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ANALYSIS: Inspired by Japan

Mwenda in traditional Japanese attire

Where people, values, mentalities and habits create pure harmony

THE INDEPENDENT | ANDREW M. MWENDA | In February and March of this year, I visited Japan and travelled extensively across that country’s major cities – from Tokyo to Kyoto and Hiroshima to Osaka, the commercial capital of Japan. I was intrigued and impressed by the orderliness and cleanliness of the country. Many people argue that Kampala is dirty and disorganised because it is large; with many people (1.5 million) living in it. Osaka is a city of 19 million people (counting its entire urban area) while Tokyo is 14 million people. The streets of these cities remain spotless clean.

The difference between Kampala and Tokyo is in each city’s sense of community and the attitude of the public towards their cities. My friend Timothy Kalyegira would argue that Japanese are more dedicated to their work than Ugandans. Therefore, city authorities and ordinary city workers in Japan work harder at ensuring clean cities than their counterparts in Kampala who are lazy and uncommitted.

Yet every morning when I am walking or jogging on Kampala streets, as early as 5am, I get intrigued by the punctuality and dedication of the men and women who clean our city’s streets. I wonder what motivates these ordinary folks and their supervisors to wake up this early to work in horrible conditions – dust, traffic, dirt etc. This is the more intriguing because their effort is never recognised. Instead it is abused by us the residents of the city at every twist and turn when we continue to throw more garbage on the streets.

My many and long walks on Kampala streets have taught me that the difference is not in effort of the workers in Japan’s cities as opposed to the ones in Kampala. Rather it is in the attitude of the general population in our two countries. People in Uganda throw garbage wherever they please because they do not value cleanliness in their city. And this could be because there is little sense of community in Kampala. This undermines the efforts of hardworking city workers.

Ugandans, especially those frustrated with President Yoweri Museveni, would like to claim that the city is dirty because of bad leadership. But what is the contribution of each one of us to ensuring cleanliness? A country that needs leaders to instruct people on how to behave for it to achieve its goals is doomed. Leaders’ instructions are only effective when they are in sync with the values, habits and mentalities of their people. Short of this, the cost of enforcing rules would be excessively severe and exceed the benefits sought.

The Japanese are exceptionally efficient and dedicated. This is a shared value and mentality. They respect authority and obey superiors, something I see in Rwanda. People keep time and race to achieve their goals as if inspired by the gods. Take the example of my chauffeurs in the different cities I visited. These people were working for a private company that the Japanese ministry of foreign affairs (my hosts) had hired. I do not know whether it is their culture or their training. However, each time the car stopped, the driver would race at breakneck speed from his seat in the front of the car to the opposite rear door where I sat to open for me.

I have never had the privilege of having my car door opened for me. In any case I always drive myself. But I also find it is unnecessary to have someone open the door of the car for me, even when I am chauffeur driven. So in Japan, I tried consistently to open my own door to discourage my chauffeurs from doing it. But each time the driver would increase his running speed in order to reach the door before I could touch it. I found it strange and while still in Tokyo, asked him not to. He said it is his work.

I had an escort, also working for a private company, which had been hired by the ministry of foreign affairs of Japan, to take me wherever I had official engagements or private meetings. She was, like all Japanese, punctual and polite to a fault. She was surprised I always kept time and told me a story of a Ugandan lady she once escorted. The lady never kept time even once. This Ugandan (she did not name her) would come 20 or even 30 minutes late, yet seemed not to recognise she had done anything wrong.

I spent nine days with this lady, driving in the same car, having meals together, visiting museums, factories, theatres, libraries, site seeing around the different cities etc. She was very kind and patient with me, and friendly – a great host so to speak. Finally when I had to say bye to her, I behaved like a good American (or human being) would do. I went to a shop and bought her a gift. In America, tipping someone for a good service is basic courtesy; in fact it is impolite not to do so. But my Japanese escort was horrified (and I mean horrified) by this gesture and turned it down.

She told me I did not need to give her anything because this was her job. Then a battle ensued where I insisted that in my culture this is a courtesy I had to do while she insisted I didn’t have to do it. After a few minutes of back and forth, she realised I was determined to have her accept the gift and she relented. She opened the gift and expressed such appreciation beyond whatever value was in the gift. I promised to return to visit Japan later this year in July and that I would look for her so that we can meet again.

3 comments

  1. Anania la'propeta

    Change of mentality is as difficult as change of culture and requires relentless pursuance to realise expected change. It starts with values attached by an individual to the change needed and this determines how long it’s realised. For our country shouldn’t be attached to His excellency, the president of the Republic of Uganda but mentality, values…of individuals.

  2. What a “Japanese escort?” But I don’t think she would give you more than what “badblack” would put on offer.

  3. ejakait engoraton

    “I spent nine days with this lady, driving in the same car, having meals together, visiting museums, factories, theatres, libraries, site seeing around the different cities etc. She was very kind and patient with me, and friendly – a great host so to speak. Finally when I had to say bye to her, I behaved like a good American (or human being) would do. I went to a shop and bought her a gift. In America, tipping someone for a good service is basic courtesy; in fact it is impolite not to do so. But my Japanese escort was horrified (and I mean horrified) by this gesture and turned it down.”

    THIS exposes your intellectual, and maybe diplomacy level.
    This is the reason , in the good old days, those who were being sent to foreign missions would be sent for training , in seemingly such simple things as table manners.

    Every society has its culture and expected behaviour and manners, and what may be ok in one society may not be in another sometimes to a point of being outright rude.

    SO, having been a guest of such a country, rather than you visiting on your own or as a tourist, etiquette and common sense ( something you have severally emphasized that can be very rare most times) would have dictated that you take time to learn some of these things and with the modern WWW all you would have to do is to search “what to do and not to do while in JAPAN”

    Believe me, the next time, the lady will use your story of buying her a present and forcing it upon her.She was just being polite by accepting it, and if you do not know etiquette , it is a telling sign when someone opens a present in front of you, the reason you wrap it in the first place, unless you insist on them opening it in your presence.

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