Wondering, wandering, and making sense of the world.


Cuba, the anti-Japan


Cuba is an island nation, Japan is an island nation, and the similarities end there. Walking around Havana, I couldn’t stop thinking to myself, “this is the most anti-Japan place ever.”

In Cuba, life happens on the streets. People hangout outside of their houses, play games, eat snacks, etc. Go to the parks, plazas, seaside, and it’s full of people enjoying each other’s company. In Japan, streets are the spaces between destinations. Besides festivals, very little happens on most streets as people busily move from point A to point B. Fukuoka is a little bit of an exception as the warmer weather allows for food carts on the streets where people come together, but those have died off in most Japan cities.

Cubans are incredibly confident and casual. They have no problem starting conversations with complete strangers on the streets and there seems to be no social rules on how to engage people. I’ve had many curious Cubans start conversations with me, and they weren’t all scam artists and pimps. I actually had a hard time distinguishing between the touts and the genuinely curious locals. Japanese people are painfully shy and the culture is so formal. It’s annoyingly difficult to start conversations with people and have them open up. This is why drinking is so intertwined in the culture in Japan.

Refinement is not Cuba’s strong suit. Walking around the cities, you see that a lot of things are rough around the edges, the roads, the buildings, the food. You get the sense that things are just good enough (or sometimes not good enough). Japan is all about refinement. Japan loves perfecting everything, sometimes to an unbelievably irrational tune, even meals that cost few dollars with razor thin margins.

Despite the amount of traffic, the density of the cities, Japan is surprisingly quiet (unless you step into a pachinko parlor or an electronics store). Havana, despite how little seem to be going on, is loud. The people shout from the streets to the windows, mufflers on cars seem to be a foreign concept, and music is very much part of the city. Havana sounds more lively while major Japanese cities feel more busy, which leads to…

Time. Everyone is always going somewhere in Japan, and everyone looks busy. Very rarely do you see people “wandering.” Even during the weekends, people are going somewhere to relax. Time moves at a different pace in Cuba. No one seems to be in a rush to do anything, and people are just hanging out outside without any set aim. Some people might see this as unemployment and hoodlumism, but when so many people are doing it, happily, it feels natural. Life, and values are just different in Cuba.

Japan is a well oiled machine, where the individual pieces are placed and functions efficiently to create a harmonious prosperous society. Cuba is a collection of individuals with a strong culture and loose organization that functions, somewhat. Interestingly, in the 2006 Satisfaction with Life Index, Japan ranks 90th and Cuba ranks 82nd, despite a five to one nominal GDP per capita difference (two to one PPP). Two completely different societies, two sets of strengths and weaknesses, many things both countries can do much better.


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