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How can Japan help save the world? Be more Taiwanese

by Amy Chavez

Japan had Taiwan under its rule from 1895 until 1945. Despite the history of colonial rule, Taiwanese today have largely favorable views of the Japanese. Japan is the third most popular destination for the Taiwanese, after South Korea and China.

Taiwan is also a popular tourist destination for the Japanese, perhaps due to their curiosity of the island that was once part of Japan. The Ciaotou Sugar Factory, the first modern factory in Taiwan, is now a stop on the tourist path. It was built during the Japanese rule and heralded an industrial age as the Japanese went on to construct highways, railways, hospitals and schools. Japan developed hot spring towns such as Beitou, outside of Taipei, where you can still check in to Japanese-style accommodation with futon. You can shop at Uniqlo, the Muji Store, or the Sogo and Mitukoshi department stores. You can eat at Yoshinoya, Mister Donut or at any of the ubiquitous Japanese street-side restaurants. You’ll even get complimentary packets of green tea in your hotel room.

After having spent some time in Taiwan recently, I think there are a few things the Japanese could learn from modern Taiwan too. Here is how Taiwan is saving the world:

Going green

Taiwan’s MRT subway uses plastic electronic tokens as well as the more modern smart cards. For those who don’t use smart cards, the plastic tokens provide a reusable medium that eliminates unnecessary waste that would be generated with a paper ticket. They’re easy to locate in your pocket and don’t try to hide the way those paper tickets do too! When you consider how many paper tickets are still issued every day on Japan’s railways, doesn’t it make sense to use a token instead?

In addition, all of Taiwan’s restaurants use reusable lightweight metal or plastic chopsticks — no more disposable chopsticks to burn or end up in landfills! Likewise, if you want a plastic bag for your purchase at the convenience store, you have to pay for the bag. More than anything, it forces people to make a decision as to whether they really want a bag or not, rather than just accepting it. No more trash cans outside of convenience stores full of plastic bags that were only used from the cash register to the door! Do you use face masks when you have a cold? In Taiwan, you can buy cloth ones with fashionable designs on them — and just wash them.

These are such small solutions to the big problem of waste. Why can’t Japan do the same?

Language aids for foreign tourists

Most countries recognize the benefits of international tourism, and although Taiwan may still be relatively new to international tourism, this has not stopped this island of 23 million Chinese speakers from attacking the language barrier. But rather than trying to impress upon the local population that they need to learn English, the country has taken it upon itself to find a solution — by offering free 24-hour language translation services.

Can’t explain to the store clerk what product you’re looking for? Just call a special number on your mobile phone and a friendly Chinese translator will come on and explain what you want to the clerk. Taxi drivers do not shun foreign passengers due to the language barrier but instead dial the number and hand the phone to you. You just tell the translator where you want to go, and she tells the driver. Easy! Why can’t Japan do this?

Promoting kindness on the train

Despite seats being marked “priority seats” on Taiwan’s trains and subways, in practice all seats are priority seats. Young people wouldn’t dare sit down unless the train car is empty. Should someone be reading a book and not notice the woman with two children who just got on the train, another passenger is sure to nudge the reader and alert them. I was surprised to find that train seats are also, apparently, given to foreigners (unless I just look waaaay older than I really am). C’mon Japan, let’s have a kindness on the train campaign. Rather than leaving it up to JR companies, why not lead by example?

Healthy diets (and saving cows!)

Due to their Taosit/Buddhist background, many Taiwanese eat vegetarian at least once a week. As a result, vegetarian restaurants are plentiful. And the food is great — full of spices and flavors not usually associated with non-mooing, non-squawking cuisine. And why do we have this idea that to eat vegetarian, you have to be vegetarian? The Taiwanese have even come up with “fake” beef and fish flavors so that people can eat vegetarian but still have the animalistic taste.

If we ate vegetarian even once a week, we could give fish a day off — say Mondays. Cows would get Tuesdays off and fowl can have Wednesdays. If it snorts or whinnies, it gets Thursdays, and Fridays will be a day off for mollusks and tentacled creatures. All others get weekends off.

And why shouldn’t people be encouraged to eat vegetarian? We hear about the oceans being overfished, and the land being over-grazed, but no one has ever heard of the Earth being over-vegetablized. With the plethora of soy products and other vegetable matter in Japan, why is vegetarian cuisine limited to shojin ryori, which people might eat just once a year?

Healthy outdoor lifestyles

Taiwan, like Japan, already has a bicycle culture. But the latter now has a cycling culture as well — where people can go long distances on two wheels rather than just to the office or shopping and back. In just a decade, cycling has been embraced by every age bracket and income level, making Taiwan one of the leading cycling countries in the world. Why isn’t Japan promoting more outdoor activities and parks where people can exercise or just gather socially? Especially for the elderly, movement is paramount to living healthy. We tend to think that Japan is a tiny country with little land but with Japan’s rapidly falling population and the increasingly obvious derelict real estate, the future brings plenty of opportunities to green up our cities and create more walking and cycling paths.

Many elderly people sit inside an apartment in the city, where the walls gradually close in around them. Most people would rather talk to trees and birds than walls. Perhaps this is why many homeless people prefer to live outside in parks rather than in shelters. A room with walls can be isolationary, the same concept under which prisons operate. So why imprison ourselves when there is a whole world out there to live and breathe life from?

Taiwan is making efforts to change people’s lifestyles so they are healthier and more in touch with the pulse of nature — the sunrise and sunset, an afternoon breeze through the trees, and the natural sound of water flowing in a river. They’re doing this by developing areas along rivers (Tamsui) and ports (Keelung, Kaosiung) with shops, outdoor cafes, and night markets. They’re moving from an indoor to and outdoor social society. Hey Japan, can’t we do that?

Of course we can.