What we can learn from Japan and its taxi drivers

A few weeks ago, I had a mini-nostalgia fix when the media ran a story on taxi drivers in Japan. At one point in my career I spent a lot of time in taxis, as I travelled around the heartland of Toyota (both the company and the city), visiting businesses belonging to its vast empire. I would catch up to six taxis a day, and even after all these years I have a very fond spot for Japanese taxi drivers. The pride they show in their job is commonplace in Japan. Whatever people may feel about their work, exhibiting pride not only in one's work, but hobbies and all aspects of public life, is of ultimate importance.

In my time in Japan, I saw some heartbreaking things few outsiders get to encounter. The private face of Japan can be quite harsh, but the public face is impeccably polite, and puts the greater good - family and village (now work) before self. There are plenty of ways to blow off steam: festivals with wild behaviour, and weekly company drinking sessions where feelings are vented freely without consequence.

Japan is by no means the most densely populated nation on earth, but it does have enormous areas of uninhabited wilderness and farmland, pushing the majority into a few cities. Keeping public and private face separate has worked in a country where personal space is scarce. The separation of these faces takes self-discipline and strength.

Putting others first is hardly a skill humans are born with. However, the development of empathy is a part of what is considered normal human development, and allows us to identify others' needs.

I found the whole idea of self-discipline and family first very comfortable, having been raised by my grandfather, and his son-in-law, my father. My father had parenthood thrust upon him at 22, and despite having no family role models and being a bit of a rogue in his youth, he took to it like a duck to water. He was hardly a perfect man, but he was a perfect father. My friends, cousins, and it seemed all the local teenage boys he coached thought he was wonderful, and I was often told how I was envied. I adored him, but wished he would interact with me as he did with them. With them, he was the fun uncle, big brother figure, a mate. With my brother and I, he was an authority figure, someone you showed respect to and obeyed. Of course, we adored him, and he was very kind and generous. But as a child, you never argued with him.

In Japan, in public people are very polite, patient, and aware of others' needs. This helps to maintain harmony. In my family, my father and grandfather were, as we were growing up, a little stern and strict. They put their own fears, doubts, concerns and worries aside, and sure as heck weren't our friends. This happened later, when it was appropriate. We were put first, and our need for guidance and role models put before their needs. It is not easy being a parent. But self sacrifice does have rewards.

In Japan, the reward is a safe and secure society which runs fairly smoothly. In a family setting, the reward is security, love, loyalty, respect and the knowledge that irrespective of whatever else may happen, someone is looking out for you.

Discipline, especially self-discipline, takes strength, the kind which is enriching and long-lasting and creates respect. Respect, in turn, creates tolerance and forgiveness, and the desire to be the best a person can be. Just like those taxi drivers in Japan.