Daibutsu, Kamakura

Daibutsu, Kamakura
Daibutsu in Kamakura, June 2010. There were thousands of school kids visiting that day. It was still great fun.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

L.A. could learn some lessons from Tokyo

Below is an article from a Los Angeles Times columnist, Steve Lopez, describing his recent visit to Tokyo. This columnist normally reports on local issues in Los Angeles but was in Tokyo for a book and movie promotion for a friend of his. What may interest you, especially those living in Tokyo, is Mr. Lopez' comparison of Tokyo and Los Angeles. Basically what he likes about Tokyo and what LA could learn from Tokyo.

From the Los Angeles Times

L.A. could learn some lessons from Tokyo

Japanese society isn't perfect, but Steve Lopez finds Tokyo's taxis are clean, its cherry blossoms are in bloom and the city doesn't have a doughnut shop on every corner.
Steve Lopez

April 15, 2009

Reporting from Tokyo — After a week here, I still haven't mastered Japanese.

I'm prone to say hello when I mean thank you, or vice versa, and I seldom know what I am ordering at restaurants, so the chicken might actually be eel. But regardless of what I'm attempting to communicate, the Japanese people bow graciously, which is probably a way of hiding their laughter.

In case you're wondering, I'm here at the request of the Japanese distributor of the movie "The Soloist," and to meet with the publishers of a certain book by the same name. I'm not going to say much more about that, given the flap over the Sunday movie promotion in The Times that drew some complaints from readers and colleagues.

For the record, I wish it had looked a little less like a news section, and would have said so if I'd seen it before publication. On the other hand, ad revenue pays for the journalism we do, and I thought the section was a fair summary of how the filmmakers got to know my friend Mr. Nathaniel Anthony Ayers and were inspired by him, as I have been.

In Japan, reporters were more interested in learning about Mr. Ayers and how I got to know him than they were about the film and its stars. The representatives of a Tokyo mental health agency told me they hope the book and movie will help them de-stigmatize mental illness.

Let me move on, though, to some thoughts on the city of Tokyo and what Los Angeles can learn from it. I'm no expert on Tokyo, this being my first visit to the city. And Tokyo is no Shangri-la, nor is Japanese society perfect. But I like a lot of what I'm seeing, and in no particular order, here are a few thoughts:

This is the cleanest city I've ever visited, and residents seem to take great pride in that. One day my wife and I saw a uniformed man on his knees, scraping a tiny wad of gunk off the pavement, and we saw no graffiti anywhere. In Los Angeles, why do we think it's OK to foul our own nest?

From my hotel window, I watched the comings and goings of trains day and night on a seven-track railway. Then there's the extensive and efficient subway system, which of course makes L.A.'s look like it was designed for a city the size of Bakersfield. As for auto traffic, it can be miserable, but commuters have alternatives. And I didn't see a single Hummer, the car of choice for Jaime de la Vega, Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa's deputy mayor of transportation. I'm willing to take up a collection and have both of them sent to Tokyo to take notes.

I'm not ready to go easy on L.A.'s billboard industry or their lackeys at City Hall, but Tokyo's neon and flash add to the city's sense of excitement and vitality. I'm now more inclined to say OK to special sign districts in commercial areas of Los Angeles, including Hollywood and Koreatown. But they're still a nuisance and an abomination in residential neighborhoods.

You cannot go anywhere in Tokyo without seeing people of all ages commuting by bicycle, and the city has gone out of its way to accommodate them. There are even designated bike lanes in crosswalks, and bike racks are everywhere. Los Angeles, with its better climate and health-conscious population, should be embarrassed and ashamed about how unaccommodating it is to bikes.

By the luck of the draw, I'm here at the peak of cherry blossom season, and the city is exploding with color, as if it were a sprawling cherry-vanilla confection. The bloom is a cause for celebration in Tokyo. And in L.A., meanwhile, how long ago did Mayor Villaraigosa promise to plant 1 million trees, how many hundreds of thousands of trees short of that goal is he, and why don't we do more to celebrate jacaranda season? There ought to be contests to highlight the most spectacular block in each neighborhood, and the tourism industry ought to be selling the lure of lavender along with the sunshine and beaches.

With the exception of Griffith Park, Tokyo puts L.A. to shame in its attention to open space. There's not a great deal of greenery in Tokyo's concrete metropolis, but where there's a park, there's attention to detail and monuments to history. Hordes of Japanese people take box lunches and sit under trees next to lakes and gardens. The parks also have cafes and museums, and they're all easy to get to without a car.

For whatever reason, maybe it's pride, again, Tokyo's taxis are first-class. Most drivers wear a coat and tie, their cars are polished to a sheen, the interiors are spotless and usually have lace seat covers, and there's plenty of leg room, as opposed to L.A.'s grungy fleet of jalopies. In an L.A. cab, I feel like a contortionist just getting in and out of the cramped and partitioned back seat, and I always feel lucky that a wheel doesn't fall off in transit.

Is it the Japanese diet, is there a national campaign on health and nutrition, or does everyone here belong to a health club? Maybe it's all the walking and cycling, or maybe it's the fact that there's not a doughnut shop on every corner.

Being in Tokyo also makes me rue the demise of the American department store as a national institution. Going to a department store in Tokyo is an event. My wife saw a crowd gathering outside one store before it opened. The employees could be seen gathering just inside the store in formation like a small army. When the clock struck 10 a.m., they turned in unison to the waiting crowd, bowed to customers, and opened the doors for business.

I like Tokyo's polite society. I'm surprised I just wrote that, being a pretty laid-back and casual guy. But it's refreshing to see people greet each other with humility and respect in social settings, often with a bow. One day my wife saw something miraculous on a subway train. A teen was blabbing on a cellphone, which is prohibited, and an elderly woman wagged a finger. The teen, who would never make it in the United States, respectfully shut off the phone.

Am I a new man, you ask?

Yes, until my plane lands in Los Angeles.

I'll probably be in flip-flops 10 minutes later, grimacing as my daughter says something disrespectful, greeting acquaintances with "Yo, dude," and going by car to buy doughnuts.

But until then, a bow to Tokyo, and a "thank you" to its gracious people.



  1. Good article. At least he mentioned it is his first time in Tokyo and I am assuming his first time in Japan. It is easy to idolize cities like Tokyo vs. LA since the Japanese are so much more different than Americans.

    That said, no place is perfect and I'd dare say the author would be surprised at Japan and the Japanese if he spent more time getting to know the country and the people. There is graffiti and there is crime and there is homelessness in Japan, fortunately it is much less than in America.

    He's right about taxi's. Coming back from a visit to NYC, I almost had a heart attack each time I got in a taxi in NYC.

    As far a bicycling being popular vs. car transportation, you have to understand that historically, cars were scarce in Japan and even today, owning a car is a big deal. You have to register a verified parking spot for your car, along with having a license and insurance.

    You can idolize the Japanese, they are a noble people and a rich culture. As you get to know them, you find they are much like ourselves in many aspects. They have families that they love and care for.

    Americans take much for granted. I think if you lived like an average Japanese person does for a week or a month, you would see many things we take for granted here much differently.

  2. I agree. There are negative aspects of Los Angeles so when someone goes to another city and does not see these same negative things, at least not at the same level, that stands out to the person visiting a new city. But like you say, if that person lived in the new city such as Tokyo for a period of time, they would see other things that are not too good either.

  3. This article reflects the same sentiments I have for this country and its people. We do have a lot to learn from them. And if the author had the misfortune of losing something while he was here, he would have had a taste of Japanese honesty and integrity. Why, I just got back a bag I thought i lost at the Narita Airport. Bow!

  4. I have heard that many time before how when someone loses something in Japan, it is often returned. I wish people were like that here in LA.

  5. I always enjoy reading when the author is able to put things into words that I'm not.

    I think going to another culture and seeing the positives as opposed to the negative is part of the romance of adventure. I think it is okay to enjoy and be taken in by the foreign. Being able to look beyond the negatives is one of humanity's better qualities... If only we were better at it.

    I'm days away from making my fourth trip to Kansai, I hope I will find the same Japan waiting for me that I found on my previous three trips. Maybe I'll have to dig deeper and walk down less trodden alleys, but I'm confident it's there.

    I especially like knowing that Japanese are in fact very similar to us rough Americans... Its those things about Americans that we wish were more like the Japanese that the author has written about.

    Nice post and good discussion... per usual!

  6. Thank you. Yes, the author said several things that I have long thought but he said it very well.

  7. An interesting article and as Tony said, it is good that he mentioned that it was his first time to Japan. There are the things that you see when you first arrive and those that take a bit longer to notice.

    It's funny, now having moved back to Australia, it's hard not to compare things. Lots of good and bads on both sides.

  8. Maybe I shouldn't but the more I go to Japan, the more I compare the good and the bad with Los Angeles. Usually I see more and more bad in Los Angeles.