Korea versus Japan

Jongno, Seoul and Ginza, Tokyo. Photos: Peninsularity Ensues

The rear door of the taxi opened itself toward me, and swung closed as I sat. I guess this was to save me from having to do anything, or touch anything. The driver smiled and bowed, before launching into some of the most appallingly irrational taxi-driver behaviour I had witnessed in years.

Pulling out smoothly from the curb, he used his indicators and not the horn. Verbal abuse and mumbled death-threats at real or imaginary targets outside the vehicle were entirely absent. The driver failed completely to swerve violently across lanes, even when the opportunity presented. I’ve been in taxis before. This guy was clearly some kind of unbalanced lunatic.

A couple of short journeys later I realised that it was just Japan. Tokyo, the world’s biggest mega-city with a metropolitan population of around 38 million, is… quiet. I mean, Twilight Zone quiet. This shouldn’t be possible. The people are pathologically polite. I sat down in the ultra-trendy Ginza district to have a cigarette and a policeman materialised to calmly explain that this was a no-smoking area, before bowing and apologising for disturbing me. I’m not used to any of this.

The streets were clean, like… Singapore clean but without that sense of sterility. Somehow, there were no garbage bins. A businessman was smoking in a narrow alley, so I waited. He finished, put the cigarette butt into something purpose-built that lived in his suit pocket, then continued on. Later in the evening after some really good ramen, all 38 million residents of greater Tokyo sensibly decided to go home, turn out the lights and have some sleep. This was all very strange. I decided to go with that flow. I went back to my capsule hotel and climbed into my coffin.

After a few days it was time to head back to Seoul. Ah, wonderful, chaotic, sometimes abrasive Seoul. The taxi driver looked like he hadn’t slept in days, but managed to drive, shout abuse at the other road users he was cutting off and watch the baseball game on his dashboard television. This guy knew how taxi drivers are supposed to behave.

Seoul, like everywhere on Earth is smaller than Tokyo, but as megatropali go Seoul still has a respectable population of about 24 million, and unlike Tokyo, this city doesn’t stop. Families sit chatting in restaurants at 2.00am, instilling in their young children the importance of sleep deprivation. Seoul is messy, and loud.

If by chance you sense the slightest hint of linguistic bias here (I never claimed to present any kind of facts or objectivity) I do love Korea, perhaps partially because I understand it a little after spending seven years there, which does outweigh the ten days I’ve spent in Japan.

They’re both fascinating countries. I guess my point is simply that they are just so different. Some Korean friends have at times suggested that, for example, Americans, British and Australians are all culturally the same. When I explained that this simply isn’t true, and joked that many westerners think of NE Asians in the same way, they were appalled. They pointed out the different languages, ancient and diverse histories, food, fashion, norms of acceptable public behaviour… they pointed out that we westerners all speak English, wear jeans and eat burgers and shit. Fair points all (to a point).

It’s definitely worth a trip to both Japan and Korea. Then go a bit further west to Beijing. That’s a whole different planet again. Cheers.




  1. I just feel like traveling Tokyo to check out by myself. Seoul has been one of my favortie destinations since I left there to settle in other city. It sounds a lttle bit ironic but that’s the way many Korans love Seoul.

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