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The Nature of the Collective

I’ve just spent my first full day in the glorious, huge city of Tokyo. As mentioned in the last post, I have been joined after two long weeks by my wife (happy, happy. Whole again). Also making the trip is our young son, 12 years old but who I swear has grown up a year in the last fortnight. His knowledge of historical Japan is much better than mine, gleaned from the wonderful Young Samurai series of books. We spend the early morning connection to our hotel catching up on the little ditties that fall between the cracks of the blog, email, snapchat and instagram. Would I have preferred Karen to be with me in Russia? At one level, of course: she is my best friend, as well as my wife. However, my ambition was to do Russia the Russian way, with Red Army surplus hotel furniture, sweaty waiting rooms (sweaty everywhere, frankly) and kooky towns full of geeks. This was not Her Majesty’s territory….

So, onto Japan. Having meandered through much of Russia with not so much as a map, we have taken a far more active approach to our sightseeing, using the services of the delightful Shoko, our charming and knowledgeable guide. We visit the Imperial Palace Plaza, go to the Asakusa Kannon Temple and Bazaar, and finish the day off with a visit to the Edo Tokyo Museum. Through much of the day it strikes me how much Japan shares with England: a monarchy gripped by issues of primogeniture, a wedding reception with the men in pukka morning suits, a feudal inheritance full of the tales of nip and tuck between absolute monarchy and overmighty barons. Oh, and rather too much debt to GDP.

Which brings me to the subject of this post: the fascinating differences between two societies that espouse the collective way. Wandering through Tokyo, you are showered with instances of gleeful, anxious compliance, from the 48 doorman that ensure I do not stumble on my way out of the hotel (never a given, frankly) to the taxi driver standing to attention waiting for his payload and the forlorn traffic cop waving his light sabre to warn drivers of an obstruction ahead in torrential rain. This is a society that takes personal pride in duty well done, a collective from below. On the other hand you have (as I have said before) commune-ism in Russia, which is very different: if shame seems to hover close to the surface in Japan, arbitrary state intervention casts the same shadow in Russia. Where Japanese pride is taken in conformity, the opposite is true in Russia where opportunities arise infrequently and rules can change, necessitating a defensive huddle. In short, a collective from above.

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