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City of the future: Tokyo vs Singapore

JANUARY 14 – Recently, work has taken me to Japan a few times and as I sit here in an artsy book-filled cafe, eating another feather light slice of strawberry shortcake, overlooking a perfectly tended park — it’s difficult not to find myself falling in love.

In fact, I declared Tokyo my favourite city in the world the other day but then I gave my statement a little more thought. 

What about home? I’ve always said that I would be faithful to Singapore despite its many faults. But how can I love two places that are so different?

A comparison is barely possible. Tokyo is the centre of a large nation with a long history and millions of people, while Singapore is a city, a relatively new one, with under four million citizens.

Japan’s culture is so deeply embedded in its citizens. From the ordered rush of Shibuya’s crossings, to the astounding quality of Japanese pastry, whiskey and coffee — which imitate, then exceed the western originals but somehow become distinctly Japanese.

Japan’s highest mountain Mount Fuji rising up behind the skyscrapers dotting the skyline of the Shinjuku area of Tokyo at sunset. — Picture by AFP
Japan’s highest mountain Mount Fuji rising up behind the skyscrapers dotting the skyline of the Shinjuku area of Tokyo at sunset. — Picture by AFP

From the endless etiquette of bowing, to the precise way to tie your bath house yukata (robe) there is a code of signals and wordless messaging that almost everyone seems to understand.

Nowhere else in the world have I seen such a strong and pervasive national identity — an encompassing sense of Japaneseness that pervades almost everything.

Singapore is a near polar opposite — an incoherent mix of visibly different peoples, squeezed onto an island, somehow trying to get along. We don’t share common origins or rituals and we communicate in various languages.

Of course there are things that unite us — Singlish, Milo Dinosaur — but we’ve been an independent nation for just 50 years and even the oldest families struggle to trace their roots back more than five generations.

Where we engage with older traditions — the lion dance, silat Melayu — they tend to come from Individual groups and foreign soil (the lands of our ancestors).

Japan’s homogeneity is a key part of its appeal; it’s safe and somewhat self-contained and not a confusing melting pot.

For visitors — when you look at everything from the Cherry Blossom festival to sumo wrestling — you see unmatched attention to detail and a sense of collective purpose.

It’s lovely but well sometimes, as a Singaporean at least, you wish they would just get on with it.

I mean they look aghast at you when you lick an ice cream and walk down the street (walking and eating doesn’t show enough appreciation for food apparently) so how will they ever eat curry puffs?

You also aren’t supposed to speak in the subway especially not on the telephone but come on, sometimes you get calls — important ones!

There are rules everywhere for everything and people, by and large, adhere to them and they do so autonomously — not out of fear of some summons aunty appearing or a cane landing on their buttocks.

Singapore, meanwhile, is a land of endless diversity and limited etiquette. Efficient and pragmatic over all else we are creating our traditions as we go along.

Look at our one national language — Singlish: no honorifics or changes dependent on status, few to no statements added for extra politeness. Simple efficient communication which can often be a real asset.

Japan’s traditions, lovely as they may be, can also be a straight jacket. An obsession with rules, an aversion to risk and the unknown as well as a fondness for strict hierarchies has left Japan with an increasingly less competitive economy.

Remember those childhood staples Panasonic, Toshiba, Sharp? All more or less bankrupt today. Even juggernauts like Sony arent what they used to be.

Start-up culture is light years behind the West as new businesses can’t raise money, and people simply don’t or won’t to take risks with their careers.

Japan has spent centuries developing, honing then preserving its culture. It’s admirable but also doesn’t necessarily leave a lot of space for growth.

Meanwhile, Singapore which barely has a fixed culture has no limits. Our country really is an experiment and at the end of the day, that’s why I reconsidered my original decision and say confidently that home is still Number 1!

*This is the personal opinion of the columnist.

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