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Saturday, Aug. 4, 2007


The times, they've been a changin'

Thumbing through some faded photographs of my early days in Japan, I find a mustachioed face with shoulder-length hair and water-clear eyes, eyes perhaps indicative of a vast open space behind. My face.

Thirty years later and both the mustache and hair are memories. Only the wide eyes — and perhaps that empty space — remain.

But those eyes have seen a lot in the past three decades. The Japan of now is not the Japan of then. Here are just a few of the ways it has changed.

Inhale and you can almost smell it — the heady fragrance of money.

Japan was not quite a poor sister in the mid 1970s, but since that time she's been tossing yen like confetti. Forget those damp years after the burst of the bubble — years of overall gloom, business foreclosures and microfractions halloweening as interest rates. Yet years when Japanese cash registers still rang with a respectable vibrato.

Now you see it everywhere — in architecture, fashion, and on streets of pearly neon. Japan was once working class, but not anymore. Shaky economy and sky-high prices be damned, the Japan of today is flat-out rich.

"But no place beats the ol' USA!" says an American buddy, basking with pride up on his quiet prairie town of pot-holed roads and shopping opportunities starting and stopping with Wal-Mart. Yes, the folks back home are as fine as people anywhere, but in 30 years time Japan has upped the ante affluence-wise.

Increasingly wealthy and increasingly cosmopolitan — I also find that the Japanese of today are simply increasing. Not in numbers, but in size.

At 5' 8," (173 cm) it used to be I could hang on a subway strap and gaze above every head the entire length of the car. Now I'm lucky if I can see as far as five feet. But it's not just height that's involved.

"Hey, look! A fat guy!"

A foreign friend once elbowed me this while nodding to a man on the street. In the 1970s, obesity here was rare enough to raise eyebrows.

Maybe it still is, as most Japanese are far trimmer than their Western counterparts. Yet, sumo-size is not the exception it once was. With plump bellies and chubby cheeks both up and down — today's Japanese carry much more meat than their earlier models.

For proof, check out seating arrangements still around from yesteryear, like in the peanut gallery of the Japanese Diet, a spot where visitors used to "slide" right in. Now the only workable verbs are "squeeze" and "cram."

Junk food, fast food, snack food — through the years the Japanese have adopted the worst eating habits of the West. But as the West wisens up to those wicked dietary ways, so do the Japanese. There is, after all, a precedent.

A 1998 cover article of The East magazine predicted the end of "smokers' paradise" in Japan. And paradise it was. The faculty room where I began teaching in 1977 boasted only one nonsmoker — me. Smoke hung in the air as if the school was on fire. Now at the same institution, the handful of teachers still smoking have to step out on the balcony to light up.

In those days too, the Shinkansen offered its first nonsmoking car. A friend who rode one then had to summon the conductor to keep the man next to her from puffing away. Nonsmoking car? Who had ever heard of such a thing! Yet, now nonsmoking is spreading far and wide, even including some restaurants. We can only hope a noncell phone boom is next.

Yet, to me perhaps the largest change is on people's faces. I think the Japanese of today show much more emotion than those of 30 years ago.

Here's a sample "victory" interview from TV shows of the '70s:

Emcee: Well, Taro, that was quite a game you played. Your winnings include 300 tons of gold, plus eternal life. Tell us, how do you feel?

Taro: (Head down, feet shuffling, voice barely audible) Oh, I suppose I'm pleased.

Sports heroes, game show champs, contest winners — it was all the same. People were humble. Too humble. Unnaturally humble. As if to be happy was a crime.

Contrast that with the fist-pumping "guts poses" of modern athletes or Olympic swimmer Kosuke Kitajima's gold medal whoop at the games in Athens. Thirty years ago such reactions would have been picked apart by the Japanese press as embarrassments.

But today it's OK, with the resulting release of feeling being somehow much healthier. Now it's not so unusual to see Japanese hug each other in public. Sometimes even when they're sober.

A wealthier, heavier and happier Japan. That's 30 years of observations in a nutshell.

Of course, some things haven't changed at all — a topic for some other time.

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