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Letter To The Editor: January 1997

Author: Lars Hylander, Issue: January 1997, Topic: Letters to or from the editor

Shoot like in "Westerns" or Confer like in the East?

Many thanks for the interesting article about how far it is from West to East (Nov. 1996 A.T.), at least if you go in the wrong direction like Columbus did! I would like to add another difference between Japan and the U.S., namely criminality. I'm not talking about politicians or other big wigs, who quite often act criminally in both countries. What I'm referring to are the "ordinary" street robbers, pickpockets and those who break into homes, a phenomenon which in America is often fuelled by narcotics addiction. The rate of this kind of crime appears to be far lower in Japan. Since I've been robbed several times in America, I really appreciate the relative safety in Japan. Likewise, it allows people to be more friendly and makes life much more enjoyable.

I don't understand why there is such a big difference in every-day criminality, but I think the phenomenon your article mentioned concerning the difference between an outward-oriented and inward-oriented people plays a major role. For instance, graffiti and senseless damage to such things as telephone booths and vending machines is much more likely to occur when the underlying attitude is "shoot first and ask later" than if the attitude of "a consensus should first be reached" prevails.

While I'm at it, I would like to make some observations concerning language, which relates to much of what your article says. Even closely related languages such as English and French may use expressions with the opposite word order. The "United States" in the French language comes out "States United" (Etats Unis). Likewise, in the former British protectorate of Palestine, both Arabic and Hebrew are used in addition to English. Since both Arabic and Hebrew are read from the right to the left, this results in bilingual street signs having English names meeting their Eastern equivalents in the middle of the sign. Perhaps this is why this area is called the "Middle East"!

Since language is my passion (or at least it was until I tried to learn some Japanese!), I'd like to mention that some other Western languages are in some aspects closer to Japanese than to English. For instance, in German, you generally put verbs at the end of a sentence, just like in Japanese. Hence, a joke among German students is that you can skip the first part of a lecture as long as you are present at the end, since that's when the verbs come. Also, the Portuguese and Spanish omit the subject of a sentence perhaps even more regularly than the Japanese. However, the endings on verbs in the Roman languages do fairly well indicate who is being referred to, something that is not in the Japanese.Finally, a contribution from my own mother tongue, Swedish. The word "ombudsman" is already an internationally used word (including Japanese) referring to a citizen's forum to investigate and expose injustice or corruption by a country's public officials. Examples include injustices experienced by consumers, children and women, particularly as regards differential treatment of men and women.

With respect to the problem of crime, I think that the relatively good atmosphere that Japanese kids grow up in prevents more of them from entering into a criminal life style. Many kids in America as well as my native Sweden are nowadays growing up in broken homes, and this undoubtedly will take its toll in the future. On the other hand, when it comes to the "equal opportunities ombudsmen" of the feminist movement in Sweden, I doubt they would know where to begin if they were transformed into Japanese!

One last observation and suggestion. I would like to introduce a new Swedish word to the international vocabulary. The word "lagom" roughly means "not too much and not too little" (and features prominently in the Swedish translation of "Goldilocks and the Three Bears"!). I think another reason for the low crime rate in Japan is that most Japanese have a "lagom" of money. The huge difference between the rich and the poor, existent in most countries in the Americas (except Cuba), doesn't exist to nearly the same extent in Japan. Hence, the Japanese can spend their working time on more productive and even fun occupations than guarding their property from being stolen.

(Editor's Note: Thanks Lars for your contribution. Someone also pointed out another interesting "arbitrary opposite" between the U.S. and Japan, which I would like to add to the ad hoc list in the November article. In the U.S., when you need to summon an ambulance or fire engine, you dial "911". Isn't it interesting that for this same purpose the Japanese chose "119"?)

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