I recently embarked on a family holiday to Japan. It was only our fourth visit in 10 years. This time we paid a brief visit to Osaka and Kobe, but in my opinion, the highlight of the trip was my first ride on the Shinkansen, Japan's high-speed train.
It was terrific! We were on the 2.19pm from Osaka to Tokyo, and just as I had expected the train left on schedule. And no, I don't mean plus or minus 10 minutes, like here at home. I mean 2.19pm on the money, and you could even set your watch to it. To us that's rather anally retentive. Plus or minus five or 10 minutes isn't going to screw up anyone's itinerary, is it? True, but to the Japanese, it's not just about avoiding tardiness. There is a more profound principle at stake here. The Shinkansen principle is simple: "If you're going to do something, do it properly." This principle is embedded in their DNA and encapsulates nearly everything about what it means to be Japanese.
Coming from Thailand and walking onto the Shinkansen, I really felt like the fictional character Marty McFly, because I was going Back To The Future. Racing through the Japanese countryside at 320kph, I was dreaming of the day this might be possible from Bangkok to Chiang Mai.
But then alas, I woke up, and remembered that in March 2014 it was the Democrat Party that scuttled the two-trillion-baht high-speed train project, explaining that the process had bypassed parliamentary procedure and scrutiny, under sections 160 and 170 of the previous constitution. The Constitutional Court agreed, and declared the bill unconstitutional in a unanimous vote.
After the military seized power in a coup d'etat last year, it eventually adopted an estimated 3 trillion baht rail and infrastructure upgrade. But if the two-trillion-baht high-speed rail bill under the Pheu Thai Party was unconstitutional, what kind of scrutiny, if any, could possibly result from the a National Legislative Assembly that is unelected and wholly appointed by the National Council for Peace and Order?
I usually get accused of being misguided by my own English educational background, superimposing my "western values" and philosophy onto a very different Far Eastern society like Thailand. My critics tell me that "fluffy" concepts like democracy, justice, freedom of speech, are not conducive to the way Asian societies operate. I've never heard such absolute tosh. Japan in the past was one of the most hierarchical societies in the world. Only 80 years earlier the emperor was not a mere sovereign, but a living deity. However, Japan has emerged from the fog of war to successfully adopt a "western" style democracy and an acceptance of basic human rights and civil liberties.
Japanese democracy is not perfect. It's a complicated arrangement consisting of shady alliances, where unstable and weak coalitions seem to be the norm. But, nevertheless, it is a democracy, where ultimate power is vested with the people, alongside a constitutional monarch, Emperor Akihito, who seems to command the love and respect of his subjects.
There is an abundance of things we can learn from this very Asian nation. But what most impresses me about the Japanese people, which I find truly inspiring, is their sense of national pride. I feel that for them, being Japanese really means something. They take pride in it, and seem to have a well-balanced sense of superiority and even a quiet sort of arrogance in expressing it. On all my trips to Japan, I never once saw the Japanese flag being waved, never heard their national anthem broadcasted, and never once saw their prime minister on Friday nights reminding them of their 12 moral principles. But yet, on their public transport system there was no graffiti, no apparent discontented youths engaging in mindless loitering, no rubbish, and never once did I see an imposing Japanese police officer. What's the secret to their success, I wonder?
I'm proud to be Thai, but that doesn't mean we shouldn't emulate some of the things other countries have done well. Values like freedom of expression, respect for human dignity, justice, and democracy are not incompatible with Thai society. On the contrary, they can embellish and help to modernise our society, and bring us into the 21st century with pride and honour, where we can finally take our place and compete effectively with the rest of the modern world.
Essentially, what I have learnt from the Japanese is we don't need to reinvent the wheel. We can adapt these "western" ideas and make them our own. But there is a huge difference between adapting and bastardising. The Japanese are masters of adapting western ideas and making them distinctively theirs. If you don't believe me, just try the Hibiki 17-year-old malt by Suntory, which was awarded "Editor's Choice" by Whisky Magazine. Trust me, you'll thank me for it. Bottoms up.
Songkran Grachangnetara is an entrepreneur. He graduated from The London School of Economics and Columbia University. He can be reached at Twitter: @SongkranTalk