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Sunday, May 7, 2006

COUNTERPOINT

Japanese being ensnared in ill-suited U.S. trappings


Special to The Japan Times

Back in the 1960s and '70s, the Japanese people were being raked over the coals from West Virginia to the Ruhr Valley and beyond for, chiefly, two things.

First, they were called "economic animals." Presumably this meant that Americans and Europeans believed the motivations and aspirations of Japanese people primarily emanated not from their hearts but from their wallets. "Obsessed by the acquisition of wealth" -- that's how the Western world was characterizing Japan.

Second, many in the West (and not a few older Japanese) decried what they saw as the country's wholesale Americanization. According to this view, young Japanese in particular were aping American customs and losing sight of their native traditions.

Even at the time I thought that these two views of Japan were flawed; and as I look back on that era of stupendous Japanese growth and internationalization, they appear to me more so.

For one thing, the Western pot hardly had the right to call the Japanese kettle black. Americans and Europeans alike were at least as keen on amassing wads of dollars, marks, francs and pounds as Japanese were yen. For another, as in the West so it was in Japan: the country's increasing wealth was a major factor in allowing it to redefine, refine and disseminate culture. Brilliant advances in fashion, architecture, advertising, cuisine, design, magazine production, theater -- you name it -- owed much to Japanese people, many of them young, ambitious and eager for innovation, having some money in their pockets.

In fact, the two decades from the mid-'60s to the mid-'80s can be characterized as a time when Japanese people were culture vultures rather than economic animals.

As for Americanization, I remember well when the first McDonald's opened on July 20, 1971, its emblematic "Golden Arches" stuck into the side of the Mitsukoshi department store on the Ginza in Tokyo. Hamburgers did take off in the ensuing years, but only as they did all over the developed world. Were young Japanese dressing like Americans? Were they acting toward each other like Americans? Not so. Actually, those years -- at least in terms of pop and middle-brow culture -- saw Japan distancing itself from the seductive American lifestyle.

And yet, in thinking about economic animals and Americanization, it occurs to me that our own era, this second decade of Heisei, may be making those labels seriously applicable to Japan. The country has most definitely been a-changin', with the winds of change blowing conspicuously from the United States.

Were Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi a crooner, like "the midnight conceder of Rome" Silvio Berlusconi, he might very well be belting out his song about Japan: "This land is my land . . . from California to the New York Island . . . "

As we pass midpoint in the first decade of the new century, Japan is more and more profoundly identifying with the American model of capitalism. Slashed subsidies to welfare institutions are leaving little option but for people, whatever their personal fate, to be self-sufficient or cared for by loved ones. Those with disabilities are being abandoned on a playing field about as level as your city park's slide.

The privatization of public institutions such as the post office, and the semi-privatization of universities, expose an implicit faith that the marketplace of ideas and achievements is, by definition, open to all. The problem in education is that young people from families with limited means, who until now could dream about getting into Japan's subsidized top national universities, will, in the future, be barred as their fees are cranked up to similar levels as those of private universities.

American-style marketplace socioeconomics may work for America, with its long-standing mobility of workers around the country, its enormous pool of hard-working migrants, a government (especially the present one) that is at the beck-and-call of business, and an openness and sharing of information that allows even the disadvantaged to access the centers of power.

Japan, on the other hand, is still an information-blocking society, where those in power retain it by keeping as many cards as they can as close to their puffed-out chests as possible.

The result of all this is a real stagnation at the middle and lower reaches of society.

Many leading economic indicators are up at present, which is good news for corporate Japan. But family income, according to the Japanese Trade Union Confederation (Rengo), is 90 percent of what it was seven years ago.

In addition, the number of freelance workers is increasing by 100,000 per year, providing Japanese companies with a great source of cheap and expendable labor. But what of their future in the community? Vast numbers of these so-called freeters are subsidized by their parents, who themselves are deeply worried about how to sustain themselves in their old age.

And what is the future for that aging population? They are hoarding money, naturally, for those years of rainy days ahead. But who will take care of them in a country where facilities for the aged and infirm are miserably understaffed and undersubsidized?

Company management is becoming increasingly concerned with short-term shareholder profits rather than with the needs of the public. "Free competition" sounds good on paper, but, says Rengo, "A blind belief in competition and the market compels working people to bear the burdens of deregulation and increased international competitiveness, while generating a seriously widening economic gap and social instability."

The American economic model has been adopted virtually whole hog by Japan. But the social aspects concomitant with that model, such as the mobility of the population and the openness of information to all, have not been. As such, Japan is, without realizing it, using the United States as a hanmen kyoshi, a negative example, copying only the trappings of the achievement-oriented competitive spirit. In such a system, people's primary goal will naturally be to amass as much personal wealth as possible, given that -- like its American counterpart -- Japanese society now offers little security beyond the almighty yen.

Prime Minister Koizumi wrote in his "Cabinet E-mail Magazine" of June 17, 2004: "We must build a society in which, with knowledge and ingenuity, every individual can, through hard work and motivation, earn their due reward."

Yet, thanks to the fend-for-yourself, weakest-to-the-wall Americanization now institutionalized in the Heisei Era, access into that brave society of achievers is increasingly limited, and young people are being forced to set their sights not high but low -- on the quick yen and the easy fixes of short-term gratification.

It's not their fault. They are being offered no alternative.



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