[Viewpoint] Try a little orderlinessWhile spending a term in Japan for research, I could not help but admire the Japanese people’s practice of decorum and discipline. They bow deeply on every occasion and strain not to inconvenience others. We, on the other hand, despite the fact that we pride ourselves on a legacy of civility, watch others with suspicious eyes and raise our voices when others threaten to intrude on what’s ours.
Both societies spring from the same Confucian roots but have evolved into completely different animals. Who is happier: the ever-cautious and well-mannered Japanese or the ever-assertive and demanding Koreans? On a scale of happiness, the Japanese would likely win.
An advance in a civilization doesn’t simply refer to progress in technology or lifestyle. The human civilization has evolved by developing ways to ease the pain and troubles from daily interactions and conflict of interests caused by the pursuit of individual needs.
Decency and self-restraint were instrumental in sustaining and developing human relations. A society can move forward when people uphold manners, order and respect for one another instead of being in a state of constant distrust and conflict.
There was a report that at least one civil servant is physically abused every day and that such cases are on the rise. That is bad news for our society as law enforcement and defense are the fundamental pillars ensuring security.
The people pay taxes and obey laws as well as other duties, believing the nation will protect their life, rights and property from hostile forces. The police must not overreact in law-enforcement activities, but they should not turn a blind eye to civilian violence and get beaten up by civilians.
We cannot trust society to be safe in the hands of such a wobbly police force. If the government falters in law enforcement, civilians would have to stand up to protect themselves. They would have to live under pressure to be ready to fight for their rights. Such a society would have no room for politeness and patience.
How has Japan become so disciplined and aware of the need not to disturb or annoy others?
A ruthless punitive tradition may have a part. The Japanese samurai swung their blades to punish someone for disloyalty and misbehaving. Police in the imperial days carried batons to intimidate and assert discipline.
There remain various equipment used for torture in British dungeons that were used during the medieval days. The British were not born with genteel genes. British and American police today are strict in discipline and containing civilian disorder.
The government should not be harsh to civilians. But it nevertheless has to carry out its function in the enforcement of laws. It certainly must be aware that strong police and other law enforcement actions can undermine civilian rights. But at the same time, it could jeopardize the safety of the civilian population by failing to offer adequate protection to civilians in danger.
Public officials who do not wield due authority in law enforcement in fear of public protest are as cowardly and weak as those beaten up by civilians. Traffic police choose to ignore vehicles parked in restricted areas in narrow streets and alleys to avoid fights with the drivers and residents.
The suicide rate in the country is rising at alarming pace. Society has gotten richer, but its success also casts some dark shadows. People beat up civil officials and maliciously attack public figures online without strong justification.
Our society is turning more and more unfriendly and uncomfortable, dominated by shouts, tirades, accusations and the use of physical force. Happiness in a society does not necessarily rise with per capita income. Battling on a daily basis to survive and safeguard one’s rights in a hostile environment can wear people and the society down.
Decorum and discipline are valuable public assets. It is important to build bridges, roads and civic centers to improve civilian life. But we also need to come up with a visionary, long-term plan to establish orderliness and decency in our society. This must start from elementary school. How about increasing the number of traffic wardens by hiring senior citizens for a start?
*The writer is a professor at the Sogang University Graduate School of International Studies.
By Cho Yoon-je