1. The Social Miracle
T. R. Reid moved to Tokyo, Japan, with his family – composed of his wife and their two daughters – where he lived for five years, as an expatriate employee for the Washington Post. He posits that some Asian nations (such as Japan, South Korea, and Singapore ) have built modern societies within the safest environment, providing the best education for the children, and with probably the most stable families on Earth. In Reid’s opinion, this accomplishment is due to the widespread acceptance by Far East countries of the ethical values of Chinese philosopher Confucius. He pointed out that these countries live a “Social Miracle”, reflected in aspects as different as large Gross Domestic Products, stable families, low crime rates, among other aspects (Reid).
Reid offers examples since his arrival at the Narita airport, where the workers on the landing strip “wore neatly pressed gray uniforms, maroon neckties, and white gloves” (Reid). And when the plane came to a stop, the uniformed crew gave a respectful and deep bow of welcome. Reid also mentions that rate crimes are so low that regular Western precautions such as barred windows and car alarms are not necessary, in Japan and the rest of East Asia. He further mentions how the Japanese people supported the government when it denied visa entry to the Argentinian Maradona, a former soccer player of dubious fame, who was a notorious drug abuser. In other words, instead of focusing on the usual ‘economic miracle’ of many authors, Reid focused on the social aspect of the miracle.
People in “the early 1990s freely said that the twenty-first century would be the Asia-Pacific Century and that growth in economic expansion and productivity would shift away from the Western industrialized democracies to the nations of Asia” (Suleski 277). All that changed in the Asian financial crisis at the end of the century, yet the countries did not break down – so the reasons for the Social Miracle were not the Economic Miracle of prior years. When asking East Asians for the reason of such Social Miracle, “these Asians told me that it all came down to two words: moral values” (Reid). The author attributes these moral values to the Confucian Ethic in these countries, which “helped them escape some of the intractable problems that have plagued the developed countries of the West” (Reid).
2. How Confucianism/the Confucian ethos is expressed in contemporary culture
Reid understood the Five Confucian Virtues were the basis for many behaviors in Japan. Suleski listed these basic virtues as kindness (ren), integrity (yi), proper etiquette (li), understanding (zhi), and reliability (xin). In East Asia, the reaction to these Confucian-inspired values goes beyond the dictionary meaning of the word: they are also guides to conduct and to the underlying emotions that propel action (Suleski 264). “Each single word conveys its importance as one of the cardinal virtues espoused by Confucian thinkers” (Suleski 264).
Reid offers one example of the Five Confucian Virtues impact on everyday life describing how shameful and humiliating it is for a Japanese couple to divorce. A divorce is perceived as a personal failure, for either man or woman, and the divorced individual is considered a batsu-ichi, translated ‘one-time failure’ (Reid). The author further claims that he has never met a person twice divorced in Japan. He states that only 16% of Japanese couples divorce, as compared to 50% in the United States (Reid).
Ho says that Confucius defined kindness as “the love of one's fellowmen” (Ho 290). He indicates that such love is gradual, beginning with family members and extending little by little to the whole society. The author describes the Analects as stating “Being good as a son and obedient as a young man is, perhaps, the root of a man's character” (Ho 290). Ho indicates that such a conception of kindness as gradual love, starting from filial piety, can be explained by the quasi-feudal political structures of Confucius time. The author contends that the ruling class of China ended up stressing filial piety and brotherly fraternity above all else.
This inbred conformity of Confucianism took roots in Japan. Reid describes the t Japanese as people who love rules, and to break conformity to those is shameful. Reid explains the usage of the term Meiwaku, described as creating trouble or shame for the members of a group you belong to (Reid). Reid explains two essential concepts that a member of any group has to observe. First, each known member of the group is responsible for avoiding Meiwaku, as it brings shame upon the individual and by extension the group. Second, every person has the obligation to preserve wa, or social harmony and peace within the group. That meant sidestepping confrontation and avoiding entire consensus (so that no one is resentful). Reid indicated that these two ideas show why Japanese behave the way they do, also evident in their language of apologizing and self-effacing. This shows how important is to the average Japanese to be part of a group. Being part of a group defined what kind of person you will be (Reid).
3. Lessons we may take from the Confucian/Japanese experience that that might contribute to a better social experience in our culture and the improvement of ourselves as individuals.
Rainey, another author, indicates that the main guideline that Confucius followed was the natural inclination of human beings toward civilization. Hence, when Confucius said, "A man has not wasted his life who, on the day he dies, learns about the Dao” (Rainey), he meant that the dying man life was fulfilled if he followed his natural inclination towards the good, even if only on his last day on the planet. The Dao is a moral Way, commanded by Heaven, that rulers, governments, and people must come to understand and to follow (Rainey). For societies as hierarchical as the ones in East Asia, it is politically interesting that Confucian virtues be applied all the way from family life to society at large.
There are many ways to which we can apply lessons learned from Reid's experience. In America, “people may have disagreed about the particular contents of civic virtue to be promoted; yet they never for a moment doubted the need for educating for citizenship” (Chaihark 35-36). This educating for citizenship may be an area in which the United States may learn from the Confucius way of Japanese society. “Particularly, during the American founding period, the overriding political issue was () whether the citizens would be able to exercise effective and regularized restraint on the government so as to prevent tyranny” (Chaihark 36). Although useful to deterrent tyrannical governments, the constant criticism – seen as a civic virtue – may easily degenerate into cynicism and a lack of faith in leaders. In societies such as the Japanese, we find the opposite situation in their inbred conformity: as in the instance of the Argentinian drug user who wanted to enter the country as a soccer player, and the people of Japan took a staunch position by the side of their government. In my opinion, America could benefit from the fostering of the wa and the avoidance of Meiwaku as described by Reid.
Reid posits that American society has swung too much in the direction of liberating the individual while imprisoning society, and questions if there is too much too much freedom in American culture. This criticism of Reid may be valid, but people would be hard pressed to forfeiting freedom. I understand it would be simpler to educate children and teenagers in the Five Confucian Virtues – which are compatible with the Christian and Jewish background of America – to foster a more constructive behavior in citizens. People are critical of high divorce rates, birth out of wedlock, and rampaging crime; but few Americans would be willing to give up freedom to avoid these problems. An alternative solution is to stimulate kindness, integrity, etiquette, understanding, and reliability, which hardly anyone would oppose.
I am skeptical it is possible to change the American culture because people do not want to. A poor, single mother may prefer a culture where divorce and crime are rare, but a successful urban professional may not appreciate the boundaries of Japanese-level conformity. Maybe there is an alternative for Confucianism in the West, pointed out by a religion originated in Asia: Buddhism. This religion came to America after World War II, in the form of Zen, and eventually was followed by other sects such as Burmese Vipassana and Tibetan Vajrayana. These practices are radically different, even opposed to one another, but in the West they mingled, reformatted and changed, and Buddhism is a fast-growing religion in the Western world, particularly in the United States. If Confucianism is malleable and flexible enough to be adapted to America, then its positive message may take root and spread in the vast fields of the American continent.
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Ho, Lusina. "Chapter 12: The Law of Succession." Confucianism for the Modern World.
Ed. Daniel A. Bell and Hahm Chaibong. Cambridge, England: Cambridge UP, 2003.
288-311. Questia. Web. 24 May 2016.
Rainey, Lee Dian. Confucius & Confucianism: The Essentials. Malden, MA: Wiley-
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Analects. Ed. David Jones. Chicago: Open Court, 2007. 253-90. Questia. Web. 24