Japan’s neon-lit capital is the most populous city in the world (almost 38 million people call it home), yet it doesn’t share the same problems found in other major metropolises. Repeatedly named the safest city on the planet, Tokyo’s immaculate streets are virtually crimeless. It’s also a veritable mecca of civility. Passersby, cognizant of the crowds around them, are careful not to bump or cut off fellow pedestrians. To see some Westerners—those with little knowledge of Japanese social mores—brutishly navigate the streets helps to partially explain the country’s xenophobic and nationalistic tendencies.
Polite or not, the sheer number of people in areas like Shinjuku or Shibuya is still suffocating at times. But it’s surprisingly easy to escape the melee via the city’s quiet side streets, many dotted with cherry blossoms, bonsai trees, and stone temples.
A couple years ago, I wrote about my first impressions of a very different part of Asia home to the second most populous city in the world: Delhi, India. My time there offered a window into the future, how overpopulation has exacerbated the country’s crime, pollution, poverty, and a sweeping sense of hopelessness.
After my third trip to Japan, I can say that it, too, offers a potential—and contrasting—glimpse into the future, a way to live together as populations rise. It’s a view that’s rooted in collectivism. You see, in Japan, people mold their behavior according to how it affects others.
One memory from a previous trip to Japan is emblematic of the country’s collective consciousness. I was frantically running through Tokyo Station, Japan’s most frenzied and largest ground transit hub, when a handful of coins bounced out of my pocket and flew through the air. Everyone in the vicinity stopped; time froze. Reacting in unison, each person kneeled down, collected the coins off the ground and delivered them to me. For the Japanese,—even in a bustling train station—to stop and help was simply intrinsic.
This indelible experience gave me pause when I returned to the states. Living in a fiercely individualistic society like the U.S., I wondered how many people would stop to help me gather my change at, say, Grand Central Station or LAX.
Moments like these have compelled me to pack up the kindness I experienced there and take it with me wherever I go.
OK, now for more Tokyo.
Stay tuned for more Japan tales. Up next, the post-war vibes of Shinjuku’s “Piss Alley.”