Among the advanced nations of the world Japan is probably unique in having drawn for its very survival on certain alien cultures that even today in many ways fundamentally differ from its own in basic values and temperament.
That this complex attempt--to allow alien science and systems, from the mid-19th century onward, to interact with social structures and concepts of honour, religion and morality rooted in a feudal and isolationist past--succeeded at all is one of the great nation-building stories of the past millennium. That it also may have caused a permanent dichotomy in the Japanese psyche is arguably the long-term consequence of the project.
For Japan's century-old conundrum--how to reconcile its deliberate Western leanings with its Asian roots--has not been solved by its advanced technology and economic success. Mass overseas travel has hardly put a dent in the self-absorption of most of its citizens. Insular instincts often prevail over pious intentions and honest attempts to "join the world".
It is true that many of today's young people, in their 20s and 30s, apparently reject their forebears' values of single-minded hard work and unquestioning, 'samurai-like' loyalty to their employers and elders, but their response tends to be personal and unstructured, rather than part of an alternative political ideology or social philosophy. As they have not been taught the importance and techniques of independent thought they sometimes come across, even in their very stance of rebellious non-conformism, as weak and lacking in confidence, as if they had jumped ship and are now hoping for someone to direct them to the nearest shore. For some, rescue ironically may turn out to be traditional in spirit though in a new guise, such as an internet fraternity, an organized campaign dedicated to some ecological or foreign aid scheme or, in extreme cases, the right-wing patriotic movement which is always in search of new recruits.
Those of strong ambition and clear motivation do find their own way even if it means swimming against the current. It may take the form of an independent trade, profession or artistic pursuit. Their often innovative ideas and methods have lent new colour to Japanese society. Though seldom politically involved, they are an important ingredient in the shaping of 21st century Japan.
The end of the monolithic society
The courage of these young people in setting themselves apart from what until recently was a highly conformist society is remarkable. Their elders were, after all, born and bred during the hard-working, single-minded years of Showa, when individuality was not among the taught or desirable values, even though western techniques, money and markets were highly sought after. It is especially in this sense that the Japanese and Western experience of the past 50 years differ in essence. Americans and Europeans did not normally need to deal on a day-to-day basis with a rival, essentially alien culture competing inside their own for supremacy. Until recently they were sufficiently powerful and secure in their own skin to tolerate foreign ways as helpful enhancements, amusing diversions or, when they become irksome, as problems to be 'solved'.
The Japanese of the post-war Showa period on the other hand had to constantly balance at least outwardly the conflicting demands of traditional hierarchy, discretion, reticence and group ethics on the one hand, with foreign-inspired ideas of democratic rights, business practices, and individual initiative on the other. Businessmen and officials faced with the typical straightforward approach of Westerns always had to appear accommodating, without however losing an ounce of their Japanese loyalty and identity. Instead of offering candid opinions and join a give-and-take they frequently hid behind a wall of smiling formality or inscrutable bluntness.
I recall a particular occasion when I paid a second visit to a senior director of a major Japanese industrial company to solicit a regular account relationship in return for a considerable favour my bank had done for them. As before, I was received with all the usual grace and ceremony. After the usual small talk I once again stated my wish to become one of the company's bankers. My counterpart drew in his breath, leaned sideways to listen to the whispered words of one of the assistants flanking him, and then declared that it might be 'difficult' for them to accede to my request 'at this time'. This said he nodded gravely, adding 'please understand our position'.
I was not about to give up so easily, and advanced a few additional arguments why I thought a relationship with my bank would benefit them. I also hinted subtly at the noble tradition of returning favours. At this my host abruptly rose, said he had another appointment, instructed his assistant to take care of me, and left the room in a huff.
Evidently I had failed to observe some cardinal rule of corporate etiquette, but I felt slighted as I had been given the cold shoulder without any explanation. It taught me a lesson: that of never to expect an open dialogue with Japanese counterparts. It also made me realise how much more natural and mentally healthy the work environment was in the US, the UK and Holland, the countries I was most familiar with. Even the spirited, assertive American way often seemed preferable to Japanese convolutions and lack of candour. Throughout the Western world, trial balloons were common, minor errors tolerated, open discussion de rigueur. Vigorous debate was expected. The clash of ideas and opinions provided oxygen to the brains. The mental spaces were well ventilated, not only in the corporate sphere but in political and intellectual circles as well. Decisions resulted. Usually.
So what's new in the 21st century?
Whenever I was on my way to Tokyo in the 1980s and 90s - from Europe or the US or Australia -, I wondered how Japan was doing on this score. Whether things had eased up. I was always hoping for a bolder touch. Experimentation. Debate. Courage to break the mould. The ascendancy of ability over seniority. Some oil in the ponderous machineries of state and academe.
But each time I felt the urge to probe and question drain away once I had settled in and been greeted with warm words of 'welcome home.' The familiar Japanese security blanket enveloped me, blunting my critical faculties. And then it would dawn on me that my expectations had been inappropriate, as they betrayed a typical 'Western' bias.
Finally, in 2002, I decided to launch a more serious enquiry into the state of Japan's body politic as it struggled to lift itself out of more than a decade of economic stagnation and redefine its own future. Forcing myself to take the necessary distance from the object of my life-long affection, I began to notice a marked discontinuity between the Showa Japan that I had lived in from 1950 and 1974, and the more challenging conditions of the post-bubble Heisei era. Famous companies had merged or disappeared, job security was no longer guaranteed, a new social class of "freeters" (low-paid part-time workers) and "NEETS" (people "Not in Employment, Education or Training") had arisen, and there were far more foreigners on the streets than before. Women had become more independent, the birthrate had plummeted, and there was serious concern about the galloping national debt and the future of the national old-age pension system.
No wonder there was a palpable nostalgia for the good old days of Showa, with its clear goals and secure employment for most, and its sense that life could only get better. I found myself sharing that nostalgia as I leafed through my voluminous photo albums of those bygone years. But I also knew that sentiment was not going to produce adequate answers to the new challenges.
Soon I was exploring the differences and connections between the hard-working, optimistic mid- to late Showa era (1950-1989) and its unruly successor, Heisei, which began in 1989. The result, after two years of research, travel, discussions and thought, is a book tentatively entitled Showa Japan: the Post-War Golden Age and its Troubled Legacy.
The book, illustrated with Showa-era photographs, is a critical essay on present-day Japanese society compared to the period 1950-1989. It is expected to be published in 2008 in both English and Japanese. For information about this book and how to order it, please click here.
© 2006 Hans Brinckmann