About Us

Contact Us



Hacktreks Travel

Hacktreks 2

First Chapters

Confucius Lives Next Door: What Living in the East Teaches Us About Living in the West
Dean H. Ruetzler

(Note - Long Read)
I first became aware of T.R. Reid while I was a Japanese Exchange and Teaching (JET) program participant in Morioka, Iwate Prefecture. I picked up a copy of his book "Ski Japan" and found it to be a very helpful and accurate guide to skiing in Japan. In fact, that book, and the website "Ski Japan Guide" ( are THE English language authorities on skiing in Japan. It was from that knowledge, that the book "Confucius Lives Next Door: What Living in the East Teaches Us About Living in the West", garnered a second look while I was browsing in a Barnes and Noble store back in my native United States. Being familiar with his intelligent, concise, no-nonsense, to-the-point writing style, that still remains quite creative, descriptive, entertaining, and observant, I quickly purchased the book.

T. R. Reid is a journalist who is currently the Washington Post`s London Bureau chief. He also is a regular contributor to National Public Radio, and has contributed to National Geographic magazine. Fluent in Japanese, he has also served as the Post`s Tokyo Bureau chief. While he served in that job, he and his family lived in a Tokyo suburb for several years, and his observations from that time contribute to a unique cultural and societal observation piece comparing East and West.

His major point is trying to show how Confucian values have permeated across Asia, and contribute to what are arguably the world’s safest, and most rapidly developing societies. He is definitely of the viewpoint that the 21st century will develop into the "Asian Century". This was a view that many pundits were pushing a decade ago, but given the Japanese decade-long economic malaise, and the economic crisis of 1997, it is not a popular view among those who analyze Asia lately, with the exception of China-watchers, who predict anything from armed conflict with the West in a power struggle, to the total disintegration of China as the political and social unit it exists as today.
He sees the coming Asian century, and feels that in certain areas the West will have a lot to learn from the East. He writes analytically about the high rate of educational success that modern-day Asia has in comparison to the West. He also skillfully analyses the extremely low crime rates of Asian countries, and again shows that the safety of Asian societies in comparison to the West, particularly my home country (the United States), is quite noticeable.

Reid goes much further than simple analysis of statistics and trends, and that is the best part of the book. It is why I devoured the book in a few evenings worth of reading, and how it left a noticeable mark on a current resident of Japan. He is a skilled journalist, and that coupled with his experience of living in Japan for years (where he bases his analysis of Asia from) provide the reader with a book that has a unique feel, and in these days of pundits softening their push for the "Coming Century of the Asian Tiger (Dragon, Samurai, etc)", a unique view point.

The book is all at once an entertaining anecdotal social commentary, a skilled analysis of
Socio-Economic trends in Asia and the West, and a Historical/Philosophical/Religious primer for the Westerner (like me, still woefully lacking in the knowledge of such things, despite living for more than three years in Asia. Apologies to those Westerners who are not ignorant of the subject) on Confucius, his disciple Menicus, and how their teachings play a role in today’s "Asian Way". Reid even adopts the Japanese tradition of an "atogaki", a chapter at the end of the book where he plays his own "devils advocate", and analyzes his own postulates with a critical eye. All in all, he produces a work that is entertaining enough to read easily and retain much, but also informative and researched well enough to give some credence to his ideas, and not just write them off as subjective interpretation.
All too often, when one tries to write or analyze this East vs. West paradigm, the writer gets stuck in the mode of trying to "justify" one side or the other, and if it is written from a Pro-"My Side" viewpoint, it just will not be give much consideration in the opposing culture, regardless of intention. Karel Van Woolferen`s "The Enigma of Japanese Power" a brilliant dissection of the Japanese "system", is standard fare in Western university studies of Japan and Asia nowadays, but marked him among the worst of "Japan-bashers", and has left him "persona non grata" in any Japanese place of importance. Conversely Shintaro Ishihara`s "The Japan That CAN Say No", sold well in the United States, but mostly because of the furor and uproar that the book caused, which obscured the fact that the book did have some legitimate points, and also had few good criticisms of the Japanese system. Not that I enjoy Ishihara`s race-baiting politics, but his book did have some legitimate ideas worthy of being heard. In America, it was basically written of as "economically successful Japanese hubris", and even though it sold well, the ideas Ishihara wrote of were secondary to Ishihara the author. It probably did not sink in well to most westerners who read it, who were preparing their intellectual "lines of defense" against his postulates long before reading it.

Reid succeeds along these lines. He has written a book generally favorable in its analysis of the "Asian Way", but is also fair. As it is written from a Western viewpoint, he relates his experiences and opinions in a way that I can understand, and also be entertained by. Most importantly he has given me food for thought. Is that not what a good journalist is? Someone who is not struggling in attempting to convince me? Conversely, just smoothly trying to give me another opinion, another viewpoint to consider before making my conclusion. Reid executed this flawlessly. I would like to think I have an open mind to my experiences in Asia, but that is no guarantee. I was totally absorbed in the book before I considered using a "line of defense" in reading the book. When those "defense lines" of my Western cultural conditioning did start creeping in, Reid mollified them by pointing out the flaws in the "Asian System", and essentially concluded that Western values are much the same, that it is just an "individual vs. society as a whole" and the sacrifices made to it in the respective societies that are the difference.

Reid seems to breathe new life into an old argument with his approach. First and foremost, he really tries to show how a lot of what is really good with Asian societies (personal safety, strong education, a strong family and community orientation) was based on Confucian` teachings and those of his followers over the years. He uses modern day Asia as an example of how the "Asian Way" works in many ways. He uses his experiences in Japan to augment this with some wonderful pieces of writing. He relates the story of how his two daughters spent some time being educated in a regular Japanese elementary school, and how contrary to this initial misgivings (being foreigners in an all-Japanese school, "ijime" or bullying, harassment, and ostracism of certain students, lack of creativity in the system), it turned into a wonderful experience for his children. He does a wonderful bit of writing on "kanji"(characters) that will have one wondering why we in the West are so limited in our languages by just having a few characters. He also relates his 73-year old neighbor as the living personification of Confucian values at work, and he is inserted in to the fabric of his writing wonderfully. Reid seems to have a very good ability to mix history, statistics, personal observances, and anecdotes in a way that they all seem to supplement each other as they appear in this book.

This is no bright and cheery, "Pollyanna"-ish analysis of Asian society that seems to be written by a Westerner who claims to have been "enlightened" by Asian values. Reid is very aware of the "dark side" of the Asian system, and gives it a lot of consideration in this book. He does not try to avoid this in the process of writing the book. Rampant corruption among the leadership, systems that seem to stifle creativity (The old saying goes; "There are many creative Japanese, you can meet them almost anywhere: New York, Paris, Amsterdam, Hollywood, London, Rio, Hong Kong, Seattle.. just do not plan on meeting any in Tokyo."), little established tradition of democracy or a free press in many places, even a lot of what are considered human rights violations. Reid is aware of all that. He gives it a lot of consideration in writing, "Confucious Lives Next Door", in fact he really zeroes in on how corruption, and extremely top-heavy leadership is most definitely NOT a Confucian value, and how many of Asias more dictatorial leaders have twisted Confucian values to their own gain. The Chinese Totalitarian/Communist leadership has, ironically, tried to purge the country of his teachings in the "Cultural Revolution" of the 1960`s, yet today unabashedly use his teachings to justify and support their regime in present-day China.

Reid, conversely, targets the media in Asia for promoting a wholly inaccurate picture of the West, especially the United States. This is an intelligent way of consolidating power by Asian ruling elites, as a portrayal of the alternative to the Asian way as a dangerous, violent, materialistic, selfish, chaos lacking any spirituality or harmony, make it all that much easier for the "Asian in the street" to make the sacrifice of personal freedom necessary for the "social harmony". In short, keep the Asian on "the street" scared of the West, and they willingly put up with their leaders power consolidation in the name of protection. Of this phenomenon, Reid writes; "Because the stereotype of the United States as the land of drugs and crime is so strong in East Asia, the countries regularly use "America" and "American Values" as a ready scapegoat to rationalize their own social problems. The argument is that dangerous ideas from the wild-and-wooly West seep into pristine Asian cultures, and the rot spreads. This provides a convenient explanation when something goes wrong: It was Americas fault."
This phenomenon manifests itself most conspicuously in the work of Japanese media superstar, "Beat" Takeshi Kitano. He is arguably the most talented film maker in Japan today, and is praised widely for works such a "Brother" (The plot of which, improbable as it is, is an exiled "yakuza"(gangland) boss, takes to the streets of Los Angeles with an American relative, and shows the LA gangstas "How its REALLY done". This idea was incredibly popular with Japanese nationalists, which Takeshi often appeals to for a part of his wide fan base) and "Hanabi "(Which won Takeshi a "palm d`or" prize at the Cannes Film Festival) in the Western media. He is, essentially, the Quentin Tarantino of Japan.

Of course you could add Jerry Springer, with a little Pat Buchanan/Joerg Haider/Jean Le Pen mixed in. For as much as he is the darling of the international media for his innovative and talented film-making, he is the bane of existence for any foreigner in Japan who makes a conscientious effort to learn the language, work hard at their jobs, and avoid causing trouble. His wildly popular television talk show has an "international" theme, but perhaps not in the sense of "building a bridge of harmony across the Pacific". As a fluent friend of mine who worked as a translator for three years in Japan put it; "There are literally tens of thousands of people from other countries, if not hundreds of thousands, who are making a serious effort to do well in this country, and who does he choose to represent foreigners on his show? Whatever argumentative riff-raff, semi-gangster foreign hoodlum he can get off the streets of Tokyo and Osaka who can string together more than a few Japanese sentences, who will, of course demonstrate nearly every negative stereotype about foreigners in plain view of the whole country!"

What is the aftereffect of this? I run into it every day. Doing elementary school visits as part of my job, I am asked by my students, questions such as "Do I have a gun?"(NO)"Have I ever shot anyone?"(PLEASE!) Despite having a monthly income that is roughly the Japanese median, and usually wearing and carrying the accoutrements of a white-collar worker, whenever I board a bus, or enter a public place such as a cafe or restaurant, women will invariably take their handbags, wallets, et al. from an exposed place close to me and hold them tightly against their body or place them on the side of their body away from me. This totally defies (at least my Western view of) logic. Even if I were to start a career of crime in Japan, what would make anyone think I would start doing it in well-lit public places, with little or no obvious escape routes? Furthermore, I have been followed around nervously by store personnel while shopping, some people in my home country may say that is perfect retribution for a white male ...point well taken!. This was done to ensure that I did not take the merchandise without paying for it. My forays into learning Japanese, have even provided an even clearer picture of this. Once while at a hospital, affiliated with and next to a school I worked at, waiting in line to use an ATM, I was able to overhear a friend of the woman in front of me remark that she better be careful or the American behind her was going to pull out a knife and steal her money. The wide grin I gave her prompted a lot of embarrassed mumbling as she realized I had understood what she had said. I must again ask the question of (decidedly Western) logic, if I were to commit a felony, why would I choose my workplace as the spot to do it? For what reason does someone consider me stupid enough, violent enough, and/or morally depraved enough to perpetrate such an act? A good portion of the answer lies in Asian media and popular mass communication Reid is quite accurate and justified in this criticism of modern day Asia.

He does give the contrary point of view a good look too, as he gives those critical of the West and their views ample consideration throughout the book.. Most notably, and frequently, he gives ample credence to perhaps the most eloquent, intelligent, and well-spoken pundit of the West, long-time Singaporean diplomat Kihore Mahbubani. Mahbubani is at times harsh in his criticisms of the West, sometimes going too far in his criticisms, but always presenting a logical, well-written or spoken argument, that involves more than mere one-sided dogma and hubris. He is one of the best spokesman for the coming Asian Century, and while sometimes a bit strong in his arguments, is generally is trying to speak of the rise in Asian power in the coming years, not the deterioration of Western civilization, just a "more even playing field", so to speak.

The most notable passages from Mahbubani really give some food for thought; "Nothing can deprive people of their freedom more effectively than fear of losing their own lives. It envelops their minds, and confines them to spaces where they can be free of fear. Despite Americas vast territory, each citizen is living and working within increasingly narrow confines to protect his or her well-being. To any Asian, it is obvious that this is an enormous reduction of freedom. A clear American paradox is that a society that places such a high premium on freedom has effectively reduced the physical freedom of most Americans .American society has swung too much in one direction: liberating the individual while imprisoning society. What is striking is the Americans failure to ask fundamental questions such as, is there too much freedom in American society?" Perhaps this argument is a little extreme given the fact that "personal safety" varies by a wide degree in America depending where you are, perhaps the definition of "freedom" at its core value is different in East and West. Perhaps western-style "freedom", once it is given, is simply not a place you can return to a more ordered existence from without difficulty. Or just that "freedom" does come with a price to it, whether you use the Asian or Western definition. All points to ponder I am sure, but one thing is clear, there is a need for consideration that should be given to both sides on this difference of culture, by the other
After all is said and done, Reid still sees much to admire about Asian society, and what he feels it has gleaned from Confucian teachings. He still can see in both the good and bad of the "Asian Way", something we can learn from it in the West. He has helped me understand these lessons a little more clearly as I (sometimes slowly and painfully) make my way through them.

This book seems to mirror what I am discovering upon my return to Japan to live and work at a new job. I am still an American with much of my culturally ingrained idea of "sensibility" intact, but I am sensing a paradigm shift in my reaction to living and working in the East. No, I have not "converted"(I still cringe at the memory of my supervisor at my last workplace giving me patronizing (and unsolicited) explanations of "The Japanese Way", and his efforts at trying to "domesticate" me for the school instead of trying to put his energy into making communicatively oriented classes that utilized me, as the mandate of my job was supposed to be.) but I find that I am able to look at Asian society in a different way, with more admiration for its "Choowa"(Japanese for "harmony") and less contempt for its multifold differences.

It may be explained to a certain extent by returning to the United States for eight months and seeing that things that shocked me about living in the East the first time (rampant political and business corruption, a (current) ruling elite that has little regard for the common citizen, favoritism for the corporate part of society) have made themselves very evident in the time I was back in the United States. To cite as examples the Enron Scandal, the use of 9/11 as an opportunity for a "power grab" by the executive branch of the government, the willingness to tear up Environmental protection laws in favor of development., et al.. It may also be explained by my further integration into Japanese society (granted, there is a limit to this as a foreigner) with added skills in the language, and more of my life being concerned with Asia (my current job, and my previous one in the United States, have centered around Japan specific experience and language facility). It may be explained to a certain extent by just having a decent idea of what to expect. However, these explanations do not add up to the entire change in outlook. Much as Reid explains that part of the "Asian Way" is due to racially homogenous qualities, and a history of top-heavy leadership forcing the issue over centuries, but can not totally explain it from those points, I cannot explain this change as merely my return to the United States, and subsequent return to Asia.

One thing is certain, the "globalization" phenomenon brings the East and West closer together and more interdependent of each other every day. It is also a process that is difficult, if not impossible to stop. As this happens, what is "East" and what is "West" becomes more difficult to discern everyday. The "East" has seen Western influence for centuries, with the process accelerating through colonization, and even after that was removed, the process has continued, even accelerated, through the "McDonald-ization" of the world.

Conversely, the West has had a fascination with the East since the days of Marco Polo. Its becomes more "Eastern" everyday, with the process starting in earnest with importation of Chinese and Japanese labor to America in the mid-1800s, and "reverse-colonization" to the Asian colonial powers of Europe, most notably in the United Kingdom. The percentage of Americans with Asian heritage is nearing ten percent, the "white majority" in the United States will not exist for more than two or three decades hence, simply put, East and West are coming closer together every day. Over ninety percent of the population of the United States has eaten Chinese food, roughly seventy percent has had Japanese food, and nearly fifty percent have had sushi, the Japanese raw fish delicacy that many Japanese people still express surprise that I have eaten, let alone really enjoy.
Indicative of this recent explosion of Asian culture across the West, in my home city, with a population of 100,000 people, in 1998, when I first left for Japan, had one Japanese restaurant. It now has three, plus a sushi bar at a local supermarket, and two other Asian restaurants sell sushi and other Japanese foods. All this in less than four years, in Americas demographically "least-Asian" state, situated roughly 3,000 miles from the Pacific coast.

An article in the most recent Foreign Policy magazine; "Japan`s Gross National Cool" by Douglas
McGray, highlights this phenomenon. McGray surmises that the current popularity of Japanese culture overseas, spear-headed by a mouth-less cat and her friends (Hello Kitty and other Sanrio products), a cadre of "Baseball Samurai" lead by Ichiro Suzuki, the best contact or "miito", ("meat" in Anglicized Japanese) hitter baseball has seen in the better part of two decades, and the rapid ascension of Tokyo to what may soon be the fashion capital of the world, are doing a better job of exporting Japanese culture than fifty years of military expansion, and what was once an exploding economy, ever have. He says this phenomenon is once more leading to a Japanese re-definition of what a "superpower" is.

What is needed in reaction to all this is a philosophy where differences between East and West are not the focal point, but the similarities are. East and West need to drop smug self-righteousness in the correctness of "their way", and look how much they have already been influenced by, and are becoming "each other" on a daily basis. Perhaps it is time to quote that famous line "We have met the enemy, ..and the enemy is us!." The Pacific basin will grow to become the focal point of world power in the coming decades. This appears almost inevitable. To keep it from being a troublesome "flash point" and a "clash of culture", people like Reid will need to influence thinking Towards that end, I strongly recommend reading "Confucious Lives Next Door."

© Dean H. Ruetzler March 2003
Nishine, Iwate Prefecture, JAPAN and Warren/South Burlingtion, Vermont USA

© Hackwriters 2000-2003 all rights reserved