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Sunday, Feb. 24, 2008

COUNTERPOINT

New values rise from the ashes of conformity


Special to The Japan Times

Second of two parts

There is a quiet revolution taking place in this country, and it's bringing about change in the very way Japanese people view their culture and society.

The values of the Japanese have been shifting over the past decade. The traditionally potent aversion to those who don't "fit in" has lessened. In the past, anyone who spurned the smooth escalator of "a first-rate university leading to a first-rate company" was frowned upon as some kind of misfit. Now, many young people are building their own staircases up instead.

Previously, if you made the serious blunder of choosing to go to a university outside Japan, you may have come back speaking excellent English, German or French — but your chances of landing a prestige job were low to say the least. Now, though, companies are eager to hire returnees. It is no longer hazukashii (embarrassing) to possess foreign ways of communicating. The former liability of living outside Japan for a prolonged period has turned into an enviable and valuable asset.

Another aspect of shifting values is evident in the public and official attitudes toward those who have grievances with the state. Part of "fitting in" Japanese-style has long involved suppressing any individual needs or desires inimical to the well-oiled machinery of public affairs. "Inimical," of course, means needs and desires thought to be so by those whose wealth and status are enhanced by their ability to ignore anything that might loosen their grip on the gears of power.

However, the recent judicial (and political) victory of hepatitis C sufferers against the state has shown that people with grievances may no longer be willing to simply lie down and roll over as they might have in the past. They will persist in taking their case into the public arena, and will not retreat when faced with government apathy and resistance. In this case, the Japanese public overwhelmingly supported their cause, and it was that support — based on ordinary people's growing identification with others outside their own tight circles — that made government intransigence disintegrate.

Yet another victory for the new values can be seen in Tokyo District Court's decision on Feb. 7 to grant the reimbursement of lost wages to 13 former high-school teachers denied re-employment for refusing to sing the national anthem on school occasions. Coming from Japan's judiciary, a branch of government that rivals the bureaucracy in its reactionary nature, this may represent a dramatic change in the public-private equation relating to core values.

As reported in The Japan Times on Feb. 8, the court stopped short of declaring Tokyo Metropolitan Government's refusal to re-employ the teachers as unconstitutional. Nonetheless, this is a battle won for concrete individual rights over authoritarian notions of the "national good."

Meanwhile, despite the glass ceilings that still exist in many companies large and small, and even in universities (which are still, in many ways, havens for unrepentant academic machismo), women are playing an increasingly important role in the cultural and economic life of the country.

Women's influence and power

In the realms of publishing and the arts all over the developed world, women occupy positions of great influence and power. This is true in Japan as well. The majority of my editors for books and magazine articles, as well as producers in the theater, are women. (This is not the case in newspapers, where men still dominate decision-making; and this, perhaps, is one reason why newspapers are less sensitive to the changing needs and sentiments of the population at large than some other forms of publishing.)

If these changes do not actually constitute a revolution, they are significant: in the culture; in the way Japanese view the rights of those unconnected by personal interest to them; and in the power now in the hands of women and some minority-interest groups.

These changes do not get the publicity they deserve, for the very reason that the media and the political powers-that-be are in denial over them.

Take the media. Arguably, in no other advanced country is the gap between traditional media (the press, television and radio) and new media (the Internet, local TV channels and community papers) as wide as it is in Japan. If you are beholden to the traditional media for information about what is really going on in this country, you could not be blamed for thinking this is a nation of ravenous whale-gobbling, nerdy America-loving, giddy quiz-show addicts.

In Japan, it's easy to get a private detective to spy on someone who may be cheating on their spouse — but try and find a journalist who will investigate and expose someone cheating on the entire nation.

For journalists in Japan, especially salaried ones, their role is not to stick their necks out. Editors in newspapers and TV stations keep a chopping-block handy in case a reporter offers up their neck with something controversially investigative.

The media may be in serious denial about the revolutionary changes that are becoming more and more evident in Japanese society, but young people, with their Internet access to immense amounts of information from around Japan and the world, most certainly are not.

The stuffed-shirt patriarchal society, in which crusty old men in positions of unassailable power strive to keep their concept of Japanese culture and identity inert and safely locked in the past, is crumbling from the bottom up. The signs are all there, from the young people who will not follow many of the rigid rules set by older generations, to many in those older generations who sympathize with the ideals of the young. A few shakes from the subsoil, and hold onto your hat!

Last week, I began this two-part series by mentioning a Soviet citizen who, in the mid-'60s, told me that Russia would be unrecognizable in five years. Well, Russia is now unrecognizable from then — though it took a bit more than five years.

Japan, too, moves slowly; and this is, perhaps, a good thing. We may want to change the bath water, but we like the baby we have here. Japan is a safe, decent and (to some extent) democratic country to live in. I, for one, wouldn't want to be anywhere else . . . most of the time.

But the "quiet revolution" is already upon us. Those entering public life who recognize it, and who hop on its slowly moving bandwagon — in the media, government, business, commerce and academia — will be the future leaders of Japan.



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