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Sunday, Oct. 3, 2010


Japanese opinion polls now reflect reality far better than of yore

There are three kinds of statistics: those that lie; those that mislead; and those that journalists and politicians use to lend credence to their arguments.

When it comes to the statistics revealed by some opinion polls conducted in the past in Japan, it appears all three categories can apply simultaneously.

Unreliable opinion-poll statistics were particularly prevalent in the two decades after World War II, when Japanese people were overreacting to the arrogant bluster of the previous generation that had perpetrated a devastating war on the Asia-Pacific region in the name of national and racial superiority.

In the aftermath of the war, many Japanese just didn't want to have an opinion, and they didn't trust people who had the "courage," if that is the right word, of their own convictions. They wanted to be shellfish, as the title of 1958's popular television drama "Watashi wa Kai ni Naritai" ("I Want to Become a Shellfish") suggested — just being rolled about by the tide of events and time.

This tendency to appear opinionless was exacerbated by the oftentimes charming tendency of Japanese people to express courteous agreement even when they are not in agreement — in order, that is, to avoid any embarrassing confrontation and create a harmonious moment.

Consequently, when, for instance, American pollsters or researchers asked Japanese people how they felt about the United States or democracy or whatever, the respondents often smiled and told their foreign questioners what they wanted to hear . . . or, at least, what they thought they wanted to hear — namely that they viewed America or democracy or whatever with great favor.

The same was true when it came to questions about ethics, morality or customs. When asked whether they considered working for one's own personal benefit more important than working for the company or the nation, how many Japanese people in 1955 or 1965 would have openly identified themselves with the former? This is, after all, a country whose ethos has traditionally suppressed public displays of ego.

Imagine a Japanese Muhammad Ali in his heyday, after yet another victory in the boxing ring, declaiming, fist in the air, not "I'm the greatest" — but covering his mouth, glancing downward and whispering, "Well, um, I did my best and, um, I just want to try my hardest from now on, too."

If you can imagine that, you are well on the way to pinning down the essence of Japanese self-expression.

At least the way it once was, that is. Not any more.

Yes, public figures still affect modesty and show off their inarticulateness. But, in contrast to those postwar decades, Japanese people are now often expected to be forthright, forthcoming and even outspoken about their perceptions and beliefs. As a result, statistics drawn from Japanese opinion polls, when they are conducted scientifically, can now be used by journalists (and even politicians) with a clear conscience.

It was with this in mind that I turned recently to the findings of a major opinion survey into how Japanese people's lifestyles have changed over the years — particularly as perceived by young people.

In Counterpoint this week and next, I want to focus on the young generation of the 1980s and that of today. Perhaps this will illuminate, in some ways, the kind of Japanese lifestyle choices that may evolve in the coming decades. It is perceptions of one's status and one's lifestyle choices, often couched in the most populistic and trendy manner, that eventually influence public policy.

The Nihonjin no Kokuminsei Chosa (Survey of Japanese National Character) has been conducted every five years since 1953 by The Institute of Statistical Mathematics, an organ of the Inter-University Research Institute Corporation, a national university body with headquarters in Tachikawa, Tokyo. The advantage of this survey as an analytical tool derives from the fact that the tenor of its questions has not changed very much for more than 50 years.

The 12th survey took place in 2008, and here are some of its findings that might bear on our theme of lifestyle choices.

When asked, "Has your personal standard of living improved?" 50 percent of people in 1983 replied that it had. As for the perception of the overall national standard of living, more than 70 percent of people in 1988 believed that it was "very good" or "somewhat good"; and more than 80 percent said that the economic power of Japan was "very strong" or "somewhat strong."

One very telling question put to people in their 20s and 30s has been, "Have you become iraira in the past month?" Now, "iraira" covers a broad range of irritability, from the grumpy to the fuming. This being the case, you would think that the reply would be close to 100 percent . . . but it is much lower.

Are Japanese people the most composed and patient in the world, or do they simply prefer to hide their edginess for the sake of social harmony? Whatever, the number of "edgy youth" has jumped significantly in the span of a mere 15 years. In 1993, when this question was first posed in the survey, fewer than half of 20- and 30-year-olds admitted to getting hot under the collar; by 2008, their number had grown to 63 percent and 62 percent, respectively. Perhaps, indeed, the younger generation has just become more forthcoming about its prickly moods.

The 1980s were boom years in Japan, but the boom had huge crests and troughs. The media and, naturally, the government of the time both glossed over the troughs. The notion of a 100-million-strong middle class was a myth that suited land speculators down to the ground — yet although it didn't show up in the statistics, ordinary people were beginning to become aware of discomfort and disillusionment.

Only about half of those surveyed believed that not everyone was gaining from the new prosperity; and more than 70 percent of those in their 20s judged the distribution of wealth to be inequitable.

But you wouldn't have known it. Cashed-up young people, dubbed the shinjinrui (new breed), were imposing their values of instant gratification and fun-for-its-own-sake on the nation. Hence the gourmet boom, fueled by the appetites of the affluent young. Hence the expanding universe of fashion, once again propelled by their luxury-seeking values.

Awaiting this generation in the last decade of the 20th and the first decade of the 21st centuries was something that could not have been foreseen.

The shinjinrui became the "lost generation": Lost because they fell victim to a false-bottom prosperity exploited by entrenched political interests and greedy speculators; lost because their "middle-class prosperity" looked so much a given that it fooled them into thinking they were better off than they were.

Next week, more on the new young generation and suggestions of a fresh beginning . . .

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