The ‘software’ gap between China and Japan
Published: May 16, 2018 05:13 PM
With millions of Chinese visiting Japan every year, it is not hard to fathom in what way China lags its neighbor.

The spending power of Chinese tourists might be the most significant phenomenon in recent years. You can see it, and need not check economic data. Just look at the bags of Chinese tourists bulging with made-in-Japan goods. Such purchasing power was unthinkable 10 years ago.

It is directly linked to China's rapid economic growth and per capita GDP. In 2010, China surpassed Japan to become the world's second largest economy.

Most Chinese tourists buy a mélange of small home appliances, cosmetics, health products, daily necessities and food with local flavor, etc. Some of these products are assembled or even partly produced in China, but are superior to those made-in-China, with a higher price tag. Useful, exquisite, and meticulous are the three words Chinese holidaymakers use for made-in-Japan products.

When it comes to toilets, traffic, and the environment, one gets the following impression.

There are not so many tall buildings in Japan, particularly in small and medium-sized cities. Some of the streets look not-so-modern with traditional small shops on both sides, but are clean. Even in the business district, the air is fresh and the traffic orderly.

In the center of Sapporo, I saw a lot of Chinese tourists stopping to take pictures of pedestrians crossing the street at the junction. Vehicles in all directions stopped for several minutes to let pedestrians cross over. That's a real "pedestrian first" - as Chinese tourists would have heard it in their hometowns.

These are the first impressions of Chinese tourists, and they are not so deep. As long as you could think about a few more "whys," you might find the "software" differences between China and Japan. For example, why are hotel rooms cleaner, compared to China?

For understanding Japan, we cannot always put GDP first, nor can we always look at the gap between innovation and technology. What is more important is the attitude Japanese have toward work, life, and the environment.

Chinese tourists buy a lot of toilet seats from Japan. They would find that the technological gap that differentiates the products is insignificant. It is the workers who produce made-in-China goods who need to be more dedicated to their work.

The main reason is that our manufacturers lack the spirit - "no matter what, our products must be the best." 

Going back to the cleanliness of the hotel room, we might ask the question in another way: why are Japanese hotel cleaners so dedicated? I am sure the answer does not have to do with higher wages.

Toilet hygiene and environmental protection also reflect the philosophy of life, in addition to advancement of technology and facilities.

Several months ago, I saw the public toilets in Linfen, Shanxi Province, which have received international awards. They appear impeccably clean. However, this does not mean users' habits will be as good.

During my recent trip, I met a Japanese woman. She told me she visited China several years ago, and loved the beautiful landscape but complained about the toilets. What put her off were not the facilities, but the people who used them. "They do not flush!" she complained. 

Nowadays, Japan's waste classification is not something that the Chinese find unique. But when I find the classification has reached a complicated level of 20-40 species, I wonder how many Chinese families could bear such tedious housekeeping job every day. Without ordinary people changing their behavior and habits, there would be no sustainable environmental protection, even if you put a lot of trash cans in different colors on the streets.

The gap between the two countries can be measured in terms of hard indicators such as GDP, and can also be assessed through attitudes to work, life, and the environment. Although the latter are difficult to measure accurately, they deserve attention.

The author is a senior editor with People's Daily, and currently a senior fellow with the Chongyang Institute for Financial Studies at Renmin University of China. dinggang@globaltimes.com.cn Follow him on Twitter at @dinggangchina