TOKYO — After all the shouting and name calling that occurred during the presidential campaign in the United States, I needed an antidote. So I decided to spend 10 days in one of the world’s most polite countries: Japan.
Tokyo, the capital, has 13 million inhabitants (or 38 million if you include the metro area), but there are moments when, if you close your eyes, you can picture an almost empty city. Among the Japanese, silence is a form of respect. In their perfectly synchronized subway, for instance, the cars, while usually crowded, are free from music and loud talk.
I spent my vacation in Tokyo without hearing cars honking. A Japanese guide’s explanation for this amazed me: “We always consider what other people may be feeling.” I can’t imagine taxi drivers and motorists in New York, Mexico City or Buenos Aires with that kind of attitude.
Perhaps it’s the food. In Japan, serving sizes are minimal, compared to our Western ones. The obesity epidemic that plagues us in Mexico and the United States is virtually nonexistent here. In this nation, the average diet is based on fish. And, if I may say so, the Japanese eat at a much slower, more natural pace than Westerners. Experts say that the brain needs time to realize that the stomach is full — and the Japanese take their time.
Greetings and farewells are long and elaborate, with bows at different angles and a host of expressions of gratitude. And no one would ever think of cutting in a line. Honor matters; rules are obeyed. Even in streets where car traffic was light, I saw crowds of pedestrians waiting at the curb for the “walk” sign.
In Kyoto, I saw a poster that listed rules for public behavior: Don’t eat while walking. No smoking. Don’t sit on the grass. No selfies. Don’t touch the geishas. No littering.
I had a hard time finding a trash bin in a mall. I see two possible explanations. First, security reasons: Without trash bins, it’s harder to hide bombs in public places. And second, the notion that your trash is yours and that it’s your responsibility to take it with you until you find the right place to dispose of it.
I was told that Japanese kids spend 15 to 20 minutes at the end of the day cleaning their classrooms and schools. The same practice extends to the rest of the society. I saw a city employee cleaning up a bubble gum stain on the street and a sushi chef washing his hands several times before slicing sashimi by the millimeter.
Coexistence seems to be based on order, tradition and cleanliness. Many Japanese homes have automatic toilets, as do restaurants and other businesses. Every time I stepped into a restroom, I was greeted by an enthusiastic toilet that raised its lid and offered me a menu of comfort options. This veritable throne for the modern age also has an explanation: In apartments, where the wood-and-paper “walls” don’t allow much privacy, the Japanese had to reinvent and make more pleasant that ephemeral moment alone.
Japan also has one of the lowest crime rates in the world. While dining in a restaurant, I was alarmed when I saw two women leaving their purses on their chairs while they went to the restroom. When they returned, their purses were still there, untouched. The idea of purse snatching clearly never crossed their minds.
Of course, no place is perfect, and Japan has its problems. The economy is stagnant, and there is a suicide crisis in the country. But for those who visit for a few days, it’s an oasis amid the excess and crassness of modern life in other countries.
Japan is 14 hours ahead of my time zone in Miami, and I spent a good portion of this trip like Bill Murray’s character in “Lost in Translation”: fighting jet lag, waking at the break of dawn and yawning in the daytime. But, above all, I marveled at the wonders that Japanese politeness evokes. Magic happens when things work and respect reigns.
After a long, grueling election, this was the antidote I needed. We’ll see how long the bliss lasts.
(Jorge Ramos, an Emmy Award-winning journalist, is a news anchor on Univision and the host of “America With Jorge Ramos” on Fusion. Originally from Mexico and now based in Florida, Ramos is the author of several best-selling books. His latest is “Take a Stand: Lessons From Rebels.” Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.)