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Learning from Japan, once again. I'll bow to that.

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WARNER BROS./Newscom

(Read caption) Tom Cruise tries to act like a Japanese warrior in the 2003 American movie, The Last Samurai.

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The giant American electric utility, the Tennessee Valley Authority, has become the first US operator of atomic reactors to apply lessons from Japan’s nuclear crisis. The TVA announced plans Thursday for new safety measures – such as adding another back-up power system – based on mistakes made at the Fukushima Daiichi plant.

This is hardly the first time in recent decades that Japan has influenced America, even by a negative lesson. From industry to arts, from food to kid games, more Japanese ideas and styles now seem to embed themselves in American life than the other way around.

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Japan’s national slogan from the late 19th century – “learn from the West” – could easily be updated to “teach the West.”

Sushi and edamame are now staples in US grocery stores, as is the game sudoku in newspapers. What American child since the 1980s hasn't been touched by Nintendo's Game Boy or Pokémon? Who hasn’t tried to sing karaoke, fold origami paper, or write a haiku poem? Who hasn't used kamikaze to describe sacrificial suicide, marveled at a Japanese player in Major League Baseball, or learned a bit of karate or jujitsu for self-defense? Who, by now, doesn't know the word tsunami?

What baby-boomer doesn’t remember John Belushi as a samurai in a deli on Saturday Night Live? What Hollywood director doesn’t learn from the films "Seven Samurai"or "Rashomon" by Akira Kurosawa (not to mention the sci-fi Godzilla movies or the influence of manga comics on action films)?

When US automakers describe their recent progress, they use Japanese automakers as the standard of excellence. Lexus defines quality, as Sony once did for analog TVs. Sony also set a high standard for personal music devices (Walkman) that led to the iPod.

Management techniques from Japan, such as encouraging workers to suggest innovations in the workplace, are now standard in US companies.

Japanese fashion designer Issey Miyake made women’s wear both elegant and transportable. Zen Buddhism had a powerful effect on the new-age movement in the 1960s, imported by proponents such as Allen Watts, a Briton who moved to America. Japanese aesthetics are now common in American homes, pottery, painting, and gardens (all of that really started in the 19th century).

After World War II, of course, it was the US that tried to teach the Japanese a thing or two.

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The American Occupation from 1945-52 implanted new forms of democracy, pacifism, unions, and other “modern ways.” Japanese companies adopted American technology and management techniques. US cultural trends (e.g. Disneyland) were closely imitated. So many American-style dairy farms were built in the northern island of Hokkaido – to provide milk for Japanese children – that parts of the landscape look like Wisconsin.

The cross-flow of ideas across the Pacific may now favor those from Japan – even if they are only negatives lessons like those from the Fukushima disaster. The US hardly plays the big-brother role these days. Sayonara to that.


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