude of Japanese towards child sexuality (Peadophilia was not formally outlawed in Japan until the 1970s) as evidenced by the obsession with “cuteness”.

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Martin Varsavsky on August 24, 2009  · 

My post does not say that the Japanese are flawless. It says that on the average they are extremely well educated and I wonder why. If you come to Japan Mike you will see what I mean. But if I had to criticize something it would be women´s opportunity in top management. I still have to go to a high business meeting in which women do something other than serve drinks.

Mike Butcher on August 24, 2009  · 

I’ve been to Japan and I’d concur. I guess their education system is mainly based around rote learning. I also agree – the really smart ones are the women – but they never make it into management. So much for the educated society. Give me the decadent West any day!

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marco montes neri on August 24, 2009  · 

Japanese culture is not perfect but in many aspects they are really succesful because of the fact that they have created “release valves” one exapmple being the fantastic manga world. where they identify themselves with the characters and experience violence, erotism and love instead of frustration like many western societies. we are more responsable of how do we behave than we were aware of.

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Alainkun on August 26, 2009  · 

One of the big points here is “do what you see”. Japanese adults are very polite so the childs grown being polite also. Also Japanese parents spend a lot of time with their childs so they are teaching them the whole time.

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Nick P on August 31, 2009  · 

Being a flight attendant, I have flown to Japan many times, and I have had the time to ponder on some of the same issues Martin expresses here. From my observations, I can say that the sense of being a part of a “collective” has a lot to do with their politeness and high level of education and efficiency. Japanese believe that they are a part of a whole, and that whole (society in general) is just as or more important than themselves as individuals. They have a role to play in society; they feel obligated to this role. This can be cleaning the streets, driving a bus, or managing a company; these are all respected roles because they are all important. Just as important is to obtain the knowledge require to fulfill those rolls in their society. Remember WWII? Japanese were willing to coldly crash the planes they were flying against a target, killing themselves… They will do anything necessary for the good of their country and their people, and the improvement of both. It is their duty, and this has been embedded into their mind and soul since birth.

Regarding children, all I can say is that their kids work very, very hard in school. They have little time off or vacations, and they spend most of the day in school. Their duty as kids is to learn, and they devote themselves fully to it. Later on in life, they will do the same with work.

One of the reasons, I suppose, of why society as a whole is important to them is the fact that this is a very large population living in a small land; such qualities are necessary for their survival. Do not believe for one second that Japanese will always apply the same standards to a land or people who are not of their own. Some do, but in general they care for their own. This is a reason why it is very, very hard to be accepted into their society, no matter how well you have assimilated to it.

I will never forget the man that got off the subway in Tokyo, walked me over to the other side of the tracks, then returned to take the next train where I was originally, all this just because he knew I was on the train going the wrong way. He could have simply pointed to me the opposite direction and let me get off to find the correct train, but he didn’t. He went the extra mile for a stranger like me.

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