While touring a Shinto temple in Kyoto, Japan on Thanksgiving, six Japanese students approached my family and me. In school uniforms, offering enthusiastic smiles, they bowed before saying, “Hi, we are Japanese students. May we ask you questions?” They were there as part of a school project and were close in age to our kids. Our daughter is eleven and our son, thirteen.
“Where are you from? Why are you visiting our country and what do you like about Japan?” they asked. We take one to two trips abroad each year. Being Thanksgiving, our family had said what we were all thankful for, with travel near the top of the list. Japan is my ninety-first country. Like America and all the countries I’ve visited, there are things I love and things I do not.
Their last question was, “What do you like best about your country?”
Our daughter quickly said, “School and my friends.”
“Powder days and basketball,” said our son.
“Democracy,” my wife answered.
I watched a student take notes while the others glanced at me. I was stumped. “I agree with my family,” I finally said. They thanked us and bowed. Ever since, I’ve been reconsidering my answer.
Initially, I wanted to say democracy, but that’s not really true. We have pathetic voter turnout, gerrymandering and an urban-rural divide heightened by the electoral college system. Citizens United and treating corporations with human rights is not democracy for all. We currently have four Supreme Court Justices who have been picked by Presidents who lost the popular vote.
Healthcare, a field my wife and I both work in, was an answer I chewed over. Some of us have access to what might be the “best” healthcare system, although as a country, we are the only industrialized democracy where 50 million people remain uninsured. In Japan, where everyone has health care, including those who cannot afford it, the average Japanese person, middle class and wealthy alike, pays $120 a month for dental and health. The average person in Japan sees their internist seven times a year, for no extra charge. While I have no desire to see any doctor seven times a year, for many Americans seeing a primary care doctor ‘once’ isn’t an option. Instead, many poor receive no preventative treatment or go to the emergency room. Both of these options lead to higher long-term societal costs and worse treatment.
Some would say capitalism. But America is not unique in capitalism. In fact, only two days prior, my wife and I called Japan “American capitalism squared.” And capitalism has far too many losers to call it the best thing about America.
In Kyoto and Tokyo combined, there are 10.8 million people. Over more than a week of traveling and visiting crowded, public areas, we saw just four ostensibly homeless people. The social safety nets in Japan are vast. Some believe countries that offer strong safety nets are more moral, or at least less Darwinian. Litter in Japan is almost as infrequent as gun violence. Basic crime is rare. In New Orleans and Denver, the two cities I’ve lived my fifty-one years, homelessness, crime and gun violence abound (though I still love the two vastly different cities).
I’ve just returned home from skiing a 10” powder day in Vail, CO. If I didn’t care so much about the direction of our country and our kids’ futures, I’d agree with our son that powder days are the best thing about America. But many countries have powder days and in America, where skiing is expensive, only a few people ever experience snow skiing. If I could still answer the Japanese students, I’d say, “Our country, more than any other country in the world, is where the most immigrants seek American citizenship.” They want to become Americans because we are so damn good at many things, if not always the best. And the majority of immigrants seeking to become Americans are hardworking, driven people trying to improve their lives and the lives of their families. Directly and indirectly, through their jobs, businesses they start, patients they treat, music, foods and art they create along with taxes they pay, immigrants improve the lives of all Americans.