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Thursday, Sept. 26, 2002

THE ZEIT GIST

Neither here nor there: recipe for mayhem


Swimming against the current in Japan has never been a good idea, even if you are armed to the teeth with logic and common sense.

Two types of people go to swimming pools -- the serious types who swim lots of laps back and forth across the pool, and the splashers. Whereas the former group swims in straight, predictable lines, the latter group doesn't care where they go as long as they're having fun.

In the world of aquatics, they're a twain that should never, ever, meet.

I fall into the lap-swimming category. Which is why I was relieved one day this past summer when I saw the lifeguards at my local outdoor pool grab some ropes to create swimming lanes.

Now, I thought, I would be able to do some serious laps, instead of having to bounce off the dozens of flibbertigibbets with their floating toys.

But to my amazement, the ropes were being strung right down the pool's center, instead of off to one of the sides, as is usual.

Stranger still, there was only one lane, rather than two.

"So how," I asked the chief lifeguard, "can such a narrow passage accommodate swimmers traveling in two opposite directions?"

He replied that the lane was one direction only. So after you come to the end of the lane, you get out and make your way back to the starting point, either by swimming through the human flotsam or by walking along the deck.

"What's the point of that?!?" I pressed on. "How can I be expected to get a decent workout with such a cockamamy setup?"

The lifeguard, who moments ago was as affable as can be, looked at me with narrowing eyes. "Two lanes would take up too much space and that would inconvenience the other swimmers," he said.

"It's all been decided."

In short, it's a setup that doesn't serve the purpose of either of the groups; both are inconvenienced.

In Japanese, there is a phrase to describe this kind of muddled solution: chuto-hanpa. There is no equivalent expression in English, although "half-baked" or "wishy-washy" convey the idea.

Chuto-hanpa is an expression you hear a lot in Japan. That's because the wishy-washy approach to problem solving is common here.

Many pundits have covered this concept as it pertains to politics and economics.

Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi's originally bold reforms, to cite one example, are being watered down to the point of uselessness so as to appease the various vested interests in his party.

Yet the effects of that concept -- which deems compromise to be absolutely essential before a decision can be made or a plan carried out -- can be seen and felt in many aspects of everyday life here.

Just take a look at your local policeman.

When the bosozoku, or hot-rodders, rumble into town, the cops often refrain from taking immediate action against them for fear of sparking a riot. Consequently, the punks are given free reign to block traffic for several hours and are then collared after they've run out of steam. The kids get their fun and the motorists are relieved at the sight of police rounding up the troublemakers.

When the blaring sound-trucks of right-wing groups snarl traffic and are in clear violation of Tokyo's antinoise laws, the police not only refuse to lift a finger but escort them along the road to minimize gridlock.

On another matter, the government promotes the use of bicycles but takes only half-hearted measures. Bike lanes are painted at traffic intersections but then disappear once you get on the road or sidewalk. Special bike roads, such as those found in Amsterdam, are nearly nonexistent here. If you happen to leave your bike overnight near the station, your lock will be cut, the bike carted off and ransomed for 5,000 yen.

Behind all the examples is the belief that it's better that everyone endures some degree of inconvenience rather than having one particular group coming out ahead.

Still, there is something to be said for the chuto-hanpa approach. The compromises ensure that no one ends up losers, although no one can claim to be winners.

Yet this distinctly Japanese approach may not be long for this world.

There's a harsh and rational world out there, one that, like the lap swimmers, likes to take a straight, predictable course. It is expecting Japan to follow suit by the adoption of more universal methods of decision-making and problem-solving.

The Japan of the future may no longer be able to muddle its way through.



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