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Confucius Lives Next Door
What Living in the East Teaches Us About Living in the West
By T.R. Reid
Random House. 276 pp. $24.95
Reviewed by Judith Shapiro,
coauthor of "Son of the Revolution" and other books about China.

Sunday, May 16, 1999

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T.R. Reid, an unabashed admirer of "Asia's social miracle," was based in Tokyo for five years for The Washington Post. He lived with his family in an ordinary cement-block apartment in a drab neighborhood called Subsection 3 and sent his daughters to Japanese elementary schools. "Confucius Lives Next Door," his provocative and entertaining portrayal of some of the rituals and assumptions that define the differences between Confucian and Western societies, is a sustained hurrah for "Asian values" – social harmony, family and group loyalty, thrift, diligence, educational achievement, and so on. Although he includes a visit to Confucius's birthplace in China and anecdotes about other Asian countries within the Confucian orbit, the book is really about Japan rather than about "the East."

Reid's Japan bears little resemblance to other common Western images of the country: the fascist Japan of World War II, the sexist Japan of male business culture and geishas, the aesthetic Japan of tea ceremonies and cherry blossoms. Rather, the Japan of Reid's enthusiasms is a bourgeois country where income disparities are small, crime minimal, families stable, and where elaborate circumlocutions create harmonious relationships. Unsupervised 9-year-old girls safely take trains to theme parks hours away; employer-employee loyalties cost society far less than does Western attention to bottom-line efficiencies. Recent economic troubles are seen as temporary; for Reid, the 21st century belongs to Asia.

Groups – family, neighborhood, workplace, school, "Sumo wrestler's fan club, karaoke singing circle, ikebana society and so on" – provide identity, responsibility and loyalty that goes both ways. The next-door "Confucius" of the book's title is a courtly gentleman who knocks, soon after the Reids move in, to explain, indirectly and apologetically, that Reid's electric-bass-playing teenage son is mortifying the neighborhood. In this way, Reid's family learns of their new responsibilities as members of Subsection 3.

Gradually, Reid understands that American assertions of independence and individualism sound to Japanese ears like selfishness. The group reigns from childhood on. An elementary-school teacher apologizes for her small class size – a larger class of 40 to 45 pupils would allow her to form more group combinations for peer learning. Individualists stick out like the proverbial nail asking for the hammer. "There was one correct backpack to be worn, and one correct way to adjust its straps. . . . Each student was supposed to have three sharpened pencils in her desk – not four, not two."

With group membership come duties: Students bring the class to order, conduct "honorable cleaning" of halls and classrooms, and deliver lunch. There is little need for substitute teachers, as even first graders can direct their own classes. Reid's daughter learns to write ideograms by rote, on the same schedule as every other second grader in Japan, until the whole nation switches to the next character. While there is little room for difference or spontaneity (aside from periodic mayhem sessions that allow students to ventilate), Reid describes his daughters' years in Japanese schools as a smashing success.

Ritual is essential to inculcating group identity and community values. The April 1st "Entering-the-Company Ceremony" for new employees – a national event – is a major rite of passage; a typical welcoming speech is "Let's Build the Richness of Our Hearts Through Our Jobs." A young woman joining an electronics corporation is distressed to learn that Reid's employer conducts no similar ritual, although she is mollified when he hums a few bars of the "corporate song," John Philip Sousa's "Washington Post March."

Commitment between employer and employee leads to remarkable business solutions. In an effort to protect employee jobs when the strong yen destroyed its international markets, a manufacturer of ice-breaking ships utilized its expertise in welding and wave-simulation to build an enormous indoor seashore. "Wild Blue Yokohama" had an "artificial ocean big enough to hold several hundred swimmers and a few dozen surfers at the same time . . . and a lighting system that could create purple twilight and twinkling stars each evening." Lagoons, waterfalls, hot tubs, and water slides completed the nature-as-theme park experience. The firm went on to build an indoor ski slope with manmade snow, like a 25-story metal box with "the world's largest refrigeration bill."

In Japanese eyes, writes Reid, America is a land in which individual freedom runs rampant over group rights to peace and safety. He claims Asians have done better than Western democracies in instilling moral values, and challenges Americans to consider our failures in this area. However, his interpretation of Confucius as a democrat is open to question. For nearly a century the Chinese have debated whether the hierarchical and personalized Confucian tradition has impeded their search for democracy and modernity. Reid sounds at times like an advocate of law and order; he sees value in stability and freedom from crime but, despite mention of Singapore's draconian laws, appears less concerned with individual liberties. Unfortunately, Reid's "indicators of healthy societies – the minimal rates of violent crime, theft, drug use, family breakdown, and out-of-wedlock births" – may also signal repression and authoritarianism. If his solutions to Western ills – such as making divorce more shameful – are vague, his argument unfolds with insight, wry amusement, and unforgettable portraits that do indeed teach us as much about ourselves as about those living in "the East."


"There is crime in Japan. If you can believe the police figures, Japan's version of the Mafia, known as the yakuza, has far more members than organized crime in the United States . . . . People get murdered in Japan every year, although a good share of them seem to be yakuza members knocked off by members of rival gangs. . . . While our family was living in Japan, a crazed religious cult murdered seven people by releasing poison gas on the Tokyo subway. This would have been shocking and terrifying in any country. To make things worse, the Japanese police were warned in advance that this poison attack was coming but botched the effort to stop it. Even after the frightening event, it took the police six weeks to round up the perpetrators and shut down the cult. During that six weeks, we were afraid.

"But in statistical terms, these serious crimes are rare events, compared with what happens in the rest of the world. There are about 7.5 murders each year for every 100,000 Americans. England's murder rate is roughly 5.5 murders per 100,000 people. Germany has 4.3 per 100,000, France has 4.1. In Japan, the murder rate is below 1 per 100,000."

– From "Confucius Lives Next Door," by T.R. Reid

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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