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Sunday, Oct. 30, 2005

COUNTERPOINT

What lies beneath the myth of middle-class consciousness


Special to The Japan Times

A friend sent me an email about some new people, all Japanese, she had met at a party. There was a young man who had worked in Africa for Medecins Sans Frontieres. One middle-age man had quit a stable job in broadcasting to study French in Paris. A female graduate student in marine biology was also there. She apparently told my friend how much she detested Japan's buddy-buddy acquiescence in George W. Bushs "war on terror."

I myself have recently encountered a Japanese who volunteers at a women's refuge in Shibuya; an elderly man who despairs so much about growing Japanese nationalism that he is contemplating moving overseas, though he has never been outside of this country; and two high school students, both female, who are studying Korean "in order to learn about the country that gave Japan so much culture and civilization in our history."

It all set me to thinking about how diverse this country is in its social makeup and yet how hidebound, conventional and intellectually impoverished is its contemporary media. Reading Japan's major newspapers, watching television, listening to the radio, you get almost no idea that people such as those described above exist in Japan. The Japanese media of our century is pitching to the blandest common denominator, as if the entire nation were a niche market of 126,000,000 like-minded consumers, all in agreement about what to say, where to go and how to think.

Needless to say, this serves the interests of corporate Japan, who can count on producing a narrow range of goods suitable to the Japanese lifestyle (which they conveniently define as if it were being lived out by one big happy family of Japanese).

In previous decades there have been popular theories to explain how virtually all Japanese people fit a pattern.

Back in the 1960s Japanese were told that they were a "homogeneous nation of people." This was long before minority rights or policies protecting the disadvantaged were recognized in Japan. The unsavory racial undertones implied by this homogenous-nation theory were naturally downplayed. It was a theory designed to create social unity and emphasize industriousness and loyalty to employer.

With the economic boom of the 1970s and '80s, the theory of the churyuishiki, or sense of belonging to the middle class, came into vogue. According to this, all Japanese ate the same kinds of foods and spoke in a kind of ESP-like code. The Japanese phrase ishindenshin, which means "meeting of the minds" or "tacit understanding," was bandied about as if it were a special quality of communion that only Japanese people experienced.

But nothing kills off phony myths of solidarity like a recession. In the 1990s, Japanese homogeneity went into a tailspin and the middle-class consciousness crashed to the ground. Ethnic groups, from the Koreans to the Brazilians and others, began asserting their rights as minorities in ways they had not before. And the collapse of the bubble showed up "evenly distributed Japanese prosperity" as a myth: The cover over the underclass was lifted off, and the world saw that genuine deprivation does exist in this country.

The sarin gas attacks of 1994, in Matsumoto, and nearly a year later in Tokyo, and the catastrophic Great Hanshin Earthquake of January 1995, caused Japanese people to become introspective, to question the postwar value of growth for growth's sake. Official Japan's initial reaction to the earthquake was the usual string of compassionate cliches and red-tape provisos, while young volunteers flocked to the disaster zone to do what they could. Personal commitment to strangers was replacing, if only for a set time, dedication to one's own social or economic circle. It appeared as if politicians were becoming sensitive to the needs of the elderly, the disabled and the disadvantaged.

Talk shows on television and major articles in newspapers turned their attention to social ills. Volunteer groups received substantial coverage on television; ethnic minorities resident in Japan were given a forum for their grievances in the printed press; endemic problems of bullying, child abuse and domestic violence were openly discussed. It certainly looked as if Japan was transforming itself: Perhaps it would no longer be a hush-hush society that turned a blind eye to misery.

Well, what is happening today? And why do many "different" Japanese feel disillusioned with their country today?

The landslide victory of the Liberal Democratic Party in last month's election goes a long way in symbolizing the mood of the nation. Japanese people have reverted to the old central comfort zone, bolstered by a tightened relationship with the United States (which is primarily a strategic marriage of convenience) and a resurgence of nationalistic pride. The LDP has not so much captured the center as recreated it in its own image, an image in which empty slogans and keywords such as "reform" and "war on terror" mask a lack of concern for the everyday problems faced by millions of people living in this country. As forthe majority of Japanese, tamed again, they have once more unwittingly entered the cage in the middle of the ring and sat still on the pedestal provided by the tamer.

In the last few years there has been a spate of articles in the Asahi Shimbun and the Nikkei Shimbun, to name two, about alternative lifestyles and non-mainstream trends. But these are virtually all confined to things, admirable as they are, such as marketing organic vegetables and women's investment circles.

I began thinking again of the people my friend met at the party, and of those that I encounter in traveling around the country. There is another Japan -- a caring, compassionate and eager to be committed Japan -- that is deprived of a voice by the political and corporate interests who gain greatly by denying them one.

The young Turks of Japan, such as Internet barons Takafumi Horie and Hiroshi Mikitani, and investment activist Yoshiaki Murakami, should be the kind of people to start up a truly provocative and progressive newspaper or magazine; they have the funds and popular appeal to challenge the values of the status quo. And yet all they appear to be aspiring to is to trade places with the moguls of a previous generation and reap the financial benefit for themselves. Benevolent philanthropists they are not.

Japan is not homogeneous in terms of attitudes toward society or lifestyle choices, nor is it a country steeped in a middle-class consciousness. Brilliant, restless and radically committed individuals and divergent groups do exist. They cry out for recognition and for a rightful place in their society. They will not be swallowed up by the great gray center. And they will not be marginalized forever. Someone is bound to come along and champion their causes. That person can redefine Japan and transform the gray center into a rainbow of color.



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