Sorry, America, but Japan is better on guns, transit and health care

08/20/2014 12:45 PM

08/20/2014 4:26 PM

Standing close to the A-Bomb Dome is a sobering experience.

And as an American, I also found it a little chilling to be here with my wife and daughter at 8:15 a.m. on Aug. 6, the 69th anniversary of the time and date the United States exploded the first-ever atomic bomb over this city. It led to an estimated 140,000 deaths.

The dome has become the symbol of Hiroshima’s attempt to brand itself as the “peace city,” where people and organizations fight (rather idealistically) for a time when nuclear weapons are no more. The building, less than an eighth of a mile from the hypocenter where the bomb went off, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Most of my other vacation experiences were more uplifting.

As a longtime chronicler of challenges facing the Kansas City area, I made mental notes about some of the lessons Japan, with its population of 128 million, could offer to improve the quality of life in our region and our country of 314 million.

Here are a few examples, while recognizing Japan is not close to being a perfect society and the United States is a great country (but too often hardly exceptional).

Mass transit is everywhere. Thanks to the density of cities I visited — including Hiroshima, Kyoto and Tokyo — buses, streetcars, trains and subways were plentiful. I twice rode the Shinkansen, the bullet train lines that carry passengers at speeds up to 200 miles an hour. There are hardly words to describe how cool it is to be going that fast, sitting in comfortable and roomy seats, on some of the smoothest tracks in the world.

In the Kansas City area, by contrast, we have a badly connected bus system that borders on the mediocre in its service to residents. The paltry 2-mile streetcar line won’t be expanded, for now, thanks to a decision by voters on Aug. 5.

Guns are (almost) nowhere. The well-chronicled safety of Japan is tied, in large part, to its absolute refusal to allow most residents to carry guns. Anytime, anywhere. It works, too. The country had 11 total gun-related homicides in 2008, for instance. That’s a bad month of murders in Kansas City. The United States suffered 11,000 gun-related homicides in 2011.

That’s a horrible waste of life simply to placate the National Rifle Association as well as many Americans’ inane insistence that the Second Amendment allows them to be constantly armed.

Carrying cash is expected. Given Japan’s fervor for technology, it’s surprising how the nation is still a cash-based society. Many restaurants and hostels did not take credit cards. Fortunately, given Japan’s stellar safety record — 8th best on the Global Peace Index — I didn’t worry much about carrying around thousands in cash, waiting to be changed into yen.

I would not recommend doing that in America, 101st on the peace index.

Medical expenses are absurdly low. An aching tooth forced an emergency visit to a dentist in Imabari. The total cost was $40 for an examination and a full-mouth X-ray, without any insurance.

I benefited from being ill in a country that essentially offers universal health care at reasonable costs, a dramatic contrast to what it’s like to live in the United States, which has some of the world’s costliest and most inefficient health care.

Many Japanese people met the positive stereotype of being friendly, respectful (lots of bowing) and helpful. That’s another appreciated contrast with America. Meanwhile, gas prices topped $6 a gallon, which promoted more use of mass transit, provided smooth roads and warmed the heart of this gasoline-tax advocate.

Perhaps the biggest and least pleasant differences I saw were the high costs for food, lodging and land.

But that’s OK. I don’t plan to move to Japan. I’d rather stay in Kansas City for now and try to make it a better place.

To reach Yael T. Abouhalkah, call 816-234-4887 or send email to abouhalkah@kcstar.com. Follow him on Twitter at YaelTAbouhalkah.

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