Businessmen and bureaucrats: uneasy bedfellows

I don't know if you have noticed too, but there is a growing mismatch between the thrust of the free market and the distrust bordering on paranoia shown by the authorities. One example in Japan illustrates the point.

A recent government study recommended making Tokyo a world-class financial centre on a par with London and New York. This would not only enhance Japan's standing, but also create new jobs at a time when China is taking over more and more of Japan's manufacturing. To attract highly qualified foreign financial dealers and managers, state-of-the-art apartment blocks would need to be built and international schools opened. Another government department decided, for similar reasons, that Japan should be more actively promoted around the world as a major tourist destination.

Lofty goals, both, but how to reconcile them with the parallel decision to sharply increase the security checks on arriving foreigners, by subjecting them, from 20 November 2007, to fingerprinting, facial photographing and interviewing? These new measures not only apply to tourists and other visitors, but to permanent residents and people with re-entry permits as well. They went into effect apparently without much discussion in the Diet and certainly without consultation with the resident foreign community, many of whom have a semi-Japanese identity and proven reputation. Even the security-conscious United States has not gone that far: their permanent resident foreigners (Green Card holders) so far are exempted from the fingerprinting and photographing requirements that apply to other visitors. No wonder long-term foreign residents in Japan reacted with a howl of indignation. After having lived, respectably, for a total of almost 30 years in Japan, I felt personally offended by this discriminatory treatment.¹

But the point I want to make is a larger one: that the Japanese government is dreaming if they expect to raise Tokyo to world financial centre status while simultaneously putting up high (re-)entry barriers for the very people they hope to attract.

Another clash of policies between different departments of a government can be witnessed at London's Heathrow Airport. Tight security, under-capacity and sloppy airport management have combined to create chaotic conditions in the terminals. I returned from London in mid-December, and still can't believe what we had to go through. The check-in was bad enough, with its long queues and attendants issuing contradictory instructions, but that was nothing compared to the interminable delays and routine indignities suffered at the hands of the people manning the scanners, metal detectors and shoe X-ray machines. Of course their job is to protect us all, but does it have to take an hour just to get through security? The mood among the tightly packed, slowly creeping queue was morose bordering on explosive. Fatigue was palpable, and the occasional wheel-chaired passenger needing priority was treated barely civilly. The poor lighting and shabby surroundings added to the sense of forcible atonement for the sin of traveling.

And then, suddenly, it was over. As we retrieved our shoes and found a threadbare chair to put them back on, we were aware of the golden glow of the Consumer Heaven awaiting us. Smiling salesmen and glamorous women greeted us just steps away in a brightly-lit space, enticing us with samples of perfume and sweet liqueurs, while gorgeous models flaunted the latest fashions on giant screens behind them. It was the holy message of the free market promising redemption from our sufferings - the privilege of shopping duty-free, made possible by the same authorities that had cast us into purgatory, and then released us, just minutes earlier.

'I'm never going to go through this again,' cried an exasperated, disheveled lady as she reclaimed her scattered belongings. 'Never!'

Travel is not meant to be this way. The time that an air journey was a romantic adventure may be gone for good, but it should not be the endurance test it has become. Who is protecting the travelers' rights and reasonable comforts? Why are the airlines not weighing in with their considerable clout to force improved conditions? And when are the disparate government departments getting their act together to ensure the kind of balanced policies that avoid touting the charms of a destination with one hand while treating you like a mangy animal with the other?

During my long banking career - which ended 20 years ago - my bank's president admitted that 'business has no social conscience.' I was also struck by the term 'human resources' which came into vogue in the 1970s in reference to workers of large companies, as if they were commodities rather than thinking, breathing people. Attitudes like these may help explain the usual lack of corporate attention for consumers as human beings even while they court those very same consumers as customers, without whom their business could not thrive. I am not suggesting that a bureaucratic environment necessarily produces better service, but unprotected exposure to the cold, indifferent forces of the free market may leave many consumers (especially those with below-average spending power) sidelined or worse. The free market mantra of 'shareholder value' is not a consumer-friendly norm for any business.

The answer, like in so many aspects of social life, is consumer awareness and - when necessary - consumer action. Alert, effective consumer organizations are our best protection against exploitation, whether by the free market or the bureaucracy.

¹ Since I wrote this, Narita Airport has opened a separate gate for returning foreign residents with a re-entry permit. This procedure should greatly ease the practical application of the new law, though its principle of discrimination remains.

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© 2007 Hans Brinckmann