Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Japan, then and now

As I mentioned in the first post, I've been living in Japan for over 20 years. I don't intend for this blog to be Japan-centric, but Japan-related matters may come up from time to time. For example, a few weeks ago, a famous actress/singer was caught using a small quantity of amphetamines. In America, this would be a minor career detour requiring moderate damage control; in Japan, her career is widely considered to be over. Also, ten days from now, there will be a general election in Japan, the rules of which (for example, no TV commercials allowed) make for interesting comparisons to those in America. Japanese see these as routine events, viewed through their own cultural prism. As an American, I of course see them differently. (I'll probably be doing posts on both of those items in the not-too-distant future.) When I teach my students, I often give them my American perspective on these topics, to try to give them another way of looking at them.

The Japan that one sees by looking at the headlines is an economic powerhouse brought low; still powerful, but not what it once was. Many who follow economics and international affairs know that from the sixties to the eighties, Japan rose from the ashes of World War II to become the world's second-largest economy, aided by tireless toil from its workers and a cheap-import-happy America that didn't mind running huge trade deficits year after year. But their economy collapsed at the end of the eighties, or as they say here, the bubble burst. The end of the bubble economy was the beginning of substantial social change in Japan.

The thing one always needs to remember about Japan is that it's very much a group-based society; this has a profound impact on many aspects of the culture. The bursting of the bubble didn't destroy this, but it's made several cracks in the wall. There was a social contract in Japan: the government provided nearly-full employment, and in return, people obeyed the social norms. Men stayed at one company all their lives. Women got married by 25 and gave up their jobs to start families. Men worked until as late as the company demanded, often with no overtime pay, and didn't rock the boat. Promotions were decided by seniority, not by merit. Poor performers were only occasionally reprimanded, and definitely not fired. Graduates of top universities sought to work for the government, or top companies–not because of the opportunities for advancement, but for the stability. If you got one of those jobs, you were set for life.

Not anymore, though. The recession that started in 1990 caused the once-unthinkable to happen: slowly, painfully, companies began to lay off workers. The government ordered ('suggested', but it was the same thing) the banks to continue loans to what became known as 'zombie companies' because they were the walking dead. The purpose of this was to forestall the inevitable job losses caused by many bankruptcies, and the damage to the social order that this would bring. Well, the Japanese government discovered that you can only keep your thumb in the dike for so long.

I came to Japan in May 1989, and through my students have had a front-row seat to a society in transition, but a transition to what, even the Japanese don't know. To a country more like America, some hope and others fear. The social contract has been broken; Japanese no longer expect to work at one company all their lives, and there are fewer and fewer full-time jobs available for each year's crop of university graduates. More and more jobs, as in America, are being downgraded to part-time status so companies don't have to bear the extra expense of supporting health-care and other costs. An income gap is steadily growing in a country where twenty years ago, most everyone considered themselves to be middle-class. Quitting your job in search of a better one, formerly considered an act of terrible disloyalty, has now become commonplace.

Japan used to be, and still is, a group-based society. But those bonds are becoming looser and looser, this being visible in ways both large and small. People still value the group over the individual, and customs reflecting this persist. (I'll be commenting on them occasionally in the weeks and months ahead.) But the young–especially those who couldn't get the good jobs their equally capable fathers got–are starting to pull away, slowly and inexorably.

This is the broader social backdrop against which one should look at events that happen in Japan these days. Some things I may mention, such as the actress busted for drugs, shouldn't necessarily be viewed as part of this phenomenon: this might well have happened twenty years ago, with the same result. But the election probably will: the conservative Liberal Democratic Party (which local wags point out is neither liberal nor democratic) or LDP, which has been in power for almost all of the past fifty years, looks like it will finally be thrown out of power. Considering the degree of slow social disintegration of the past twenty years, the question is not why they may be removed from power: the question is why it took this long.

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