Confucius Lives Next Door: What Living in the East Teaches Us About Living in the West

Reviewed on , book by T.R. Reid

When a ship-yard with 100s of employees has to close due to lack of demand, what do you do? Lay everyone off, or give the group 10 years to return to profitability in some other industry? The former is unthinkable to many co-operations in Japan. The latter would make any Fortune 500 CEO laugh. Yet, that’s exactly what happened in one Japanese form—the shipyard summoned their collective creativity and decided to use their wave and snow simulation technology to create indoor beaches and skiing-hills. They have been quite successful.

This is the Confucianism weaved deep into the East Asian social fabric in action: the well-being of the group above all else. Losing your job can be what pushes people out of society, as anyone who’s read Evicted would attest to. This societal trait to prioritize the group, Reid suggests, is how nations like Japan have succeeded in a stunning economic recovery from the devastating fall of the Japanese Empire in 1945. In parallel, the under-appreciated simultaneous social miracle that gives Japan some of the lowest income equality in the world, 1/100s the lawyers per capita as the US, and a murder-rate of 1/25. Not a single bike-lock. Socially acceptable to send your kid and their friend to Disneyland Tokyo on their own on public transit.

Growing up in Denmark, this deep sense of collectivism resonates — the author really means “US” when he says “West.” It’s about as hard for an American to understand how you could possibly leave a baby carriage unattended while in a bakery, as it is for a Dane to comprehend why that’s strange. There are dark sides to the proverbial ‘the nail that sticks up gets hammered down’ society, too. It can put a lid on ambition.

While this is a book about what we can learn from the East, Reid missed the downsides. That makes it less trustworthy. Overall, a pleasant, easy-to-read book that’s worth reading for those with an interest in this particular aspect of Asia.