Torn between two worlds, or Japan trying to live with the past in the present

Last summer, vast swathes of the world were glued to television screens or to seats in bars and pubs. The 2002 World Cup was a bit of a novelty for us in that it was held in Asia. Amongst the interviews and matches, we saw snippets of a country that is still much of a mystery to us. But while the majority of travellers headed off to football stadiums, to the incomprehension of many, my goal lay elsewhere. Everyone has heard of Japan, but how many have actually been there? Most see it in stereotypes - samurai fighting with katana, demure women tottering on wooden sandals with high heels, or big neon flashing lights, futuristic trains and sushi. I went to Japan to learn more about this dual society, where two worlds seem to compete for attention and dominance over the other.

It was extremely exciting to be in Japan. The sheer diversity that was apparent everywhere I went was incredible. It is still the world's second largest economy, with a large number of cities topping a million inhabitants, bristling with shopping arcades and bars. When walking around at night, one is literally bathed in artificial light. Neon lights scream for attention, trying to tempt revellers with the latest trance music or trendy cocktails, as they drift by in search of entertainment. This is the side of Japan that was the most seen during the World Cup. But there are also discreet paper lanterns hanging in narrow alleys and streets, gesturing to respectable couples to slide back the wooden shoji screens and enjoy an evening of refined dining, accompanied by classical music. Two types of establishment. Two types of customer. Two separate worlds? Of course, in Britain we have loud bars and exclusive restaurants. But as I travelled around Japan I became more and more aware of the fact that these worlds have not merged together properly.

But why is it that Japan is not able to integrate its past with its present? In order to understand this one must go back centuries to the time of samurai and daimyo. For a very long time Japan was a highly socially structured nation, where classes were ordered even more strictly than in the West during the feudal ages. Movement between them was virtually impossible. Equally people's feelings and minds were heavily controlled, expected as they were to be obedient and not question those above them. The main problem is that the class structure was not abolished until a century and a half ago, and that the control of people's emotions and opinions is still in practice today, in many respects. Against this are the influences of the 21st century and its requirements on society. Outmoded and traditional ways of doing business, educating the population and running the nation are threatening Japan's future.

Business - out with the new, in with the old

The business sector is an area where this clash is critical. For a company to be successful it must be willing to reform and make unpalatable decisions. Japanese firms used to make money by working hard, more so than their Western counterparts did. A 9-to-5 job is unheard of in this market sector. But that was the 1960s and 1970s. Things have changed – markets are more ruthless and uncertain. Nowadays flexibility as well as honesty and commitment are required. Japanese companies rarely have all three of these qualities. For example for every single meeting that a British company would have, a Japanese company would need at least two. Why? Because they need a preliminary meeting where they can actually agree on the content of the discussion, so that no one is “surprised” by any new business. A board of directors prefers to control the output of important discussions, even if it means critical insights into markets and the business itself are ignored. Indeed criticism of one’s superiors is something that is frowned upon, even today. This reluctance to put ideas forward is coupled with a conservative attitude to business.

Reform of a company’s structure and its business practices is rarely painless or desirable. But often it is necessary. Not in Japan. The widely accepted view was certainly that ‘if it made money for us 30 years ago, it will do so now’. Unshakeable faith from directors, not just in the old policies but also in their own abilities, means that companies have been slow to change into more modern operations. Even after the depression hit Japan in the 1990s, only a handful of companies followed British and American blueprints and restructured to become more efficient. Mitsubishi is one of the few who bit-on-the-bullet and changed their business practices, and now they are making good profits once more, while other Japanese companies flounder with large debts and poor turnovers. Another reason for businesses not succeeding is that they believed in the idea of a “job for life”. Essentially employees used to be able to rely on having their job for life, with promotions depending on how long they served the company. The fact that promotion was based on age, rather than expertise, meant that those higher up tended to be from the same generation, believing in those same obsolete ideas. Younger, more innovative employees had to “wait their turn”. The job for life phenomenon also meant that companies were unwilling to cut staff in order to save money. As a result many went under or teetered on the verge of bankruptcy. If anything the latter made life worse for their staff than if they had been made redundant, as their pension schemes were made worthless. Japan does not have the kind of social security system we do. Private medical insurance and company pension schemes were vital for Japanese in their later years. From having less than 1,000 homeless in the 1980s, Japan now has over 25,000 – an increase of 2,500% in two decades! And this number is still increasing. This does not include the larger number of people who have to scrape by without a decent pension, or medical cover. Even now companies are still loath to reform, believing that they will be bailed out. Clinging to past practices is causing ordinary people real grief.

The situation has been exasperated by the actions of the banks. There are a large number of “bad debts” that have accumulated over the years, where loans have been made to bail out companies. These have not been repaid, or are likely to be, subsequently threatening the stability of the banking system. Worse still is the expectation that the central Bank of Japan will write off these debts, in order to clear the system. Fortunately the current governor, Toshihiko Fukui, has indicated that he will not do so. If he did, it would only encourage businesses to maintain their existing practices with long-term repercussions. His is a brave gesture and reinforces the Bank's right to independence from the government and other parts of the finance sector. Certainly the government has been loath to reform the finance sector, or try new fiscal policies.

Government - domain of the privileged few

The issue of government is a deep-rooted problem for Japan, which was brought to the top of my mind during a talk I had with a senior Japanese businessman. When matters eventually moved onto politics, I joked that he should run as an MP.

‘Oh no,’ he said. ‘I'd have no chance of getting in.’

And he was quite correct, for it is virtually impossible for an ordinary person to become an MP, even more so than in the West. Access to politics and government is heavily restricted in Japan, because that is how it has always been. Centuries ago, Japan was controlled by courtiers, noble families, or Shogunate administrators. But the very idea that ordinary people could rear their heads and contribute to the running of the nation was laughable to them. If the idea of divine right ever had a home, it would be in Japan. People were born into certain roles, and it was expected that they should die carrying out that role. To object to this, was to offend the heavens themselves. Japan might be a democracy but it is still ruled by a very exclusive elite.

This is not merely a case of principle. The closed nature of the Japanese government affects every single man, woman and child, as the lawmakers are as responsible for Japan’s current economic crisis as her companies and businesses are. Many blame the current Prime Minister, Junichiro Koizumi, for not doing enough to repair the economy. He was elected on a pro-reform ticket, promising radical change. So why has he not done enough? Simply because he has a lot less power than his English counterpart. He cannot choose his own Cabinet, having to satisfy the different factions and grandees in his party. Indeed many Japanese will talk of so-called “puppet-masters”, men who rule from the shadows. As ludicrous as it sounds, there may be an air of truth in it.

In Britain MPs are expected to act independently of any outside influences, such as former occupations, and declare any financial expenses that are paid for, gifts, etc. These protocols are hardly flawless but generally adhered to. In Japan they have been systematically flouted. Many members of the ruling LDP party made their mark on the world in areas such as construction and finance before they entered politics. And now, because they still have financial or social interests there, they try to ensure the best deal for their respective industry sectors. The construction industry especially flailed around during the crisis of the 1990s. For a decade these individuals have secured expensive public works, in order to keep the industry kicking over, despite the pointlessness of such proposals. Most of them rarely recoup their costs, simply acting as a short-term elastoplast, while crippling local governments with more debt. And in other sectors, they have convinced the government to bail out failing companies that will not reform their business practices. These men dominate the party and for more than a decade have stifled financial reform.

It is not just a case of greed and selfishness – it is about power. Most of these old men, for they are of the older generation, have the same attitudes towards government as the Tokugawa Shogunate had, more than three centuries ago. They, and they alone, have the right to control Japan politically and financially. Reform of Japan's institutions would threaten their hegemony. Indeed reform of any kind is greatly feared. Take the Japanese monarchy.

The monarchy - Japan's only reforming institution?

For some 40 years, the Imperial family has only given birth to girls. Yet under the current constitution only men can sit on the throne. The Crown couple gave birth to their first child, Princess Aiko, in 2001 but now are probably too old to conceive for a second time. Polls indicate huge support for change, with at least 70% of participants wanting an empress on the throne, compared to less than 10% opposed . But has the government changed the law? Of course not. Even Koizumi, the “reformist”, indicated that there was “no rush” to change the laws of ascension to the throne. No rush? Such as comment is a slap in the face to the Crown prince and princess, considering that they have had huge trouble conceiving. Doctors confirmed that the princess lost a child in 1999 to stress caused by intrusive media attention. The refusal to change the succession law suggests that the government doesn't deem a daughter “good enough”. The conservative MPs are praying for a male heir to maintain tradition. They see women in the monarchy as being reformist and potentially causing trouble for them. Slanderous reports in the conservative media have tried to make them look bad, hoping that they will stop influencing their husbands to reform the monarchy. But the monarchy is reforming.

Recently the Emperor openly announced that he had prostate cancer, an illness with a heavy stigma attached to it in Japan, and a big problem for men across the world. In the aftermath of his successful operation, appointments for tests and operations skyrocketed. Japanese men, as well as their wives, greatly appreciated the monarch breaking this taboo subject. And generally the family has engaged with the public more in the last few decades and done away with unnecessary tradition. Conservatives have been shocked at the Crown couple's decision to raise Aiko themselves, as ridiculous as that seems.

Perhaps the conservatives fear women rising to positions of influence and power? Japan is still in many ways a man’s world – fewer women hold important positions in finance and business there than in the West. As there has not been a female monarch for many generations, they may fear her being a symbol for women to undermine their power base, though Aiko would not ascend the throne for at least 20 years. Overly fearful they might seem, but they do fear any change. Certainly if the monarchy openly called for fiscal reform, they could be in trouble. No political party dares criticise the monarchy directly, even the Communists, given the high regard they are held in by the Public. It would be political suicide.

Education - lecturing not learning

But if the LDP is so corrupt and incompetent, why do people still vote for them? We should look at the education system. I mentioned that traditionally in Japan people did as they were told. Opinions were not valued. Unfortunately the education system instils this in many Japanese from a young age. Take History for example, a subject where personal interpretation and argument is deemed crucial in the West. There is no right or wrong answer, provided the student is balanced and informed in his or her argument. Not so in Japan. Lessons focus on facts, dates and figures even at middle and upper Secondary school level. Reasons for events tend to be supplied by the teacher – there is no outlet for ideas or opinions. Japanese students do work harder than Western students, with longer school hours and more homework. This hard work and competitive education system used to benefit Japan's economy – workers were simply more used to working longer and harder than competitors in the West. But today the world has changed. Businesses across the world are more competitive and must come up with fresh ideas in order to flourish. Japanese children, and subsequently adults, lack the imagination Japanese business needs. Many of my Japanese friends agree with me that Japanese schoolchildren lack imagination. Government needs ministers with flexibility to adapt to situations that defy traditional answers. Until a more liberal-thinking generation rises to the fore, it will be very difficult for Japan to move forward.

Japanese education has also caused a rift between the younger and older generations. The current youth has been alienated by a society that demands obedience and conformity. Western popular culture has bewitched young people with its bright lights, hypnotic music and easy-going attitudes to love and life. Downtown Shibuya at night is a blaze of neon lights and thumps with loud music. The young Tokyoites congregate there – it's their own private world. Older people are few and far between. Contrastingly, traditional Japanese culture seems distant and irrelevant. It is forced upon them but they are not allowed to interact with it, or experience it. Learning the dates of Tokugawa Ieyasu ’s victories would be tedious, but being allowed to question the impact he had on Japan would be far more interesting. And in many cases, Japanese culture is closed off to most people.

On the other side of the coin, the older generation thinks that the younger generation is the problem. They see the youth as casting aside their national heritage, wading in decadence and irresponsible behaviour. They almost fear them, perhaps one reason why older politicians and businessmen cling to power so obstinately, worrying that their successors will rip up everything that they hold dear. Of course, the reason that many young Japanese are so easily tempted by modern culture is that they find it difficult to associate themselves with anything else.

Culture - inaccessible and irrelevant?

Kyoto is home to a great deal of Japan's cultural heritage. As any good photographer would, I prowled the main street of the geisha district Gion, Hana-mikoji Street, hoping for a photograph of a geisha or maiko. I was lucky to get two photographs, but as I walked home feeling very satisfied, I realised that this was as close as most people got to entering their world. For the geisha's entertainment world is extremely exclusive. The price is quite prohibitive – an evening's entertainment will exceed £1000 easily. However one is only allowed into the geisha domain if they have connections, i.e. that they know someone who is already a customer. This both serves to distance ordinary people from some very ancient cultural arts, such as traditional dance and singing, as well as causing the profession's own demise. Fewer and fewer people patronise the geisha and maiko, firstly because it is so expensive but secondly because it the industry refuses to make itself more accessible.

As we have seen, the traditional and obstinate ways of conducting business, education and government are no longer enough. Times have changed and require innovative thinking, flexibility and criticism. Without the latter, how can anyone know if there is a problem to be changed, let alone know how to ameliorate it? Business does not value innovation, nor is it willing to take difficult decisions to restructure or change. Government remains distant and prefers to support its own interests, rather than act in those of the nation. The country is still ruled by an exclusive group of elites, even as it was centuries ago, who do everything they can to stifle change, even when it makes sense or is supported by a majority of the public. Such is this irrational behaviour that the majority of people have become disenchanted with politics and vote with their feet. The youth of Japan seems more concerned with studying the arts of the MP3 and clubbing than kendo or the Tea Ceremony. Though some may complain that the youngsters are the problem, there is a general disenchantment between Japanese of my age and that of their parents. History is unpopular, due to poor teaching methods, and their culture seems irrelevant or inaccessible. What else can they do? Japan is not the only country to experience the effect of past and present pulling against each other. Britain has similar problems, but as a foreigner I felt more aware of them in the Far East.

What does the future hold?

So is this a tale of gloom? Hardly. Throughout my travels I saw a land stepped in beauty that is the stuff of Tolkien-esque fiction. Government and local charities have invested heavily in rebuilding castles and lovingly maintaining wooden temples, preserving the nation's heritage for future generations. And the younger generations still take part in important traditional events during the year, visiting temples to offer prayers and taking part in annual festivals. Even the geisha have given birth to a cheaper and more accessible entertainer, nick-named the furisode-san. These artists are considerably cheaper and are open to hire by anyone. Though a few die-hards complain that they lack the refinement of their Kyoto-ite competitors, they are proving immensely popular.

Just as the geisha have learnt to survive by reinventing themselves for the new century, Japan can do so too. If she can have the courage to dispense with the die-hard traditionalists who see their control slipping away, while taking strength from her deep and beautiful culture, then I think Japan will emerge for the better once more. The older generations need to trust the youth of Japan – after all they are the future. They will preserve Japan's past and traditions, so long as they feel that they are part of it, bringing life and strength back into her institutions. Many critics have written this country off as a dying power. All I can say is, if Japan finds her way once more, she could well turn the heads of other countries again.


As a side-note, I'd like to say I really enjoyed writing this. I didn't actually write this for E2 directly (you might just have been able to guess that), so it's really nice that it has attracted so much positive attention.

If you ever want to have a chat about Japan or anything, just drop me a line.

One of the biggest crises facing Japan in the 21st century is the prospect of depopulation and the resultant social strains. Japan's birth rate is already one of the lowest in the world and continues to fall. If current population projections hold, Japan could lose 30 to 40 million people by 2050.

Destabilization of the Japanese Family

The roots of this problem are complex and deeply rooted in Japanese culture. According to the traditional values of Japan's profoundly patriarchal culture, men are supposed to work while women are supposed to stay home and manage the family. The Japanese have no concept of day-care, and almost no accomodation for working mothers. Women who have children are practically forced out of the workplace by the lack of institutions and options that allow women in other countries to return to work shortly after their pregnancies. With women forced to choose between a career and children, many Japanese women choose the career, especially at a time when the sagging economy makes the single-breadwinner household increasingly unfeasible. If women have children at all, they often have them late in their 30s.

Moreover, the Japanese institution of marriage is focused on producing children. Once a woman marries, she is often subjected to intense pressure by her family and inlaws to have children. The result is that many career-oriented women simply decline to marry, instead seeking emotional satisfaction in promiscuity or longer-term, but relatively less committed monogamous relationships.

The declining birth-rate is also abetted by the Japanese's effective use of birth control. Although the birth-control pill is almost unheard of in Japan, the Japanese are fanatical about using condoms, and thus the accidental pregnancies that might force women into a family situation in other countries are rare in Japan, and unwanted births are even rarer, as the Japanese attach little stigma to abortion.

An Aging Society

The problem is compounded by Japanese attitudes toward caring for the aged. In a country with no social security, an underdeveloped pension system, and few institutional options for caring for seniors such as retirement homes, Japanese have traditionally expected their children to care for them in their old age. Specifically, older couples lived in their eldest son's household and were cared for by their daughter-in-law.

This means that Japanese women who do enter into the tradtional family by marrying and having children at a younger age often find themselves in a situation where they finish raising their children just in time to begin caring for their infirm and aging inlaws. While this full-time job as a caretaker of the old and the young may have been acceptable to earlier generations of Japanese women when there was little or no hope of individual aspirations and achievement, it is little wonder that the modern woman will seek to avoid this situation at all costs.

The cruel irony, however, is that by not marrying or having children, Japanese women are insuring that old people in need of care are making up an increasing percentage of the population. These senior citizens have no where to turn to for care at present, and with their career-oriented children increasingly seeking alternatives to the traditional, care-providing Japanese family, the aged will only have fewer alternatives in the future.

Labor Crisis

All this bodes ill for the Japanese economy, already sagging under the weight of an unsound banking system and antiquated business practices, and as yet still unrecovered from the collapse of the Bubble Economy back in 1990. While Japanese businesses still cling to the job-for-life, seniority based system of hiring that stifles creativity and imagination, and refuse to grant job opportunites to women and foreigners, the declining birth rate means they will face an increasing shortage of labor.

One of the worst things that can ever happen to an economy is a severe labor shortage. As the labor market contracts, expansion and investment become impossible as retaining the workers takes paramount priority. Wages and benefits have to be increased and even the simplest or most undesireable jobs must be well compensated with so many better jobs available. The result is that businesses ultimately have to contract. In a world economic system in which the health of a nation's economy is measured by how fast it expands, an nation forced into economic contraction by a labor shortage faces economic ruin.

Foreigners Unwelcome

The final piece of the puzzle that is Japan's 21st century crisis is the deep-seated resistance of Japanese to endangering what they view as their cultural purity and homogeneity. One of the best ways to avoid labor shortages is through immigration. Indeed, much of America's economic success in the past two centuries has been built upon the constant influx of new immigrants to join the workforce.

The Japanese however, are exceedingly protective of their perceived homogeneity, which they tend to view as the foundation of strength for their nation. It is virtually impossible to become a Japanese citizen unless one is married to a Japanese spouse, and even then one is likely to be treated as a second class citizen at best. Koreans whose families have been living in Japan for decades or even centuries are still not allowed to become full citizens unless they totally abjure their Korean identity. Immigration to Japan on any sort of permanent basis remains exceedingly difficult, and promises only partial participation in Japanese society. In desperation Japan has recently been looking for compromise solutions to increase immigration while maintaining homogeneity, such as encouraging foreigners of Japanese descent, such as the Japanese-Brazilians and Japanese-Peruvians to repatriate with full-citizenship, but these measures are essentially drops in the proverbial bucket. Without allowing large-scale immigration of ethnically foreign people, Japan faces a slippery slope to economic disaster, and faces cultural upheaval either way.

Throughout their history, the Japanese have been an odd amalgam of intransigency toward change combined with occasional periods of rapid re-invention in the face of crisis. As miraculous as Japan's rapid transition from backward medieval nation to industrialized world power during the Meiji Era and as amazing as its economic recovery in the postwar period were, it will take a miracle of equal proportions for the Japanese to overcome cultural inertia once again if they are to have any hope of overcoming the new crisis in which they are already mired, and which can only get worse if things stay as they are.

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