One of the biggest cultural gaps I find being an American in Japan is old people. As much as they get on my nerves I do admire the old cockroaches. Constantly bumbling around, yakking at the top of their lungs early in the morning, completely self-absorbed... gawd, they can be annoying! On the other hand, being over 80 years old and having the energy of a teenager is something I almost never see back home. It demonstrates the cultural difference in attitudes regarding age.
For the sake of simplicity, the U.S. has two basic cultural foundations that inform the society. Christianity preaches original sin while Atheism is the Darwinian/Freudian model that life is a meaningless accident, the subconscious is a harbor for suppressed emotions, and entropy is the rule. At the core of both models human beings are viewed as inherently flawed creatures. Despite U.S. politics I would like to believe otherwise.
In a country where religion is minimal, fundamentalism is unheard of, and Zen Buddhism is the dominant spiritual philosophy, the picture is entirely different. All species including humans are viewed as an expression of the divine source, which is something beyond our words and symbols rather than an "invisible man who lives in the sky with a list of 10 things he doesn't want you to do". It's a well known fact that Orientals generally have longer life spans and retain full mental and physical capacities for much longer.
Another significant cultural difference is the food. Some of the funkiest, nastiest, smelliest stuff the old farts eat is also the healthiest. You don't see them guzzling soda and candy bars. In contrast, the younger generations are eating more Western junk food, less traditional food, and are beginning to have health problems akin to Americans the likes of which the older generations have never experienced. Meanwhile, the old timers drink like fish, chain smoke, and look like they'll outlast the brats.
When I see elderly Americans it's depressing. Many are consuming handfuls of pills daily, oxygen tanks are common, and there's often a general air of sadness about them. We're taught to respect older people- is it because of knowledge gained or do we feel sorry for their decay? Probably neither. Respecting older people in our society is really just obeying authority. If we truly respected them we would prize their knowledge and wisdom instead of glorifying the beauty of youth as our popular culture does.
The old fucks (refer to George Carlin on aging for the definition of 'old fuck') in my western Tokyo neighborhood are a pain in the ass. They have full mental and physical faculties and not enough to do, so they bumble around driving everybody nuts. The local hospital has a sign in the waiting area that reads, "Seniors, please don't have your picnic here." But at the same time I admire them. Most survived WWII and the 40 year rebuilding of the country that culminated in the Bubble Economy of the late 80's which burst in the 90's. At an age when their American counterparts are chained like slaves to petrochemical medication at over inflated prices these cranky old fucks do whatever they want whenever they want in perfect health. And having lived through the rise of the Imperial Army, the defeat in WWII, the rebuilding of the country and the continued corruption of politicians they don't give a shit about Social Security or retirement plans. They independently made their own retirement plans years ago and are financially sound today. It's one thing to talk about freedom, it's another to simply live it.