I had this realization (as with so many others) while living in Japan. I first noticed it when I was sitting in a "kaiten-zushi" restaurant, watching some cooks chop fish. It was robotic, repetitive work, about as difficult - and about as well-paid - as flipping burgers. But my Japanese friend referred to one of those cooks as "sushi-ya-san", meaning "Mr. Sushi Chef". She used the honorific reflexively, not patronizingly or sarcastically. The respect for this low-paid, low-skilled worker was reflexive, automatic. I suddenly wondered if we could get Americans to start calling burger-flippers "sir". The thought made me laugh."Equal respect" in Japanese society? This is the culture which has codes governing the right way for social unequals to bow to one another that are so rigorous and tightly defined that schools of international business etiquette often don't even try to teach them. The proper calibration of status is reflected in depth and duration of one's bow to the other. It is the most rigidly formal stratification of any culture I have ever encountered.
There are other ways in which the customs of Japanese society work to encourage equal respect.
The advice you will get as an outsider is to try to bow 'equal depth, equal duration' when meeting your Japanese business contact. This will generally be accepted, but it is not in any way a gesture of equality of respect. Rather, they accept it as a kind of recognition that gaijin are simply incapable of behaving in a fully civilized manner. From them, the acceptance is intended as a magnanimous offer of charity; from you, the bow is intended as a kind of supplication, a widow's mite of courtesy that, while in no sense adequate, is the best you can do given your unfortunate circumstances.
The reason Japanese society refers to the sushi chef with an honorific is because he accepts his place. In return for knowing his place, he is not treated with open disrespect -- what would be the point of that? You need not enforce submission on someone who accepts it and demonstrates his acceptance openly.
"No one discusses how much money anyone makes," he goes on to say. "Displays of wealth are a major taboo[.]" But observe their reactions upon trading business cards.
By these things I do not mean to criticize Japanese society, which has its own beauty and despair. I mean to say that the initial observation is so flawed that one ought not to try to draw any lessons from it.
What sense does it make to talk of 'equality' of respect in any case? Is it equal like you have equal rights under the law? The reason you can talk about human equality in that sense -- it is the only way in which it is possible to talk about humans as equals and avoid speaking nonsense -- is that there is a single source for the rights you have under the law, which creates those rights the same way for every entity. Respect is not like that. Respect is not the creation of a single source, but is created (or not) by each individual you encounter. Some will elect to respect you more than others. You don't even get equal respect with yourself: how much respect you get depends on whom you ask. (Free advice: ask your dog.)
Is it equal like a measure of sugar or cracked red wheat? If so, it should be fungible. If I haven't any of my own today I can substitute a cup from my neighbor, and when I later replace it her situation will be no different than before the exchange. Can I then substitute the respect I have for you for the respect I have for my mother?
Of course not, and the example is intended to begin showing why. Respect follows from relationships. The respect you owe your mother is not merely unequal to the respect you owe someone else, it is categorically different from the respect you owe someone else -- your wife, your first sergeant, an older gentleman, a polite stranger. It is nonsense to speak of respect in terms of equalities.
But let's say we get the category correct, because we hold the relationship stable. Let's talk more about your first sergeant. Most likely over the course of time you'd have more than one. They share the same relationship with you (assuming you don't change ranks or positions yourself, which for this example we will assume). Now, within that category, do you owe them equal respect?
Of course not again. One of them may be a great NCO, who looks after his unit, puts his soldiers before himself, and helps make sure that you achieve your mission. He is devoted to making sure you get home in one piece, prepared to go on to greater things. The other one may be a lousy loudmouth who throws his people under the bus for personal ease or advancement.
If we hold the relationship stable, then, we can talk about respect in terms of more and less. Equality of respect becomes possible if and only if we have a stable relationship. But equality is not at all someone's due. Respect is earned.
We may rightly say that Americans don't evaluate respect correctly, which causes them to fail to respect people who have a genuine claim -- the hard worker at a poor-paying job who is pulling his own weight, for example. There's a relationship there that is not being treated with the respect it is due.
But drop the nonsense about equality, let alone 'redistribution' of respect. Equality of respect is a bad concept.