Will The Steam Run Out?

In a country where tradition runs deep, young people are beginning to question the values of their parents

ROSS LAVER November 18 1991

Will The Steam Run Out?

In a country where tradition runs deep, young people are beginning to question the values of their parents

ROSS LAVER November 18 1991

Will The Steam Run Out?

In a country where tradition runs deep, young people are beginning to question the values of their parents



For generations, Japanese workers have sought inspiration from the samurai, an elite class of feudal warriors who prided themselves on intense mental and physical discipline. Stoic, obedient and hardworking, many modem Japanese businessmen follow that tradition by devoting themselves to their jobs with single-minded energy and enthusiasm. But Koji Yoshihara, 36, says that he prefers a more leisurely approach to life—and, he claims, he is not alone. While most of his counterparts in Tokyo’s banking sector work 14-hour days, Yoshihara likes to leave the office promptly at 6 p.m. for the hour-long commute home to have dinner with his family. On weekends, he and his wife, Ayane, 27, often go camping in the nearby Tanzawa Mountains with their two-year-old daughter, Midori, and threemonth-old son, Akira. “My parents’ generation worked like crazy to rebuild Japan after the Second World War,” said Yoshihara, “but now we have more choices. Japanese people are starting to ask themselves, ‘Why are we working so hard?’ ”

Yoshihara’s approach is an exception in Japan, but the fact that a growing number of young people espouse similar views illustrates one of the fundamental changes taking place in the country. Amid unprecedented prosperity, Japan’s postwar consensus—in particular, the unquestioning acceptance of personal sacrifice for the greater good of the company and the country—is beginning to break down. Younger Japanese whose parents and grandparents willingly toiled 12 hours a day, seven days a week, are now seeking jobs that offer shorter

working hours, two-day weekends and greater scope for individual creativity. At the same time, a deepening shortage of skilled and unskilled workers has created more opportunities for Japanese women to enter the traditionally male-dominated labor force. Although it is still rare in Japan for employers to treat males and females equally, some young women have found well-paying senior positions with foreign corporations, or have established their own small businesses.

For many young people, the changes are not coming fast enough. As the first generation of Japanese bom into affluence, they are clearly determined to enjoy the fruits of their country’s success and see little reason to place their jobs ahead of other pursuits, including family life and leisure. But others, especially those old enough to have lived through the country’s wartime devastation and the struggle to rebuild, express alarm at the gradual shift in values. Some even say that Japan will fall victim to what they call “the American disease,” squandering the wealth and economic power that has resulted from 41/2 decades of unrelenting effort. “The problem with young people is that they are used to living with abundance,” said Yoshihiko Wakumoto, 60, senior vice-president of Tokyo-based Toshiba Corp. “An excess of this kind of thinking could be harmful. It could bring about the kind of deterioration that we see in the West.”

Such concerns are almost certainly exaggerated. Japan, although famous for emulating its rivals, is still a nation far unlike any other in the developed world. Insular, tradition-

bound and deeply homogeneous, it displays all of the trappings of a modem, industrialized society, but suffers few of the social and economic problems that plague many Western countries. The unemployment rate is an enviable 2.1 per cent, down from 2.2 per cent a year ago despite the fact that the pace of economic growth appears to be slowing. In Canada, the jobless rate has not been that low since 1947; the current figure is 10.3 per cent.

At the roots of Japan’s economic stability is a powerful, centuries-old cultural tradition that emphasizes conformity and social harmony over individual rights. Vandalism and petty theft are both rare, and the violent-crime rate is well below that of most other countries in Asia and the West. In 1988, there were 1.2 homicides for every 100,000 people in Japan, compared with 2.4 in Canada and 8.4 in the United States. Indeed, respect for authority is so pervasive in Japan that sidewalk vending machines sell, in addition to soft drinks, a wide assortment of canned beer and $16 bottles of domestic whisky—with little concern that it will undermine efforts to enforce the legal drinking age of 20.

Another quintessentially Japanese characteristic is the still-powerful tradition of respect for elders. Many younger Japanese speak almost reverentially of their parents and grandparents, and credit them with having rebuilt Japan after the war. “I am extremely grateful to the older generation,” said banker Yoshihara, who grew up in Hiroshima and whose maternal grandparents died of radiation bums on Aug. 14,1945, eight days after the Americans dropped an atomic bomb on the city. He added: “In the old days, people spent 100 per cent of their time and energy on their work. Compared to them, we have it easy. We owe them a lot.”

By contrast, the Japanese pay relatively little public attention to the history of the country’s military aggression in the 1930s and 1940s. Most government-approved textbooks refer to the loss of 2.5 million Japanese lives during the Pacific conflict, but sidestep the issue of responsibility for the war. A common theme is that Japan suffered as much as any other country during the war—a view that is consistent with the widespread belief that the Japanese were victims of forces beyond their control. Recently, Japan’s newspapers have bombarded their readers with articles about the approaching 50th anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7,1941. But instead of using the occasion to re-examine the causes of the war, most of the stories have emphasized the possibility that Japan’s critics would use the anniversary to engage in a new round of Japanbashing.

Far from dwelling on the past, most young Japanese are focusing intently on the future— and on their hopes for a more relaxed, comfortable lifestyle. Said Toshio Hatano, an editorial writer in Tokyo for Asahi Shimbun (Morning Sun), Japan’s second-largest daily newspaper (circulation 8.1 million): “People who reached adulthood during and soon after the war were accustomed to long hours, no holidays and no

time to share with their wives and families.” He added: “We are in a kind of transition period now. Most Japanese no longer care if the economy manages to maintain a nineor 10per-cent annual growth rate. They would be perfectly happy with a level of, say, three per cent.”

For his part, Hatano welcomes the transformation. He says that younger Japanese—those bom after 1960—tend to be less willing than previous generations to conform to the values and norms of the majority. The contrast is so stark, in fact, that many Japanese refer to the younger generation as the shinjinrui, or new human race. “The shinjinrui axe more individualistic, which I think is a good thing,” said Hatano. “They even find it easier to say no to their bosses when they are under pressure to work late. And why not? As a result of the labor shortage, they can easily find another job if they are fired by their companies for not conforming.”

Hatano’s favorable opinion of the younger generation, however, is far from universally shared. A more common view among middleaged Japanese is that the younger generation is apathetic, lazy and concerned primarily with spending money and discovering new ways to enjoy life. “One way of putting it,” said Mariko

Fujiwara, director of the Hakuhodo Institute of Life and Living, a Tokyo-based think-tank, “is that young people in Japan have more in common with middle-class children in other developed nations than with their parents. They really believe that the purpose of life is to have fun. And they wish to do the least to get the most.”

Motohiro Hondo, a former book editor in Tokyo who now arranges business and academic exchanges between the United States and Japan, offers another frequently voiced criticism of the shinjinrui. The son of a government official who lived in China throughout the war as part of the Japanese occupation of Manchuria, Hondo was bom on Aug. 14, 1945—the day that Emperor Hirohito told his ministers that he had decided to accept the Allied demand for unconditional surrender. Six months later, Hondo’s family returned to the country, much of which had been reduced to

ash and rubble. “After the war, mothers had a hard time finding enough food to give to their children,” Hondo recalled. “But even though conditions were harsh and we knew that we had been defeated, my generation really admired the United States. They helped us to reconstruct the country, and we appreciated what they did.”

According to Hondo, the shinjinrui have a dramatically different view of Japan’s former enemies. “Young people today are very arrogant,” he said. “They look at what has been accomplished and they say, ‘Japan is number 1. We are better than anyone else.’ ” Hondo, whose own children are 11 and 16, says that he is particularly dismayed by the armies of wealthy young Japanese tourists who flock each summer to the major cities of Western Europe and North America, taking advantage of favorable exchange rates. “They travel, but they are not really interested in learning about

other countries and seeing how people live,” he said.

“Mainly, they just go to shop.”

Regardless of their own attitudes, the men who are in charge of Japan’s factories and offices often have little choice but to adapt to the younger generation. In the 1960s and 1970s, Japanese industries could count on an ample supply of well-trained, highly disciplined workers— products of a culture that emphasizes group loyalty and frowns on selfish goals. While companies in other countries were struggling to find new and ever more imaginative ways to motivate their workforces, Japanese firms had to contend with a different problem: employees who suffered karoshi, or death from overwork. Newspapers reported cases of men in their 40s who suffered heart attacks or strokes after working 100 days without a day off.

Japanese employees still

work longer than their counterparts in other industrialized countries, although the gap appears to be shrinking. According to the ministry of labor, workers at companies that employ 30 or more people spent an average of 2,088

hours on the job in 1989, compared with 2,239 hours in 1970. By contrast, Statistics Canada says that Canadian workers log an average of 1,654 hours a year. And in 1988, the most recent year for which figures are available,

only 30 per cent of all Japanese companies with 30 or more workers offered their employees regular two-day weekends.

But the days when Japanese employees were willing to work as long as their bosses asked may soon be a memory. By some estimates, there are now 1.4 vacant jobs for everyone seeking work, forcing companies to compete for potential recruits. The shortage of labor is

particularly acute in the manufacturing sector.

Said Toshiba vice-president Wakumoto: “Two or three years ago, we started to encounter real difficulty in finding people for our factories, even in rural areas where labor used to be abundant. We were forced to offer improved perks, including things like better health facilities and more spacious company housing.”

Japan’s largest automobile manufacturer, Toyota Motor Corp., has also been struggling recently to attract more blue-collar workers to its 12 domestic factories. At the Tsutsumi assembly plant in Toyota City, 250 km southwest of Tokyo, the company recently installed carpets on the floor beside the assembly line

and air-conditioning ducts that blow cool air directly onto the workers. “Over the years, the personal living conditions of Japanese people

have improved greatly,” explained Shinji Sakai, a member of Toyota’s board of directors. “If we want to attract more workers, we have to rise to meet that standard.”

But the transition has often been difficult. In corporate boardrooms across the country, Japa nese executives have been forced to abandon or revise long-standing company policies to avoid alienating their younger employees. "Whether

Source: Statistics Canada, OECD, Canada Mort9age and Housing Carp., Government of Japan - -~ .....~ r4t1~ Th I I I I I I

we like it or not, the old ways are disappearing,” said Ryozo Yanagiuchi, a senior official in the corporate management division of Osaka-based Matsushita Electric Industrial Co. Ltd. In one sign of the changing times, Matsushita—which produces audio and video equipment under the Panasonic and JVC brand names—last year decided to relax its employee dress code. Although company uniforms are still mandatory for blue-collar workers, Matsushita’s office staff and sales representatives are no longer required to wear conservative navyblue suits and white shirts. “The trend at Matsushita is to admit that individual preferences have to be respected much more than

before,” said Yanagiuchi, himself a 32-year veteran of the corporation. “We can no longer try to turn every employee into a company man.”

One aspect of the Japanese corporate culture that has proven more resistant to change is the almost complete exclusion of women from the business world. In all, there are about 25 million working women in the country, about 40 per cent of the labor force. But many of those women hold part-time jobs in the retail industry or work for large corporations as “office ladies”—serving tea, answering the phone and greeting male visitors at the elevator. Most leave their jobs when they get mar-

ried, either because they prefer to remain at home and raise children or because their bosses pressure them to resign. “Normally, women are given very few responsibilities,” said Hiroshi Hashimoto, 27, a Toyota spokesman in Tokyo. “That’s why companies encourage them to leave after only a few years—if they stayed any longer, they would start to complain.”

Another impediment for women who aspire to careers in business is the long-standing tradition in Japan of after-hours socializing. Indeed, Japanese businessmen usually consider it essential to develop personal relationships with potential partners and customers by entertaining them lavishly in expensive bars and private clubs that cater specifically to men. Those establishments typically employ dozens of attractive young women as “hostesses” to sit and flirt with the customers and pour their drinks; the bill for an evening can easily exceed $150 a person. Not surprisingly, female business associates are usually unwelcome on such outings—even though important decisions can be made in the course of an evening.

Despite the obstacles they face, a relatively small number of women do manage to scale the corporate ladder and enter the select ranks of professionals and senior managers. But the achievement often requires substantial personal sacrifice. A 1989 labor

ministry survey of women who reached the level of section head or above in a large company found that 60 per cent were not married and 72 per cent had never changed jobs. In addition, the women interviewed for the survey used, on average, only a quarter of their annual paid vacation days.

Naoe Wakita, 54, is one of those success stories. Since 1988, she has been president of Dentsu Eye Inc., a Tokyo-based marketing firm

that specializes in advertisements aimed at women. Wakita says that Japan’s 1986 Equal Employment Opportunity Law has helped to increase the number of jobs open to women— but she adds that the progress to date has been painfully slow. “Unfortunately, most women are still not prepared for managerial roles,” she said. “From the moment they are bom, they are taught how to be subservient to men. And most men know only how to be in charge of women.”

A subsidiary of Japan’s giant Dentsu Inc. advertising agency, Dentsu Eye has tried to minimize the potential for friction between the sexes by hiring mainly women: only six of its 43 employees are men. But that creates new problems, Wakita says, because about half of her female employees quit as soon as they get married. “It’s hard on the company,” she added. “But the truth is that many women do not want to work like men—they prefer to sit at home by the window or have fun. It’s changing, but only very slowly.”

In his own way, Tokyo banker Yoshihara also represents the social forces that are gradually remaking Japan. Bom in 1955, he has lived through a period of remarkable economic growth. And now, he says, it is time for Japan to slow down—to savor its success and taste the good life that most North Americans and Western Europeans take for granted. “My number 1 priority is my family,” said Yoshihara. “I chose my job not be-

cause I love it, but because it gives me time to spend with my wife.” Twenty years ago, most Japanese would probably have been appalled to hear such Western-sounding sentiments. The fact that many now accept the inevitability of such attitudes is a measure of just how profoundly Japan is changing.