Japanese Culture and Society in Perspective

Chapters 1 - 6

(Written in 2006)

1. Thoughts on Japan at the start of the 21st century

A first-time visitor to Japan today may be forgiven for failing to find the troubled society and demoralised population he had been led to expect. For well over a decade persistent (Western) media reports suggested that Japan's national debt was out of control, its financial sector on the verge of collapse, and its society in the grip of self-doubt and slow disintegration, with unemployment and suicides soaring. True, sometime during 2004 economic analysts – noticing the rise in consumer spending, the exploding stock market and the clean-up of the debt-ridden banking sector – began to turn more bullish about Japan. Yet at the same time the dark warnings about Japan’s structural problems keep appearing in the world media – and indeed in the local press as well.

Our visitor had heard about the traumatic effects that economic restructuring and the resulting massive layoffs had had in a country where secure life-long employment had been the norm. He had read stories about older men in business suits and briefcases roaming the streets with no office to go to. They had lost their job and were too ashamed to tell their families. They were just killing time. Some ended it all in a dense forest near Mt Fuji.

But the visitor sees no evidence of decline – not in 2002 or 2004, and certainly not today, in 2006. What he encounters instead is a fully functioning, affluent, high-tech nation with spotlessly clean streets, state-of-the-art architecture, superb public transportation, and everywhere well-dressed citizens living their lives in peace and security. He is bewildered by the contrast between what he read and what he sees. If Japan is in decline – he reflects – it sure knows how to hide the evidence.

So where lies the truth? Has Japan finally recovered from its decade-plus of no growth, deflation and pessimism to embark on a new era of sustained prosperity? Or does the surface gloss hide deeper problems that need to be addressed before the pessimists can be silenced?

The reality is that many of Japan's old values have been eroding; its national debt is astronomical and all but out of control; its birth rate has been falling dramatically; and its economic recovery is largely due to the meteoric rise of China, with which state-level relations have worsened alarmingly. Most worrying of all, complacency and apathy appear to have taken hold of large swathes of the population, and popular interest in the nation's politics is at an all-time low.1

It is true that there is a lot of government talk about reform – of the Constitution, the postal services and some other areas. But political pronouncements to the contrary, there is little evidence of any intention of tackling such serious challenges as lingering regional hostility towards Japan; the country's inadequate voice in global politics; the low public trust and involvement in politics; the persistence of the suffocating seniority system in the political and educational bureaucracy; and the social alienation of many young people and their potential vulnerability to extremist rhetoric.

On the positive side, the under-35 generation includes many men and women with plans and activities of their own. No longer relying on the loyalty-driven, lifetime career path typical of the 1950s to the 1980s – which in any case was never open to women – or on the central government to provide much more than national security, they are increasingly finding fulfilment and livelihood in professional work or small-scale business, often with an international angle. But it is debatable how sustainable their new-found independence would prove to be in a crisis.

It is my belief that Japan's rulers of whatever political colour – hamstrung as they are by factional politics, cosy relationships between politicians, businessmen and the bureaucracy, and the long shadow of outdated notions of social hierarchy – will not prove to be the engine of necessary attitudinal and systemic reform. Change of that kind will only come slowly and be brought about by the still unfocused energies of that disaffected younger generation longing for a freer, more open society.

In the following chapters I will examine some aspects of today's Japanese society, based largely on personal observation and analysis, supported by original research and public sources. Much of the narrative is in the first person, reflecting my own experience and point of view.

I have observed Japan since 1950, half that time as a resident. The thoughts expressed in my The Magatama Doodle, One man’s Affair with Japan, 1950-2004 have been acclaimed in the Asahi Shimbun, Japan's leading daily, as 'more convincing than those of any other commentator.'

2. Caught between two cultures

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.

The story of how Japan, in the mid-19th century, chose to take a crash course in Western technology and political and military organisation to avoid being colonised is too well known to require repeating here, as is the fact that Japan accomplished this momentous feat without significantly diluting its own traditional values. The confidence and sheer bravado involved in uniting two so utterly different cultures in wedlock while requiring that the virgin bride should not allow herself to be polluted by her unavoidable intimacy with the foreign groom can hardly be exaggerated.

That this complex attempt – to allow alien science and systems 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'. Many of those in their 20s and 30s reject their forebears’ values of single-minded hard work and loyalty to their employers, but their response tends to be personal and unstructured, rather than part of an alternative political ideology or social philosophy – though some are clearly vulnerable to the lure of neo-nationalistic slogans.


Americans and Europeans do not normally need to deal on a day-to-day basis with a rival 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 on the other hand for well over a century have had to observe the unceasing duty of balancing the conflicting demands of traditional hierarchy, discretion, circumspection and reticence on the one hand, with Western-style ambition, logic and assertive argumentation on the other. When dealing with foreigners they always had to appear accommodating, without however losing an ounce of their Japanese loyalty and identity. And without offering candid opinions that may have to be reversed later.

I have always admired the remarkable ability of Japanese men of authority in business or government to invoke either the constraints of their own harmony-driven culture or the open, businesslike ‘American way’, as the situation demanded. This two-faced nature was certainly a cultural achievement of sorts, but I could hardly admire it. I suspected that it caused much inner stress among its practitioners. While I lived in Japan I too suffered from the strain, and I wasn’t even part of the system!

I came to 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. 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.

Whenever I was on my way to Tokyo in the 1980s and 90s, 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.' And then it dawned 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. At first things seemed no different. As usual the familiar Japanese security blanket threatened to envelop me within a day or two of my arrival. But I reminded myself to stand firm and keep an open mind, and take my time before reaching any conclusions.

3. The Social Cost of the Construction

The inevitable dislocations and sacrifices inherent in all new urban and rural development have perhaps been especially severe in Japan because of the speed, scale and scant disregard for disruption with which renewal was undertaken.

Much has been written about the 'construction state' mentality that has dominated Japanese politics these past few decades, especially since the bursting of the economic bubble in the late 1980s. Using public works to stimulate the sluggish economy the government – through the huge construction industry with which it has long maintained cosy relations – has been responsible for the building of countless roads, bridges, dams and river canalisation projects, often in sparsely populated regions, running up an astronomical public debt in the process. Mirroring these pork barrel schemes was the construction of gigantic new sub-centres the cities and the equally sweeping though widely scattered private-sector developments of high-rise apartment blocks increasingly involving towers of 20, 30 or even 40 stories.

For an analysis of the economic and environmental consequences of this frenetic building activity the reader is referred to Alex Kerr's 'Dogs and Demons – The Fall of Modern Japan', an eloquent indictment of Japan's relentless pursuit of economic growth and its indiscriminate adoration of steel and concrete. And there are many other studies of this phenomenon, by both Japanese and foreign observers, expressing alarm and anguish over so much mindless interference with nature and traditional community life.

It is above all to the social and emotional impact of these wilful policies that I want to draw attention here. There can be little doubt that the destruction of much lovely countryside in the name of protection against landslides or floods, and the building of four-lane highways across rural land have had profound consequences for the quality and rhythm of communal life up and down the archipelago. In addition, the mixed forests that once covered the hills and mountains have been systematically cut down and replaced by conifers for the construction industry, with the resulting disastrous loss of bird and animal life, widespread soil erosion and creation of a serious pollen hazard that equally affects the rural and urban population.

For the cities, the consequences of the construction state mentality have also been profound. The physical destruction of neighbourhoods, with their vibrant communities of one-family homes and low-rise apartments, has exacerbated the inter-generational strains resulting from changing moral values and economic realities. The erstwhile standard of 'three generations under one roof' has been all but abandoned, and when young people nowadays live with their parents it is often because they do not want to marry and find it convenient and financially advantageous not to move out.

The neighbourhood association, long the watchdog of proper behaviour, has no place in concrete towers where one often hardly knows who lives next door. Local shopping streets with their mom-and-pop stores, once the daily haunt of housewives in need of a break and a bit of gossip, are dying, replaced by supermarkets and the ubiquitous convenience stores manned by robotic youngsters without roots in the community.

4. Threats to Stability

In recent years much of the world has been rent by extreme and increasingly unconventional violence – genocide, suicide bombings, kidnappings, beheadings, political assassinations, even the killing of aid workers and journalists and the mass murder of school children. In retrospect, the multiple attacks on the United States on 11 September 2001 seem to have been the clarion call for a rash of loosely coordinated terrorist action, which has been spreading rapidly across the globe, even spilling over into hitherto relatively calm and orderly countries such as Indonesia, Spain, and the UK.

In the midst of all this carnage Japan seems an island of enviable, old-fashioned tranquillity that belies its own past brushes with violent dissent and terrorism. Its experience with the ideological ferment and political violence of the 1950s and 1960s is a distant memory and in any case was benign by comparison, with few casualties. Even its bloody confrontation with the tiny 'Red Army Faction', ending with the Asama Sanso siege of 1972, was an isolated incident involving a small group of half-deranged fanatics without significant external ties.

Of an altogether different order were the outrages committed in the mid-1990s by the Aum Shinrikyo, until then a little known 'religious sect' under the leadership of a self-appointed guru, Shoko Asahara. Their belief in the need to cleanse the world from sin, which attracted thousands of followers in Japan and abroad, turned fatally perverse when they started manufacturing sarin and other lethal chemicals for use against 'humanity'. In 1994 and 1995 they actually unleashed their weapons, first in a kind of tryout in the city of Matsumoto with three deaths, then on the Tokyo subways, resulting in 12 deaths and over 5500 afflicted, many with appalling injuries.

In retrospect the attack in Tokyo should be ranked among the most heinous attempts in modern times to destroy civilized society by fanatics willing to sacrifice their own lives, or by state-of-the-art technology. Investigations brought to light that the relatively low death toll was caused by impurities in the sarin gas, without which the death would likely have been in the hundreds if not thousands, and therefore potentially on the scale of 9/11. Yet the attack in Japan was in a class of its own in that it was not the work of foreign terrorists inspired by hatred for 'infidels' occupying their land or threatening their people and their religious beliefs. Aum was not threatened; on the contrary, they were protected by laws guaranteeing freedom of religion and assembly. Yet they wanted to destroy Japan from within to obey their leader's deluded notions of 'purity'.

The most chilling aspect of the Aum episode is that Asahara's star recruits, his inner circle of scientists, managers, financial experts and media-savvy types, mostly university graduates, were drawn from the cream of middle-class Japan, and were indistinguishable from the typical 'salarymen' or academics one encounters on Japan’s urban streets and campuses.

The shock inflicted on the Japanese psyche by the Aum attack was profound. It totally dominated the media for weeks on end. Yet, incredibly, as in the case of the Red Army Faction and Mishima Yukio's ritual suicide in 1970, some of the perpetrators were not without their admirers. One in particular, Fumihiro Joyu, the spokesman for the cult, enjoyed great popularity among Japanese young women, even after the full scope of the cult's crimes became known.

Other shudders sent through Japan in recent years did emanate from an outside source, North Korea. First, in 1998, the North Koreans fired a ballistic missile across Japan into the Pacific; then, in 2002, they admitted having kidnapped, in the late 1970s, some eleven Japanese citizens from the area facing North Korea, for the purpose of stealing their identities. They had to teach the language and customs of Japan to Korean spies, who were then equipped with the stolen identities and sent to Japan. Of course the disappearances had not gone unnoticed, but the Japanese government took no action on the matter until the late 1990s.

All of these dramatic incidents were reported extensively in the world press, forming perhaps a welcome if perverse diversion from the usual bland fare constituting 'news from Japan'. So why recount them again here? Because of the way they somehow failed to ruffle the equanimity of the population at large, and – it would appear – even of the nation's leaders.

If the 9/11 attacks on America's own soil – perpetrated by outsiders – destroyed that country's 'innocence', no such effect could be ascribed to the sinister and lethal assault on Japanese society from within by the Aum conspirators. Aum still exists as a religious sect, and though it supposedly has been purged of its criminal elements – some have been found guilty and executed, others, including Asahara, are still awaiting trial or judgement – it continues to proselytise for members under its new name, Aleph. The organised conspiracy of middle-class, well-educated citizens, with its dire agenda of wholesale extermination of fellow citizens, has apparently been dismissed as an aberration, not requiring a fundamental examination of communal values or social structures, nor an eradication of the evil faith that spawned it.

It seems that the complacency into which Japan's affluence and splendid isolation has lulled it may need far more devastating actions by even more determined foes than the bungled attempts at grand carnage by a band of self-appointed couriers of divine judgement. A chilling thought.

5. Society's drop-outs - and the new free-lancers

More disturbing even than the streak of concealed violence in Japanese society are the increasing numbers of men and (to a much lesser extent) women who have placed themselves outside its mainstream, either by refusing or unable to find regular employment or – far more seriously – by holing up in their parents’ houses to lead a totally reclusive life.

The first category is by far the largest, estimated at between three and four million, compared to half a million in 1982 and over one million in 1992. It encompasses a wide range of individuals. Some simply abhor the 'bondage' of traditional employment, preferring instead to survive on part-time jobs. They are known as 'freeters'. Others, the NEETs (Not in Employment, Education or Training) are jobless for long periods of time. Both freeters and NEETs live frugal lives but they are seldom impoverished, often living off their parents or in shared accommodation. They are a new breed, a tribe of urban drifters and searchers, victims of the disintegration of society, both city-bred and migrated from the countryside, and unsure of what to do with their lives. By some estimates the freeter/NEET population may reach 10 million by 2014, seriously threatening the structure of society. [1]

The second group are the hikikomori, the ‘hidden bats, young hermits in the middle of throbbing urban life, holed up in their rooms, some already for over a decade. They are between their late teens and thirties living with parents sickened and embarrassed by their offspring's alienation but indulging them and unwilling to knock sense into them. The mothers can’t bring themselves to stop feeding them, even if it means placing the meal at the bottom of the stairs for the recluse to fetch when no one is around – for hikikomori usually do not eat with their family. Their number has been growing alarmingly, and is now estimated to be around 1,000,000.

Theories about the cause of this epidemic of social withdrawal vary, but most sources now agree that the phenomenon is a social one, not a mental-health disorder. Many see it as a form of extreme, passive resistance against social codes demanding the kind of unquestioning dedication to career and country that was the rule in the high-growth post-war decades, but in the eyes of many young people has become an anachronism. I believe the educational system and certain salient aspects of traditional upbringing may be equally to blame. Schools and even universities still place high value on rote learning. They rarely encourage vigorous debate and the development of critical faculties, emphasising instead the need to accept leadership ('fit in') and solidarity with one's group. Many of the hikikomori that do respond to probes into their motives are reported to complain that now as before the 'nail that sticks out gets hammered down. To be different is to suffer.

Balancing this largely unproductive segment of current Japanese society is another post-Showa phenomenon: the proliferation of artists, designers, writers, free-lance journalists, consultants and the like – whose talents and drive allow them to lead the kind of life that was virtually unheard of 20 or 30 years ago: that of the independent creative professional or intellectual, both men and women. Thanks largely to their efforts life in the large cities today is a lot livelier than it was in the staid days of Showa.

And thanks to a whole new generation of well-educated youngsters who have found their own way of rejecting the establishment: not by dropping out or hiding themselves, or by doing menial jobs at minimum wages – but by flaunting their feathers as they parade down Tokyo's trendy Omotesando on their mile-high heels. This breed, characterized by their outlandish, absurdist, but seldom expensive sense of 'dress', give the lie to the still lingering notion that the Japanese are a race of grim salarymen and obedient women.

But don't get me wrong: the worker bees have not gone berserk. Not all of them, that is.

6. Self-annihilation

In Homba ('Runaway Horses'), the second of his Haru no yuki ('Spring Snow') tetralogy, Mishima Yukio describes the recruitment, in 1932, of a band of young, clear-eyed men for a noble cause that they knew was hopeless and that would end in their certain death, by suicide if not in battle, as a sacrifice to their emperor. This novel was published in 1969. Eleven years later, hours after delivering the manuscript of the last of the four-part series to his publishers, Mishima committed suicide by disemboweling himself in public, in a protest against the lost emperor-centred 'purity' of his nation. The action was as melodramatic as it was fruitless, but it was not without its admirers among those Japanese – by no means only the 'pre-war' generation – yearning for the certainties of the past.

On 11 October 2004, four young men and three young women were found dead in a deserted van outside Tokyo, the victims of a suicide pact arranged over the Internet. It was the largest group suicide on record, in a country where suicides in 2003 reached a record high of 34,427. The suicide notes left by the seven young people contained few clues about their motives, other than that they saw no purpose in living, or had lost hope in finding what they wanted.

Suicide web pages appear to be an increasing means of communication between people wishing to end their lives but not wanting to be alone when doing it. Demands to block such pages have met resistance from human rights and free speech advocates.

The reasons for committing suicide naturally vary widely. Economic hardship and serious illness have always been leading causes. However tragic they may be in human terms, such suicides are relatively straightforward. More complex are those that result from shame or social alienation.

Shame suicides are sometimes resorted to by individuals who have caused serious harm to family, employer or the general public, deliberately or inadvertently, or have failed to perform one's duty, with disastrous consequences. But even losing one's job can be sufficient cause to end it all, like in the case of those mainly older men who found it impossible to face their family and friends after being made redundant in the aftermath of the bursting of the economic bubble at the end of the 1980s. Such suicides in particular raise serious questions about the nature of a society that places such extreme emphasis on (two-way) loyalty and group identity, in effect making some of its members feel worthless as individuals. Their misery is often compounded by the treatment they received before finally losing their cherished jobs: relegation to inferior positions, transfers to undesirable outposts, removal from important committees, etc.

Social alienation, discussed in a separate chapter, appears to be an increasing cause of suicide, and a particularly wretched one at that. The ruling elite apparently failed to anticipate the need for new directions as the period of high growth came to a close. For a while there was a lot of political talk about Japan having to become 'a normal country', but if that meant a country like France or the UK or America, with their traditions of open debate and real-life personal choices, you would not know it from the way children continued to be reared and students educated. Emphasis on traditional values and outdated notions of Japan's unique inner strengths long outlived their justification. There has been precious little recognition of the true nature of the ferment in so many lives. The sullen silence or anguished cries of the disaffected go largely unnoticed.

It must be said that in Japan suicide in the form of seppuku, better known in the West as hara-kiri, has a long and honourable tradition. It has always been regarded as the proper atonement for failure. During the Second World War suicide was the recommended solution in the face of imminent capture – for soldiers and in principle even for civilians. During the feudal period high officials and regional lords condemned to death for insubordination or 'failure of loyalty' were permitted to carry out the sentence by their own hand, at a solemn, splendid ceremony. To this day, samurai films, kabuki plays and manga comics seldom neglect to slip in a seppuku or two in their romanticised interpretations of history, to satisfy the apparently never-waning public appetite for examples of glorious self-annihilation.

For there lies the essential difference with Western graphic and cinematic depictions of the destruction of an enemy or a rival: the Japanese used to leave the deed to the condemned; we in the West most certainly did not. Even our tragic kings and queens were handed over to their executioner. In Japan, to humiliate an honourable adversary or a once loyal aide when he is down is not ethical, even if he is to die. Good manners must prevail to the bitter end.

To avoid causing others to lose face is certainly an admirable and highly civilized aspect of Japanese society. It also tends to cause extreme distress when the stronger party breaks the rules. Under the permanent employment system that for so long dominated Japanese society, every employee right up to senior middle management was a creature of the corporation and quite literally powerless as an individual. In return he could rely on the employer to protect his position and livelihood. To lose that protection was unthinkable. When the unthinkable did happen, and in a manner that compounded the loss of face, many of those affected proved unable to deal with the consequences – the shame.

Whatever their individual motivation the high incidence of suicide for other than financial or health reasons is clearly a worrying aspect of Japanese society today. It seems to indicate an inability among those taking their own lives – and the unknown numbers contemplating it – to accept or identify with certain crucial aspects of today's Japan. Some may miss the grand, national purposes and clear rules their elders were provided by the government, without finding anything worthwhile to take their place. Others may suffer an irreparable disconnect between their sensitive, searching selves and the blatantly commercialised, extroverted, shallow world surrounding them on all sides. And for most of them, their inability to make themselves heard in a society still reluctant to listen to the questioning, anguished voice of the individual may often be the last straw.