For all the "Protestant work ethic" that has allegedly driven the English-speaking economies, it barely compares to the drive that is evident in Japanese society. I'm sure there are lazy Japanese students who enjoy spending the summer holidays lying on the couch watching Pokemon or the bizarre game shows that seem to occupy most of the TV channels, but those lazy students seem vastly outnumbered by students who are spending some of the month break at cram school or extension classes.

We visit one school, Chitoku, which has sent delegations to Whanganui for the past 22 years. Even in the holidays, there is about a quarter of the school roll present - and this on a Saturday.

There are students training for athletics in 35C heat. The commitment is remarkable - not that I'm suggesting that as a template we should follow in New Zealand. I would have thought quality time with family has its own innate value in the upbringing of a child, and a kid spending their summer holidays learning by rote, or a father disappearing to work or work-related activities (such as golf) before the household has woken, is not the best paradigm.

But maybe the structure of Japanese society provides some tramlines for young people to follow, helping their decisions about future career.


A friend of mine in Kyoto has a Kiwi-Japanese teenager who has been complaining that her father hasn't offered any direction for her future.

The New Zealand way of "you can do anything you want and we'll support you" has ended up being a burden for parent and child, and she has struggled to find a compass for her adulthood.

I'm not saying Japanese people don't know how to have fun, and this was demonstrated in Nagaizumi at the Waku Waku Festival. Some 40 or 50 groups - dressed in costumes from elves to belly-dancers, from people in happy coats to girls on unicycles - gather for a three-hour parade over a5km strip.

Each group has choreographed its own dance to the one song that playsrepeatedly. Right in the middle of the procession was us - dressed in straw boaters and with NZ flags.

I think we were all a bit anxious, both our lack of practice and the heat was worrying me, but as soon as the music started and the joy of everybody exploded, the heat and whether I had a clear idea of which limb was meant to go where simply did not matter.

The whole community was having fun. Whanganui doesn't have anything quite like the Waku Waku festival in terms of depth of participation. All ages were represented and there was, at my considered estimate, over 10 per cent of the town population dancing.

Our delegation danced (with breaks for beer and water) for three hours. We kept on going until our feet ached and the dance routine was embedded in our psyche. I was immensely proud of the commitment we all showed, but it was commitment inspired by the sheer fun of it all. It was the highlight of the trip for all of us.

We all walked to an izakaya - a typical Japanese pub with the irresistible combo of skewers of meat and beer - when I'm called back to the main stage where the crowd has gathered to see who won the competition.

The mayor called me up, and I was handed a trophy. Highly commended. I assume it was for the enthusiasm we showed, or for most arrhythmic dancing, or for our Japanese friend who wore traditional Maori dress. But as I walk off the stage and ask why we won a prize, one of the council people said simply, "Because you Kiwis are crazy!" And that's a laurel I don't mind wearing.