Circle of Reciprocity

About a ten minute walk from our house, there is an unbelievably picturesque winding boardwalk beside a creek. In the spring and summer, one can easily spot turtles and ducks enjoying the warm waters, while the edge of the boardwalk is lined with a profusion of colorful flowers and charming plants tended by the residents. I always take this route whenever I go to the supermarket. One day,  one of the residents was pruning back the shrubs and there were leaves and twigs strewn on the boardwalk. I walked passed without giving it much thought and when she saw me, she apologized profusely for the “mess” and the “trouble” she caused with the pruning job (I put quotation marks because I really did not even consider the situation as such). I reassured her that I was not bothered at all and walked away smiling and feeling good. It was such a small gesture but I really appreciated how, one, she acknowledged my presence and, two, she made an effort to consider my feelings.

This incident brought to mind a starkly different experience back home in Manila. Some household from two or three streets away must have been having a party of some sort and they rented one of those portable karaoke machines and were singing at what I believe is the machine’s maximum volume. It was about seven in the evening and I didn’t mind the racket that much as it was kind of drowned out by the evening news on television and the sounds of cooking. Come ten in the evening, the hour which I consider is rude for people to telephone, there was no indication at all that the karaoke party was winding down. I tried muffling the bad singing and awful song selection with a pillow but was unsuccessful. Finally at about one in the morning, they mercifully stopped.

Foreigners often marvel at how safe, orderly, clean, and just generally pleasant it is to live in Japan. There are many instances when they would find themselves saying, “Wow, we can’t do that back home,” or “This doesn’t happen back home.” It is a country where restaurant staff would run down the street to return small change intentionally left at the table as a tip, where people could generally leave their belongings unattended and would find them undisturbed, where many houses do not have walls around them, or if they do, they are relatively low. (On this last item, houses in Manila usually have high walls around them and are topped with barbed wire and broken shards of glass). Only in Japan have I seen well-stocked warehouses left wide open with no one watching. What a sharp contrast to my home in Manila where practically all establishments have security guards that check your bag before you enter (yes, even small donut shops).  Here in Japan, people’s actions are characterized by a kind of graciousness and thoughtful regard for others.

I have been mulling over the difference between these two societies and how to make sense of my observations. I met up with my parents recently in Hong Kong and one morning we went to have breakfast at a restaurant that served “New Zealand Hoki fish fillet,” which I ordered. My mom (who lived most of her life in Manila) asked me, “How do you know whether that is really Hoki fish fillet or that it really came from New Zealand? For all we know, that is really the dreaded cream dory.” My mom was referring to pangas, a fish farmed in Vietnam and reported to be tainted with a lot of industrial toxins and artificial hormones. It suddenly dawned on me what this is all about: trust. Having lived in Japan for a while, I trusted that labels truthfully represent what they claim to represent, whereas my mom was suspicious of opportunistic people out to make a quick buck through deception.

In a broader sense, trust is a manifestation of a high level of social capital and civic virtue.  It is when relationships matter and people adhere to the norms of trustworthiness and reciprocity (i.e. they can expect the same from others). As norms go, the rules and expectations about appropriate behaviors in different situations are implicit.  People have been socialized on what to do and how to go about things so that they preserve their connection with others. You can almost be sure that others care about your well being and will look out for you. When there is a shared set of values and virtues, there is less crime, cleaner public spaces, and safer streets. Social capital is said to be the grease that makes social transactions smooth and less costly because people are honest, they cooperate, do their share, keep their commitments, and reliably perform their duties.

One downside to high social capital though is that the in-group excludes people whom they perceive as not belonging to their “circle of reciprocity.” Foreigners in Japan sometimes express disappointment in being treated differently no matter how long they have lived here. Every now and then, it is good to be excused from customs that may be a bit tedious, yet at the same time, having a different set of expectations for foreigners prevents them from being fully accepted or assimilated. I wish to bring this concept when thinking about environmental problems. Who do we consider to be within our “circle of reciprocity”? Do we see ourselves accountable to people in other countries? Do we consider the next generation in our decision-making? Do we feel obligated to reciprocate Nature?

A few weeks ago, I read a news article that made me scratch my head. It reported that fifty local residents of Aomori protested the return of 76 cylinders of highly radioactive waste that originated from three domestic power companies (Kansai, Shikoku and Kyushu Electric Power Companies) and were shipped to Britain to be bonded into glass. “Keep nuclear waste out,” they said. The protesters also expressed concern over accidents that could happen during the transportation process. I scratch my head because one, I wonder where these protesters were when the nuclear waste was about to be shipped out in the first place, and two, where do the protesters suggest this nuclear waste be sent when this is Japanese nuclear waste? Is this another case of NIMBY (Not In My Back Yard) – that is, “I don’t care where you ship this nuclear waste as long as it is not anywhere near where I live”?

The thing with environmental problems is that they do not know national borders. Pollution in one country flows down the river into another country. Unless we have found a way to seal off countries with glass domes, air pollution in one place will eventually find its way into other. In the end, our fates are linked, and it would serve us well to enlarge our circles.

First appeared on Eco+Waza’s now defunct webzine (December 2011)

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