THE ORIENTAL DILEMMA
Inside Tokyo’s Imperial Palace, a fairy-tale castle with soaring medieval ramparts and swan-dotted moats, the emperor of Japan lay ill. At 86, Hirohito, who by tradition is regarded as a direct descendant of the Sun Goddess, had undergone major surgery, and the nation’s attention was riveted upon him. Surgeons had cleared an intestinal blockage. It was not cancerous, but at Hirohito’s age the operation was life-threatening and, in excruciating detail, the media recounted his every postoperative bodily function. But despite the gruesome candor of those reports, a palpable reverence for the imperial patient was evident. Before going ahead with a transfusion, doctors questioned whether commoners’ blood would be good enough for the emperor, while some commentators referred to his frail frame with the ancient term gyoku-tai, meaning an untouchable body. And from all corners of the archipelago, thousands of Japanese—mostly middle-aged or older, members of the Second World War generation—descended upon the palace to pay their respects. In a sense, they were standing watch over a living symbol of Japan, knowing that sooner or later his passing would mark the end of an era.
Portent: Although Hirohito survived his ordeal in October, his brush with death remains a portent of change—especially because it coincides with strong new currents in the country’s economic and social life. The Asian nation that has set new standards of diligence and adaptability is undertaking another economic restructuring. But even as admiring Westerners continue to study the secrets of Japan Inc., many Japanese are expressing a marked uneasiness. The yen’s recent rise has caused unemployment in some sectors, and the recent crash of the Tokyo stock market has added to the uncertainty.
At the same time, many Japanese, while maintaining their legendary devotion to duty, have begun to ask troubling questions about the quality of life for the average citizen. In essence, they say that Japan has achieved its stunning economic success at the expense of its workers: most Japanese live in small, exorbitantly priced houses, labor 500 hours a year longer than their European counterparts and pay almost twice as much for food as North Americans. “People point to our GNP (gross national product) and say we’re wealthy,” noted Kiyoshi Komatsu, 37, an assistant design manager at a Tokyo construction firm. “But I have lived in West Germany, so I know what we’re missing.”
Pervasive: So pervasive is the quality-of-life debate that in a government poll on the “direction” of the nation last spring, nearly 35 per cent of respondents said that the direction was wrong, citing such factors as harsh working conditions and high prices. And Noboru Takeshita, who became prime minister on Nov. 6, wrote a phrase in his political platform about the need for “happiness-
doubling.” Indeed, divorce rates are rising and so is juvenile delinquency. And perhaps most telling as an indicator of change, many young Japanese have lost their elders’ reverence for the ancient emperor system. During Hirohito’s illness, Kazue Suzuki, a 35-year-old reporter for the Asahi Shimbun newspaper, said that she walked past the palace and saw the old people crying. “What surprised me was their reaction,” said Suzuki. “Using the old honorary language for the emperor—I suppose it shows there are still people who think he’s like a god. But I think we should treat him like an ordinary person.” Japan’s social contract still seems intact. But the degree of open dissatisfaction, although muted by Western standards, is significant in a country with such a deep-seated tradition of conformity. It was only in the 1860s that the Japanese started to move away from the harshly repressive rule of the Shoguns, military dictators who for centuries reduced the emperors to puppet status. The Shoguns laid down the rules of everyday life in detail—to the exact material and cut of clothing that members of the various social classes could wearcreating a static and cowed society. Feudalism ended when the Japanese were forced by U.S. intervention in 1854 to end their isolation from the rest of the
world. With the help of foreign expertise, they moved rapidly, and with a remarkable unity of purpose, into the modern industrial age. But the conformity persists and modern “salary men,” as Japanese office workers are called, look much like clones with their dark suits, white shirts and black shoes. As a favorite Japanese expression says: “The nail that sticks up will be hammered down.”
Space: The need for social order is heightened by lack of space: 120 million Japanese, a population nearly five times larger than Canada’s, live in an area one twenty-fourth the size. And the overwhelming majority of Japanese are crowded together around the arable edges of their mountainous four main islands. In that tiny space, prone to earthquakes, typhoons and hurricanes, the Japanese have fashioned a life that is at once richly traditional and aggressively modern. Every year, at a tiny shrine in Kyoto, restaurateurs gather from all over Japan and, in an ancient Shinto ceremony, ask the spirits of eels and river fish for forgiveness for exploiting them. And atop the gleaming office towers of downtown Tokyo are Shinto shrines, where business managers often pray to dead ancestors before entering into especially important deals.
But tradition has not prevented some Japanese from speaking out, saying that they have paid too high a personal price for their nation’s economic success. The monthly newsletter Japan Christianity Activity News said: “At the root of the problems in contemporary Japan is the fact that men and women are used as tools for economic competition.” It added that the process had “deprived them of their humanity.”
Jammed: By Western standards, most Japanese do not have a grand lifestyle. While almost every family has a color television, a washing machine and a refrigerator, people and appliances are jammed into homes that on average are 60 per cent smaller than those in North America. And the average Japanese house costs 10 times as much as its North American equivalent, in a country where the average monthly income is the equivalent of $2,400. Such a house typically consists of a diminutive kitchen and dining room and two or three other tiny rooms. Most people sleep on the floor on futon mattresses that roll up during the day, allowing bedrooms to double as living rooms. Kazuo Nukazawa, an official of the Keidanren, a bigbusiness association, commented, “My house is worth $400,000, and it’s so small I have to sleep standing up.”
As well, the houses are often located in distant suburbs, forcing workers to commute long distances to the office. “If Japan were truly an affluent society,” wrote Isao Nakauchi, chairman of The Daiei, Japan’s first chain-store company, in the magazine Look Japan, “its workers would not have to cram onto inhumanly crowded trains to commute.” Komatsu, the assistant design manager, is typical. He rides the train 90 minutes each way between his home in a Tokyo suburb and his downtown office. He works every other Saturday—except during July and August, when he takes a full weekend off—and he conforms to the work ethic by taking off only three days of his allotted 20-day annual holiday. “The biggest problem in my life is that I don’t have time to be with my son,” Komatsu said. “I see him briefly before I leave home at 6:30 a.m., and sometimes he’s still awake when I get home, which is never before 8 p.m. Apart from that, I only see him on weekends.”
Children: In fact, a recent government survey concluded that because of the demands of professional and social life, the average father can spend only 36 minutes a day with his children. One result: only 40 per cent of the children surveyed said that they really liked their fathers, compared with 80 per cent in the United States and West Germany.
At the same time, the Japanese spend 27 per cent of their incomes on food, compared with 15 per cent in Canada. That has led many Japanese to express dissatisfaction with their lack of purchasing power. For years Western countries have been lobbying the Japanese to work shorter hours, in that way allowing themselves more leisure time in which to spend more money on imports. And in fact, under the economic restructuring plan devised by the administration of former prime minister Yasuhiro Nakasone, the official work week will drop over the next several years from its present 48 hours to a government-set target of 40. By the 1990s, officials say, most Japanese workers may also get full two-day weekends off, and they may start taking their full official vacations, instead of only a few days, as they often do now.
Longevity: Many Japanese in government and business openly welcome that prospect. But they also point out that their society has distinct advantages over the West in other respects.
The average life expectancy for Japanese women in 1986
was 80.9 years, the highest in the world, while for men it was 75.2, second only to Malta. And Japanese crime rates are sharply lower than those in the West. As a result, many Japanese resent Westerners telling them how they should live. “My students go to New York and see dirty streets and violence,” said Yoichi Masuzoe, a political science professor at the University of Tokyo. “They tend to look on Americans and others as inferior.” In fact, while few nationalities travel more than the Japanese, they have always been ambivalent about the West, welcoming its ideas and products far more readily than they welcome Westerners themselves. In a government survey
last May, nearly 50 per cent of respondents said that they would not like to be friends with foreigners.
Priority: However, younger Japanese tend to look more sympathetically on foreign demands and attitudes. Those in their late teens and 20s have developed a reputation for opposing long working hours, and increasing numbers are placing a much higher priority on their personal lives. Komatsu, who works closely with young people, said that while they put in a full day’s work, including overtime, “they don’t like the overtime and, unlike earlier generations, they speak their minds.” He added, “Managers have to spend more time with these people, encouraging them and explaining why it’s important to work hard.” Chikara Higashi, a Liberal Democratic Party member of the Diet, Japan’s parliament, declared: “They aren’t disciplined in the traditional sense. They have less of a hungry spirit and are more individualistic than older Japanese. It doesn’t disturb me, because I know the U.S. culture too, and shin-jin-rui (the younger generation) aren’t nearly as far down that road as Americans.”
The small streak of rebelliousness among Japanese youth is hardly surprising. The school system is fiercely competitive, with little emphasis on original thinking. At 15, students undergo a series of examinations that de-
termine whether they will enter technical college or high school. Still, some observers maintain that the new attitudes have scarcely affected work habits. “You hear the new generation is less dedicated to excellence,” said Canadian Ambassador Barry Steers, who has served in Japan for six years. “But I don’t see it. If you get into a young driver’s taxi, it’s still spotless, he still won’t take a tip, and he still drives you to your destination by the quickest route. We keep looking for signs that Japan is weakening, but I think this is just wishful thinking.”
Affinity: Some of the youthful nonconformity—and affinity for the West—is clearly more style than substance. Every Sunday, neat, middleclass youths take the train in from the suburbs and gather at Tokyo’s Harajuku Park. There they change into unusual clothes, such as 1950s-style black leather jackets, and dance through the afternoon. Then, they slip back into their regular clothes before leaving for home. And while the average Japanese has a traditional Shinto wedding, it has recently become trendy to have a Christian-style civil wedding ceremony as well, in order to be able to wear a Western-style gown and tuxedo.
There are also signs of change among Japanese women, who have failed to make many significant advances in the male-dominated society, despite a growing Japanese feminist movement in the 1970s. Many Japanese men tend to consider the proper role of working women to be that of menial, tea-fetching “office ladies,” as they are
generally called. In a 1985 study for the Anglican Church of Canada, Japan-watcher Marjorie Powles of Toronto concluded: “Women have few skills even if they are university grad-
Progress: Still, some progress has been made in the past several years.
uates and little self-confidence in a society that undervalues women except as homemakers.”
The average woman’s wage climbed from 43 per cent of the average man’s salary in 1982 to nearly 52 per cent last year. (In Canada, the proportion is 65 per cent.) And that gap may continue to shrink as the service sector of Japan’s economy expands. Banks, brokerage houses and other services have led the way
in hiring women for such significant jobs as loans officers or securities analysts. Women have also begun to enter the male bastion of politics, but with very limited success. “It’s quite difficult for women to run for office and win,” said 39-year-old Mariko Mitsui, who, supported by feminist groups, was elected to the Tokyo city council last spring. “The husbands’ opposition is the main obstacle, because they see a woman’s role as taking care of the children and grandparents.” Mitsui is one of only nine women on the 127member council. “All you see are those dark, grey suits,” she said with a laugh. “Men everywhere—very, very bad.”
As well, increasing numbers of Japanese women are leaving their husbands. About three out of four Japanese divorces are initiated by wives. The rate is rising most quickly among couples in which the wife is in her 40 s — after the children have been raised and sent off to college or work. Another major strain comes when the husband retires, between the mandatory ages of 55 and 59, and is unaccustomed to large amounts of leisure time.
Feudal: But it seems that most Japanese do not want drastic social change. The nation is little more than a century removed from feudalism, and it is only 40
years since the devasta-
tion and humiliation of the Second World War. “We had hardly anything to eat during and after the war,” said Kan Ori, a political science professor at Sophia University in Tokyo. “Today
I think the Japanese people are quite satisfied. We sort of enjoy what we have and don’t rock the boat too much.”
But in 1987—or Showa 62, under the imperial calendar that dates from Hirohito’s enthronementchange is in the air. The economic restructuring is just beginning. Now Japan has a new prime minister and may soon also have a new emperor—Hirohito’s dapper son, Akihito. The challenge for the Japanese system will be to accommodate the changes—and the
new voices demanding a better quality of life—without undermining the unified drive that has made Japan the envy and the enigma of the world.