"They do a lot of things better than we do." My 21-year-old son made this statement with confidence, having lived in Japan for nine months. After only a few days into my visit with him I could agree: Among the many things the Japanese do better are public transportation, space management, and product packaging. And they are much better than the United States at managing their society.
The crime rate is among the lowest in the world; my daughter and I were assured that we could go anywhere in Tokyo, at night, with no fear of harm.
Children's cartoons affirm the joy and serenity of family life, toy stores don't sell guns, and one of Japan's most popular recreational attractions is Disneyland, with its idealized centerpiece of the American Main Street.
But any alert student of human nature knows there has to be a seamy underside to this vision, and in Japan he wouldn't have to look far. A glance over some businessman's shoulder on the train may reveal that the thick comic book he's unashamedly reading is violent pornography. The row of phone booths one passes after exiting the subway station may be plastered inside with ads for prostitutes-color photos of barely dressed women in lurid poses, with phone numbers and rates.
Then there's the national passion for Pachinko, a hybrid of pinball and Vegas-style slots. Pachinko parlors are brightly lit and insanely noisy places where rows of Japanese (mostly men) sit in front of blinking machines watching a rain of silver balls spill through holes on a vertical board.
The skill involved is almost nil; everybody knows, or suspects, that the games are rigged. If three numbers match on the final score, all the silver balls pour into a basket, and the player exchanges them for cheap trinkets. The next step is to go outside the parlor, to a little window in an alley where an agent will trade the goods for money.
The reason for this complicated payback system is that gambling is illegal in Japan. Pachinko exists on the fiction that it's played for "prizes," not cash. For that matter, prostitution is also illegal-but, honored profession that it is, flourishes openly in Tokyo with no need of cover.
Such petty venality in everyday life becomes billion-dollar venality in the highest levels of government, where bribery and cronyism have bled off funds that could have gone into the faltering economy. "No society in the world has a higher threshold of political indignation," states Frank Gibney, a business writer who has lived in Japan. Rather than kick the rascals out, Japanese voters have returned the same corrupt party to power year after year. Lawbreaking does not disqualify an officeholder.
This puzzles many westerners, but the reason is simple: For the Japanese, order comes before law. Traditional standards may be crumbling-in Shibuya, where Tokyo youth hang out, punks with purple hair and "Shibuya girls" with outrageous makeup flaunt their parents' values. But the vast majority of Japanese still behave according to time-honored standards that go back for centuries. Women may be exploited, but not raped. Members of the Diet and the Cabinet may take bribes, but they won't betray their party or class.
Men may cheat on their wives, but will never divorce them. Japan remains a homogenous nation, with very low immigration and few outside pressures to sift the culture. Order is sufficient; law can be hedged or ignored.
But any society that values individual freedom must put law before order. The United States has always been subject to change, sometimes violent and drastic change; American "order" is always moderating, always open to interpretation. The founders of our nation looked to natural law as a stabilizing factor because they believed it to be established by an eternal God. And they were right: The rule of law, though imperfectly executed, has held America steady in spite of tremendous pressures and upheavals. The rule of law is our order. That's why many Americans (though not nearly enough, it seems) get so upset when it's openly flouted, and nervous when liberal politicians speak glibly of the Constitution as a "living, breathing [i.e., changeable] document." A natural order, such as Japan's, can afford to be a little careless with the law. A dynamic society such as ours cannot.
Order is traditional, and requires no more than conformity; law is eternal, and demands responsibility. Order builds up society, but often at the cost of the individual; law strengthens both. May God in His mercy restore to America her respect for law-by His grace, it's one thing we do better.