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Last Monday (Dec 5), Japan bowed out of the World Cup in Qatar with a heartbreaking loss on penalties to Croatia.

Though their bid to reach the quarter-finals for the first time was thwarted, the Samurai Blue had impressed with their lung-bursting heroics on the pitch.

Off the pitch, Japan supporters too were winning the hearts of fans around the world.

Incredulous football fans were awed by videos on social media of Japanese fans picking up rubbish in the stadium post-game – even in matches where their team was not playing.

After their loss to Croatia, where they might have been forgiven for leaving their trash behind with their broken dreams, Japanese fans still cleaned up after themselves while wiping away their tears.

Perhaps this might be new to those who haven’t followed them, but Japanese fans have always been known to be great travelling supporters. In 2014, after the Samurai Blue lost 4-0 in an international friendly against Brazil at the Singapore Sports Hub, the Japanese fans left their seats spick and span.

So if this isn’t new, why are we still so taken by it?

It says more about us than we think: Japanese fans remind us of what we would like to do, but often don’t.

Uniquely Japanese behaviour

Uniquely Japanese behaviour 
Image Source: Shutterstock/ Gansstock

What makes Japanese sports fans so different from others around the world? One comment from a Japanese supporter struck me – that they did it out of respect for the venue and that it wasn’t for the cameras.

Even if we take what is said on camera and on social media with a healthy pinch of salt, these fans said it so matter-of-factly – and through their actions – that I believe them.

My friend, veteran diplomat Professor Tommy Koh, has mentioned the Japanese (among others) multiple times before while talking about creating a First World civic society. They have pristine public toilets; they do not litter – and more so, they pick up litter and confront litterbugs.

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I’d like to take it a bit further and to say that it isn’t just respect for the place they are in and the event they are attending. It is self-respect in victory or defeat.

Japanese fans stand out not so much because they come from a highly regulated society – it is because they have a self-regulating ideology.

We see this in uniquely Japanese words like atarimae, which means, “of course”, in this case that cleanliness is expected from them. Or the phrase, Tatsu tori ato wo nigosazu, literally translated, “a bird taking flight doesn’t muddy its tracks”.

More significantly, they answer the question: What would you do when no one is watching?

Can we do the same in Singapore?

Can we do the same in Singapore? 
Image Source: Shutterstock/ PavelMuravev

Singapore is fine city – it’s an old joke that does not feel less true today.

Is this really how we prefer to be managed or be guided to civic action, through financial sanction?

Recent reports highlighted the problem of food waste and rubbish at publicly accessible sky gardens at Housing and Development Board (HDB) blocks, causing a nuisance for residents. Are fines, cameras or even barring access the answer?

Take the tray return campaign
Image Source: Shutterstock/ tang90246

Take the tray return campaign. It went on for years, using softer techniques to nudge patrons to clear their trays at hawker centres, to little avail until new rules threatening fines kicked in last year.

Though some complained, it seems the vast majority in Singapore clear their trays with few to no mutterings these days. Our society (and our cleaners) are the better for it, but is it still an externally compelled behaviour?

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The mark of a mature society is the ability of its citizens to do the right thing even when people are not watching. Self-respect is about civic mindedness where norms are internalised to become an integral part of their shared social consciousness.

It has become part of their identity – their Japanese-ness, so to speak. Can it be become part of ours? I look forward to the day when we make Singapore a truly fine city.

This article was first published on CNA.