Japanese Culture and Society in Perspective

Chapters 7 - 8

(Written in 2006)

7. The identity issue

Dog Hachiko, loyalty
symbol, Shibuya, Tokyo

It is tempting to ascribe the alienation of so many younger Japanese to a loss of 'identity' - personal or national.

In Japan one's 'identity' is strongly associated with one's social and family framework. The group to which one belongs determines one's identity. Western interpretations of the term - rooted in concepts of individuality - are usually linked to one's own personality, which can survive more-or-less intact regardless of relations with any specific group. Although most dictionaries offer both definitions, the former version appears the more authentic, in view of the derivation from the Latin identitas meaning the same ('idem').

As group and family structures in Japan have always been exceptionally strong, the discontinuity on many levels of society over the last few decades cannot but have hurt the sense of identity of many Japanese. A few examples may illustrate the point.

The generation gap, not unknown in the West, has been particularly yawning in Japan. Values such as frugality, sobriety, loyalty, obedience, formal good manners and chastity (for women), informing every aspect of their parents' and grandparents' lives, to the under-35 generation are better known by their antonyms. The complaint 'you don't understand me' levelled at fathers and mothers by teenagers everywhere has a particularly cutting quality in Japan. The sight of workaholic fathers and complicit mothers, coupled with the influence - on the young - of rampant commercialism, sexual license and exposure to novel if still half-baked notions of individualism, have turned a whole generation away from what might have been role models for their own lives. Their rebellion has created unbridgeable chasms in many families.

During the post-war reconstruction and rapid economic growth periods - stretching from the late 1940s to the late 1980s - every employed Japanese knew what was expected of him - yes him, for women were seldom employed in other than subservient functions. Rebuilding the country and then challenging America's position as the No. 1 economy in the world were clear, quantifiable goals that left little room for doubt or worry among the rank and file. With the bursting of the bubble and the maturing of Japan into a low-growth economy riddled with problems of adjustment and globalization, the country's leaders have been hard-put to find new slogans to inspire the workforce.

On the national level three is a problem of identity too as Japan's place in the region and the world at large is becoming more precarious. What had been for so long believed to be a special, almost divine 'Japaneseness' that helped the country weather every threat and storm, has turned out to be a poor match for the powerful forces of globalization and geopolitics. In fact, not only its practical value, but the very notion of Japaneseness is now in question.

As Iwabuchi (Koichi Iwabuchi, 'Complicit exoticism: Japan and its other') has argued the idea of Japaneseness is a cultural construct, fashioned in response to Western stereotypes that gained ground in the late 19th century when Orientalism was at its peak. Rather than refuting the stereotype - which in any case differed greatly from that employed nowadays - Japan's leaders embraced and reinforced it, and used it to inspire its people to unified effort. While in the midst of a Herculean effort to emulate the Western powers militarily, technically and economically, the Meiji reformers also laid the basis for Japan's view of its own uniqueness. Iwabuchi:

'the emphasis on 'Japaneseness' has been crucial as a means of mobilising the people. This strategic 'Japaneseness' is something which maximises national interests and minimises individualism, consisting of traits such a loyalty to or devotion for the country.

This deliberate strategy to appeal to supposedly inherently superior traits of national character has yielded two profound results. It laid the basis for the emergence, in the 1930s, of a genre of non-fiction literature known as nihonjinron, or the theory of Japaneseness; and, far more momentously, it helped shape the character and attitudes of generations of Japanese.

Interest in nihonjinron has waxed and waned over the decades, but it has never been far away. Its practitioners include both Westerners and Japanese, both independent academics looking for root causes and writers using it to advance a specific agenda. In the mid-1980s a virulent form of nihonjinron emerged, inspired by Japan's formidable economic power and America's difficulties in dealing with it and ending with the publication, in 1989, of a highly controversial and popular book, 'The Japan that can say No.' The book was written by right wing politician and later Tokyo Governor Ishihara Shintaro and Sony chairman Morita Akio. While not typical of the genre, it does impute great talents to Japan and its people and aggressively demands America to treat it with the respect it deserves. It argues that Japan, based on its history, accomplishments, technology and economic power, should share world leadership with America.

The problem with nihonjinron as with all theories of otherness is that 'national identity' is impossible to define precisely and therefore does not really stand up to close scrutiny. Even in a society as relatively homogeneous as Japan, regional, class and individual differences can be as great as anywhere. Or, if we define Japaneseness in terms of what unites rather than what divides the Japanese, the well-worn clichéés we must needs rely on tend to come unstuck over time, or when placed in a different context.

Meiji era Western visitors to Japan commented on the undisciplined habits of Japanese workers. Some of the respondents to the survey I conducted in the course of my research for this book used the term zurui (cunning, scheming) in reference to their own race. And my early experiences with public littering and vomiting in trains and other public places could have justified me in calling the Japanese a disgusting people. Labels are so easy to apply and they tend to stick, even after they are found to be not - or no longer - warranted.

The notion that Japan's unique culture and superior social and moral values guaranteed the ultimate success of whatever it chose to undertake long served as the central tenet of education. No doubt it could claim a large share of the responsibility for Japan's great surges forward during the Meiji era and again in the period following the Second World War. But it took the place of self-reliance and critical thinking. It removed from its workers - right up to its senior managers - the responsibility of setting their own priorities in life. It effectively turned Japan into a nanny state.

Economic and political developments of the last two decades have removed the security blanket. The virtues of Japaneseness have proved to be hollow. Not all of them of course, but enough to allow for doubts about the concept's essential validity among broad swathes of Japanese society. Perhaps what was thought of as a distinctive, inalienable Japanese national character was actually a set of rules long ago instilled by wise rulers to help them rule. And rules, if no longer effective or appropriate, can be changed. Perhaps they should be changed.

8. Caught between two cultures

In 2002 I conducted a written poll of 44 Japanese men and 56 women and face-to-face discussions with another 25. They represented a cross-section of urban society, ranging in age from 18 to over 70, and included university students and professors, bankers, housewives, office and service industry workers, IT specialists, independent professionals, company executives, part-time workers and media people.

Of the 100 polled, 53 were employed adults, and 16 unemployed. The remaining 31 were university students, 26 undergraduate, 5 postgraduate.

What follows are the results of both the poll and the discussions, presented in a historical context and liberally embellished with my own comments. For the actual tabulated poll results click here.

a. The end of life-time employment

If there is one quest that has preoccupied the minds and behaviour of ambitious young Japanese men and their families since before the Second World War, it was to find permanent, 'life-time' employment with a major-league corporation. The security and prestige attached until recently to carrying a business card with a name like Mitsubishi or Yasuda or Toyota can hardly be exaggerated, and Japan's economic success must in no small measure be credited to the stability and loyalty this system has produced in the middle and upper echelons of the labour force.

The top employers were not interested in hiring men of any age who had worked elsewhere first, as if experience gained in others' service had somehow soiled or damaged them. Once hired the new employee, fresh out of college, was safe for life, a member of an elite virtually guaranteed steady promotion and an income at least adequate for maintaining a comfortable living standard. On the other hand, if he failed to find a quality position, he was up for grabs by the lower rungs of the business world, or he could strike out on his own or join his father's business if there was one.

It may therefore come as a bit of a surprise to find that most graduates now show little appetite for traditional life-long employment. Seventy percent of those who completed the questionnaires - in all age groups - said they had never looked for permanent employment, and 90% prefer full labour mobility.

This shift in attitude may well be partly due to the shaky position of the banks - once among the most desirable employers - and some of the large corporations. The resulting layoffs and hiring stops, previously unknown to Japan, have undermined the old consensus that outside the bureaucracy and the professions, a corporate or academic career with one employer was the only respectable way to go through life. Moving from one employer to another was long frowned upon and even taken as a possible sign of some undisclosed 'problem'.

Today, head hunters are doing a thriving business as changing jobs no longer carries the stigma it once did. Indeed it may well have become the new mark of success. A professor at Tokyo's Hitotsubashi University says that 'nowadays it's those who advance their career by changing employers that are admired, with the traditionalists who stick to one employer seen as losers.'

Implicit in this trend is a growing assertiveness and personal ambition that was actively discouraged - not to say condemned - in the hierarchical model. Though the middle managers and assistant professors may still listen politely when their superior - in his mid-fifties or older - lectures them on the virtues of loyalty and patience, their docility may be misleading. Some of them may nurture their own thoughts about this 'fossil' mentality and will not hesitate to jump ship if they find another position more in tune with their ambitions.

Entrance-level employment with the top companies must be secured in the student's senior year - graduation being assumed - or at the latest during the hiring season the year after, on a second try. But the ratio of applicants to vacancies has dwindled drastically. Today's students seem to be much more relaxed about finding employment, and many take a gap year or two backpacking in Australia or trekking across Asia before settling down to some kind of work - if then.

One university professor at a well-known university near Osaka, a Chinese who had been teaching both undergraduates and postgraduates for over five years, called Japanese undergraduate students 'totally free in many respects', and 'the most liberated element in society'. He said it was up to them to attend lectures or not. Their four years in college were meant to get some 'life experience and build up their network', not to study seriously. 'Those interested in research and knowledge will go on to postgraduate courses'.

He added that Japanese students nowadays have no natural role model, as they are - or want to be - 'completely different' from their parents. In that context the role of the university teaching staff is more important than before, as 'they can become role models instead'. But despite these changes, this professor did not predict that his graduates were going to shake up society. 'In that respect they are really no different from their predecessors', he said, an opinion echoed by other academics.

So -- is security the objective after all? Not if you believe what students tell you. Any job will do, they claim, even if it's temporary or menial. Something else will turn up after that. We live in an open labour market now, and if necessary we'll go abroad for a while. There's always work, somewhere. Besides, to be out of work is no longer 'embarrassing' or 'shameful', nor potentially calamitous.

At first I suspected that the apparent shift in attitude to lifetime employment might be little more than a bow to the inevitable. Permanent jobs are hard to come by these days. That's a fact. It's useless to moan about it - that sort of thinking. But since I came back in at the end of 2003 to live in Japan again I have observed these students and young graduates, and I am convinced there is a genuine change in their priorities.

In the long run this could turn out to be a good thing if the newly found disdain for a salaryman's life fosters independence and self-reliance. But it doesn't always work out that way. Many of the unemployed (often unmarried) under-40 generation of college graduates actually choose not to have any kind of regular job, preferring instead the life of perennial adult student or 'freeter' (odd-jobs casual worker). They either are content to live a hand-to-mouth existence, or depend on the support of understanding or supine parents. The kind of parents it should be added who, in the hardworking decades of the 1950s through the 1970s, built up a sizeable nest egg in the unquestioning, vacation-less service of Japan Inc.

The monolith of Japan's elite as we know it - single-minded, group oriented, loyal for life to one employer - appears to have split in two: the traditionalists and the liberals. The traditionalists still seek the security and prestige of a major corporate name and eagerly line up for the demanding interviews and examinations they need to pass to secure a coveted position. The liberals are a motley and growing group of restless searchers, mould-breakers and ambitious young man and women at one extreme, and unfocused, self-indulgent dreamers at the other.

Are they the new individualists who will determine Japan's future?

b. Individualism - you mean selfishness?

but still in a group!

There seems to be a perception in the West that 'individualism' is taking hold in Japan. This development is seen as salutary, as many of the country's supposed ills are ascribed to its group culture. Given that responsible citizenship in a democratic society is associated with matters such as diversity of opinion, intelligent debate, the balancing of individual rights and duties, and personal accountability, it is not surprising that this view has taken hold.

But it is a Western-centrist position. It assumes that an advanced society cannot function optimally when the expression of opinions is discouraged, problem solving is a collective endeavour, and individual freedom must yield to the demands of the greater unit.

Yet this is precisely how Japan has achieved its unparalleled prosperity and economic power, a phenomenon so impressive that the 1970s and 1980s saw a rash of Western books and management consultant types holding up this success story as the model to follow for the faltering economies - and societies - of Europe and North America.

Of course the blind adulation of the 'Japanese way' turned into abject dismissal the moment the Nikkei stock index and Tokyo property prices plunged after the bursting of the 'bubble economy' of the late 1980s, and US industry showed that it had life in it yet. With a sigh of relief thoroughly American concepts of free markets, pragmatic individualism and hard-nosed competitiveness were dusted off and placed back on their old US pedestals. The rest of the world, Japan included, was 'encouraged' to 'reform' their systems to emulate the American.

So have they occurred, those 'fundamental changes' that so many Western observers and politicians have, in their wisdom, urged upon Japan if it was to escape from its long downward slide? Or are they in the offing? Any such systemic reform surely would have to be accompanied by a shift away from the ingrained group culture that 'inhibited initiative' thereby perpetuating rule by the 'conniving triumvirate of politicians, bureaucrats and big business bosses', without any meaningful role for the elected parliament.

My poll returns revealed a widespread interest among all age groups in the idea of individualism, with very few ticking the box: 'traditional group-based thinking is best for Japan'. At least some of that interest must be ascribed to a kind of 'social correctness' in a nation that has always avidly examined new ideas from abroad, without necessarily adopting them. 'Individualism' as a concept is enjoying a degree of popularity, and it is fashionable to pay it lip service. The official government (non-) policy I was told is to 'continue studying the subject.'

In face-to-face discussions (and even in some of the comments written on the questionnaires) my respondents showed their ambivalence about the subject. Most of those expressing an opinion felt that the collaborative approach had proved its worth and should not be jettisoned. Some advanced it as the prime reason for being proud of Japan, others as their nation's main distinguishing feature and source of success.

Many of the students were decidedly sceptical about individualism. A group of undergraduates aged 20-22, gathered around me on the lawn of Kwansei Gakuin, a private university near Osaka, were uneasy discussing the subject. After some prodding they admitted they were not used to express personal opinions 'in the presence of people we don't know'. Most had attended debate classes but they didn't like being forced to speak up. 'When my position is attacked during debate, I'm made to feel that I am personally wrong, and everybody turns against me.' In junior and senior high school, they said, 'there is a strict hierarchy, with the younger ones having to obey the seniors.' Encouragement in developing your own, individual opinion about things is 'not on the agenda'. Nothing changed there, then.

Four graduate students at the prestigious Kyoto University, though fiercely debating the subject in front of me, came to a similar conclusion. These are some of their arguments.

'Individualism is a Western concept poorly understood here. Its meaning is ambiguous to us. Many equate it with egoism, selfishness. The educational system doesn't teach the idea because it doesn't fit traditional group-based thinking, which has worked well for Japan. If you have too much personal freedom you may lose the pleasure of being free. Too many voices, and you can't make up your mind. Japanese don't accept the morality of bearing personal responsibility for one's actions, so we can't grasp the real sense of individualism, or the need for it. Therefore its meaning gets distorted and manipulated. We just talk about it and say we like it, without caring about the consequences.'

A prominent law professor in Tokyo I spoke to twice in the second half of 2002 called the Japanese brand of individualism 'excessive in every sense.' He saw no need for the promotion of Western-style individualism. 'Members of the ruling bureaucratic elite - those that have passed the state examinations for public officials - decide for themselves what to do and say. Their life, both professionally and privately, is determined by their own will.' And even in group situations, he added, there is always a leader. 'Those who complain about the lack of individualism do not belong to the elite.'

Another Tokyo professor, of international relations, felt that my very question 'Are people in Japan strengthening their identity as individuals?' betrayed a Western bias. 'The Japanese cannot be individualistic in the Western way, however hard we try. We don't need to be. We have our own way.' But it was highly desirable for Japanese to be more emphatic in living their own lives, for their own sake, not for the sake of parents or society. 'At the same time we should be collaborative and respect harmony in dealing with others.'

This is how a senior director of one of Japan's largest advertising and marketing groups summed up his thoughts on the subject.

'Individualism has been a dirty word. It is diametrically opposed to the objective of killing the ego - the ko --, which has been the central tenet of education and social behaviour for centuries. Thus introducing the Western concept of true individualism is a hard task and bound to cause misunderstanding. So far, individualism is largely equated with egoism, selfish indulgence in personal pursuits. It is not realised that true individualism implies the ability to judge the appropriateness of one's actions in the social context, and to assume full personal responsibility for those actions. Japanese are used to being protected by the community.

Education is the key: without a firm commitment from the government to a change of culture from group to individual, change will not come. It won't be necessary to completely abandon Japan's group approach to problem-solving and policy formation. After all, it was very successful from the 1950s to the 1970s when Japan was building its economy in conditions of high growth. But the world has moved on, and globalisation, instant communication and mass travel require a radically different social philosophy. The worth of the individual and respect for his rights as an individual must be built into our value system, and that, combined with our traditional search for 'harmony' (wa) may be the best way forward for Japan.'

An eloquent case for change, though tempered in the time-honoured Japanese way by the wish not to abandon the proven virtues of wa.

So when may we expect the emergence of that new breed of Japanese with strong opinions of their own, ready to assume personal responsibility for their actions and prepared to use every local and national election to impose their will on the political system? And throw their weight around on the global stage as befits their economic might? I'd say: don't hold your breath.

But that doesn't mean behaviour is cast in stone. The professor of international relations quoted above told me a year and a half later that among the under 40's, both men and women, the old docility is fading fast. 'They have learned to think for themselves, and many are losing patience with the old order. The real power these days is with the middle layers, not with the top. Not only in the big companies, but also in the universities.'

If so, well and good. But of course rejection of establishment thinking does not necessarily translate into having alternative goals in life. A disturbingly large part of Japan's younger generation is passive to the point of apathy, their lackadaisical attitude or emphasis on 'enjoying life' standing in stark contrast to the energy and sense of purpose of both the generation of their parents and grandparents, and the critical, driven individuals among their own contemporaries.

Most of Japan's new non-conformists are perhaps not 'individualistic' in the Western sense, with its connotation of assertive, combative, self-confident, intellectualised. Their ideas and initiatives, fermented in the crosscurrents of home-grown and imported values, will find their own form and expression, which will be neither 'traditionally' Japanese, nor the product of 'westernisation'. As at the time of the Meiji Restoration, it will be an amalgam best suited to Japan's own character and circumstances.

In the next decade or two, these men and women, now in their late 20s, 30s and even 40s may well hold the key to a successful reshaping of their society to ready it for greater internal diversity and a more global role.

Yes, women too. That is one area in which there has been conspicuous progress. Female presidents of large corporations may still be a rarity but almost everywhere else - including international diplomacy - women are making their mark. There has also been a shift in perception of the role of women in marriage. The traditional clichéé of the otonashii (quiet, obedient), kawaii (sweet, cute) wife appears to be making way for the wife as equal partner - modern, well educated, often with a career of her own. This new woman was strikingly illustrated on a recent poster of a leading Tokyo department store advertising its 'wedding packages'. It showed an independent bride, looking over the groom's shoulder, away from him, into a world of her own. The problem is that most Japanese men don't care for such independence, with the result that more and more young people end up staying single.

As for the individualistic approach to life, our European culture and identity is unthinkable without it. By the same token Japan could not have reached its astonishing achievements merely by applying borrowed ideas and unsuitable techniques. There has always been a Japanese way.

c. The education conundrum

As in the 1960s and 70s, the primary purpose of a 4-year university course is not to get a superior education as such but to qualify for employment in industry, finance or government. Since graduation is practically a given there is no great pressure for achieving academic excellence except for those aiming to go on to graduate school.

Girls in graduation attire, Tokyo

No wonder the impression persists that the university days are meant more for forming friendships, engaging in sport, and generally having a well-deserved break between the rigours of the university entrance exams and the future of corporate servitude, than to grow into intellectually and emotionally mature adults. This must surely be considered as one of the more negative aspects of an educational system originally designed to fill quotas and produce formally qualified but docile graduates.

English is by far the most important and usually the only foreign language taught at high school and university. (Only 12% of my respondents said they had some knowledge of another language besides English). Two-thirds of the adults considered a good command of English important for their career, and a whopping 90% said they needed it for their personal enjoyment of life. With the students the rate was almost 100% on both counts. Clearly, English has firmly established itself as the need-to-know second language in Japan.

Yet two-thirds of the adults rated themselves 4 or less (on a scale of 10) for English conversation. Half of the adults considered even their English reading ability to be 4 or less. Roughly half judged the quality of English language education received in high school and university as 'poor'. The students were more confident: 'only' 38% marked themselves at 4 and under for speaking, and 12% for reading. They agreed high school English is unsatisfactory, but only 1 out of 4 thought the English teaching they were getting at university was unsatisfactory.

The wide discrepancy between the acknowledged need for English and the perceived quality of instruction may in part be explained by the great difficulty experienced by many Japanese in learning a language so unrelated to their own. Another cause no doubt is the low academic status accorded non-Japanese teachers of English at the high school level. They still do not enjoy equality with Japanese nationals, even when they are more qualified. Two full-time foreign teachers I spoke to said they were employed as 'associates' and excluded from staff meetings. They had to share the class with a nominally senior Japanese colleague who left most of the actual teaching to them but frequently overruled or humiliated them in front of the class by changing a set task or disagreeing with a compliment given for 'good work' performed.

The spread over the past few decades of katakana eigo, a phonetic 'language' consisting of Japanised English words expressed in phonetic katakana symbols, can hardly have helped the quality of English instruction. It is worthwhile briefly examining this phenomenon. Katakana eigo can be broadly divided into three categories: the established, the trendy and the would-be phonetic. The first is the more innocuous: it is limited in scope and has long since entered mainstream Japanese and the standard dictionaries. Examples are depaato, apaato, ea-con, han-suto and kyanseru (department store, apartment, air-conditioner, hunger strike and cancellation).

The trendy form is spewed out constantly by copy-writers and text creators in advertising, fashion and the media, as well as on the street by the urban young and restless. It involves the coining of Japanised versions of English and American words and phrases and is often used more for its flavour and to create a mood (exoticism, romance, excitement) than to convey information. Those hearing or reading the words do not necessarily understand their meaning, but like the lyrics of some pop-songs 'meaning' is not their primary function. What counts is the emotional effect they have on their audience.

Examples of this trendy form, both already dated, are naui and muudi, the first derived from 'now' plus 'y' and meaning up-to-date or fashionable; the second being 'moody' but conveying something atmospheric or chic rather than its English meaning of grumpy or gloomy.

As for the third type, the would-be phonetic, they are a curious phenomenon. Used mostly by the media and in advertising in place of perfectly good Japanese words, they are supposedly straight phonetic renderings into katakana of English words or phrases, but because of the constraints of the katakana syllabary, they are not always a close match. Here are two examples, both film titles: Gosuto in za sheru and Roodo obu za ringu. The first - Ghost in the Shell in regular English - is in fact the title of a Japanese movie; the second, in case you didn't recognise it, is the katakana rendering of The Lord of the Rings. Note that in the latter example one article and the plural form were dropped in the transliteration. Other examples of this type are domesuchikku baiorensu (domestic violence), reipu (rape) and doraggu (drug or drugs). These three terms - like countless others - can't be found in Japanese standard dictionaries, perhaps because there is really no need for them.

I have been cautioned not to look upon katakana eigo as just an outrageous corruption of 'correct' English - if such still exists in a world where English, as the new lingua franca, is honoured by a plethora of accents. No, I'm told, it is a distinct language serving a specific communicative purpose. All the same I cannot help feeling that the existence of this other 'language', mercilessly flogged by the media, alongside standard English as taught in the schools, seriously undermines students' efforts to master the normal, necessary form. I mean, how can you persuade a school-girl in class that she should say The Lord of the Rings if the more authoritative movie posters tell her otherwise? Of course, language is a living organism that should not be stunted in its natural development by officious interference. But the rampant, deliberate corruption of English as illustrated above is unhelpful because it creates confusion.

And I have another gripe. The practice, observed by virtually every type of publication, of rendering foreign names (of persons and places) into katakana in, has another drawback. As an approximate aid to pronunciation this may have its uses (though writing Louvre as Ruuburu or Thatcher as Satchaa is of no great help), but it should be unnecessary and is very inconvenient. Unnecessary, because (1) every Japanese is thoroughly instructed in the Roman alphabet as part of their compulsory education, and (2) if desired a pronunciation key can be provided by the addition of phonetic katakana symbols in small type - a normal practice in the past that now seems to have fallen by the wayside. Inconvenient, because the katakana rendering gives no clue to the actual spelling of the name, which every student and traveller consulting maps, dictionaries, reference manuals or databases in the original language has an absolute need to know.

But back to my survey.

The Tokyo law professor I quoted before said the quality of education had got much worse since he was a student in the 1960s. 'The mental age of male students aged 18 these days is about 60% of what it was in the 1960s, i.e. 60% of normal, 12 instead of 18, and going down,' he said. 'Girls: maybe 70%, which makes them a mental 14 when they enter university.' And what about graduate students? 'Their mental age is that of an undergraduate'. He did not react when I said he reminded me of General McArthur's notorious remark about the low mental age of Japanese in general.

The professor's harsh assessment may be an exaggeration. Yet no thoughtful visitor can escape the impression that young Japanese are often much more youthful and modest, not to say innocent and naïïve in their behaviour than their peers in the West. There is a disarming vulnerability about their unworldly, trusting demeanour that is both attractive and strange, and a little worrisome. It leaves you wondering how kids like these are going to cope in the real world. No wonder so many young Japanese tourists (and the not-so-young too) are often targeted by thieves in foreign cities, and careless young women sometimes fall victim to viciousness.

When I asked the professor what in his view was the cause of this slide in intellectual levels his answer came swift: the current educational system, which emphasises factual, rote learning, passing multiple-choice exams, and following the example of others, especially teachers. It is a well-known view, but I'm surprised to hear it from his mouth. Hadn't he told me that state examinations sift the wheat from the chaff, with those who pass forming the elite and taking their own decisions?

True, but he had been talking about where the current system leaves the general student. The best brains always manage to get to the top, whatever the system. But the average graduate, those that made up the rank and file of the economy during the high-growth 1960s and 1970s, could be produced more efficiently by assembly line cramming. In the wake of the student demonstrations of the Sixties, a formally educated but docile workforce was clearly considered preferable to an intellectually astute one.

Criticism of the system, which has been in force since 1947, has been mounting in recent years, amid increasing reports of teenage suicides and violence, alarming levels of high school dropouts, and, in the words of one commentator, 'a decided disconnect between the country's fact-based curriculum and the skills and knowledge needed to succeed in an era of innovation.' These and other views finally prompted the government to start a process of reform, which will emphasise matters such as 'co-existence in a diverse society', 'cultivating a passion for learning' and encouraging students to 'think for themselves and communicate ideas effectively'. Yet there is no indication that the reforms constitute a fundamental change in educational philosophy. Commentators claim that the government has no intention of abandoning the principle of wa and group-based thinking or promoting liberal ideas about such subjects as political consciousness and pluralism.

On the contrary there are signs of an opposite agenda. According to The Japan Times, a new law passed in 1999 urges public schools to hoist the national flag and to sing the 'Kimigayo' national anthem at entrance and graduation ceremonies. The guidelines were observed in 40 out of 47 prefectures in the spring of 2002. Teachers who refused to comply were 'punished'. An elementary school in Fukuoka has introduced 'Patriotism' as a new item for grading, with pupils being evaluated in terms of 'affection for the country and identity as a Japanese.'

Among the reasons for the projected reforms a government report listed loss of confidence among students, erosion of moral values, violent crime among the young and lack of discipline in the classroom. It portrays a Japanese society in serious crisis. One commentator suspects that the government is 'creating a crisis in education' and dealing with it not by introducing fundamental changes, but by pursuing a nationalistic policy in order to deflect the public's frustration with the decade-long economic slump and popular disgust with politics.

We will have to await the full implementation of the program, but it seems unlikely that the reforms - though stimulating student participation and lessening somewhat the emphasis on rote learning - will produce a redesigned, more critical citizen. Harmony and civility will prevail. The dissenting voice may still not be welcome.

d. Personal priorities in life

When I lived in Japan the word 'lifestyle' was still unknown, as indeed it was in Europe. You worked, you ate, you slept. Sometimes you went out for a night on the town, or a Sunday in the park. If you were Japanese and had a kind employer you might get a few days' holiday once a year, to spend in a company-owned mountain lodge with your family. It was an honest, sober life, in which small pleasures counted for a lot.

If one is to believe Japanese films and advertisements of today, everybody under 35 seems to have some kind of super-cool, even extravagant lifestyle, determined by one's particular tastes in fashion, cosmetics, cars, computer games, food, music, holiday destinations, and sex, not necessarily in that order. Just like in the US or the UK, you might say. But somehow things in Japan are always taken to extremes.

In the old days, say until the mid-1960s, all Japanese hair and most cars were black, all salarymen's suits dark blue, all shirts white. The young women wore skirts and heels, even on weekend outings to nearby temples or hills. Holidays were a rarity and foreign holidays - a privilege reserved for the retired with savings - were available only in the form of JalPak Tours, which provided round-the-clock security and nanny-like care.

Today conservative attire is still the norm with the leading employers, but leisurewear has gone wild, as have the outfits and hairdos of media types, celebrities, and the fashionably idle. The 8-inch high heels, pink afros and outlandish getups of the young, sexy crowd parading down Tokyo's Omotesando add up to a freak show. The throngs of look-alike itty-bitty schoolgirls cluttering the streets of Shibuya by the thousands, with their drooping white school socks, identical vocabulary and pinky-pearl mini mobile phones, make you wonder if cloning has already become a fact of Japanese life.

But this hedonistic, freewheeling and often silly way of life seems to be largely confined to a relatively small urban minority. 'Ordinary' Japanese, the kind I drew my sample from, are still comparatively conservative in their living habits, regardless of their age. Only 2 of the 100 eat 'mostly Western food', with two-thirds eating 'mixed' and one-third 'predominantly Japanese'. But 25% said their diet was 'unhealthy', suggesting reliance on junk food.

Over 95% believe in 'hard work' and 92% in 'saving money', though a quarter of the students prefer to spend it. Even so, half of all respondents judged their own 'habits and lifestyle' to be very different from their parents', mostly because of dissimilar eating and sleeping habits, but with about 20% stressing divergent values and priorities in life. Examples: My parents live in a routine, I don't. Their priority is society, mine is myself. They are too preoccupied with 'balance' in life. They are diligent, while I'm easy-going.

A few expressed their appreciation for the greater freedom made possible by increased prosperity and their parents' exertions. And in spite of the generational gap three-quarter of the adults and students consider relations with their parents to be satisfactory.

So what are our respondents' priorities in life? To help them decide I offered a choice of 17 possibilities, plus space for a free answer, and asked them to rank the top five in order of importance, with '1' indicating the highest priority. The following picture emerged:

  Students Adults
Meeting friends/cultivating friendships 1 5
Discovering myself and realising my dreams 2 4
Travel and adventure/getting to know the world 3 1
Reading and intellectual pursuits/continuing education 4 7
Doing what I feel like and enjoying life 5 6
Creative pursuits: art, writing, music etc. 6 9
A happy marriage 7 8
Watching or engaging in sport 8 12
Raising a family/family life 9 2
My work/profession/building a career 10 3

The heavy emphasis among adults on escapist pleasures (Travel and getting to know the world) reflects both affluence and a lack of ambition. Even among students travel has a higher priority than intellectual pursuits and education! And with thoughts of 'My work/profession/building a career' in distant 10th place, these students are clearly not seriously thinking about the future. The importance given to 'Discovering myself and realising my dreams' probably reflects the current trend to look for a 'new identity' though it could also be revealing of the uncertainty the individual feels in a predominantly group-oriented society.

With adults, Romance & sex came in 11th place. Surprisingly it did no better with the students. I suspect some dissembling here, for there is ample evidence that Japanese society is as preoccupied with sex as any. Perhaps the word 'romance' confused them. Courtship and emotional love are far less common in Japan than in the West. The popular press often comments on the 'clumsiness' of men in winning the hearts of women. So sexual energy is often channelled into solitary pursuits, some of them strange, even weird. Sexually explicit video games and the manga cartoon books, many of a deviant nature, are thriving. Porno web sites catering to every sexual need and fantasy, some offering programmable virtual 'fantasy women' (and 'fantasy men' as well?), are hugely popular.

There are many young Japanese men these days - not necessarily unemployed - who prefer to stay at home with their mothers (and perhaps with their faithful cyber girlfriends) rather than venture into volatile real-life relationships, let alone tying themselves down to marriage. A Japanese friend of mine, retired as president of a prominent media company had this to say about the phenomenon: 'The mothers pamper their sons, happy to have them at home. The fathers are useless and away most of the time. Is it any wonder that the sons become their mother's lovers?' One must hope that he is referring to extreme cases, but there is no denying that there is frequently something unsavoury about these fully-grown men refusing to leave the warm nest.

And what is one to make of all those older businessmen paying for sex with 16 or 17-year old schoolgirls dressed in sailor's uniform and white socks? We're not talking about the perversion of a few but - though the media may have over-hyped the phenomenon - a social problem serious and widespread enough to be known by a special name, enjo-kousai, meaning something like 'assisted dating'. Most of these girls, beeped up after school on their little cell phones for a dinner or karaoke date with a 'helpful uncle', are apparently not bothered by guilty feelings. They are just 'doing what they feel like' to earn pocket money for buying some coveted 'famous brand' accessory. Even when the date leads to sex, as is usually the case, they claim they just do it 'for fun', and some stop doing it after a while. They don't regard themselves as prostitutes, though press reports claim that many in fact end up as such.

And I haven't even mentioned the reputed sharp rise in female infidelity and divorce. Clearly 'sex and romance' receive far more attention than the paltry vote in my poll would suggest. Perhaps, like so much else in Japanese society, it is a subject one prefers not to discuss.

Digressing for a moment, I want to consider a related phenomenon, the streak of 'infantilism' in Japanese culture referred to by such social scientists as Sharon Kinsella and Yamane Kazuma. The evidence for this is indeed ubiquitous, in people's behaviour, advertising, popular culture, the service industry. Young women wanting to be thought of as kawaii ('cute'), often talk, gesture and dress like little girls while hugging soft toy animals and the like. The kawaii image and style for young women has been a predominant trend since the late 1970s. In the eyes of those considering such qualities as desirable (and they may well constitute the majority), a kawaii girl or young woman is not just cute but also vulnerable, innocent, sweetly selfish, adorable, pure, and inexperienced. Banks use childish cartoons on their ATM machines, and the police do the same in their PR to project a citizen-friendly image. The jingles in TV commercials frequently feature little-girl voices. The video and manga-industry is replete with infantile fantasies.

And it's not just middle-aged businessmen who betray their preferences by seeking dates with schoolgirls. I am told that the majority of well-educated men in their late twenties or to mid thirties considering marriage will still choose for a wife a kawaii girl over the more sporty, independent, capable or intellectual types, thus negating the opposite trend toward the modern 'equal partner' wife image noted in the previous chapter.

This prevalent male predilection for the 'child woman' may well have something to do with the hierarchical, often stultifying nature of traditional Japanese employment and the frustrations it engenders among the young and mid-career employees. In exchange for security and 'future prospects' the employer expects submissiveness, even from its most intelligent and well-educated workers. The resulting suppressed anger and hurt self-esteem have no outlet at work as complaints are seldom entertained and confrontations discouraged. It is not difficult to imagine that in the conjugal sphere these men unconsciously seek what they are deprived of at work: control and respect. The pliant, reassuring presence of the kawaii wife waiting at home to serve and comfort him is just what he needs to bolster his ego. As James Michener put it in his 1950s bestseller Sayonara, 'Japanese women make their men feel important.'

Thus is desk rage sublimated and defanged. But this daily diet of grudging docility on the one hand and soothing palliation on the other is hardly conducive to character building. It takes a man of real mettle and conviction to assert himself amid all the patronising and mollycoddling.

As for the rest of the 'priorities', Going to concerts/visiting museums found favour among a quarter of adults but zero students. More personal and idealistic pursuits barely got a look-in: Religion, spiritual disciplines & philosophy got one vote, Improving the world/social causes/helping people in need 4, all of low priority. Some items found no takers: Visiting nightclubs, bars, discos; Getting rich; even Computer activities including Internet and E-mail did not garner a single vote.

Dishearteningly, there wasn't a single write-in topic: all votes were cast within the 17 suggestions on offer. The absence of any kind of expressed idealism, grand dream or tangible life goal is glaring. Of the adults, the impression is one of a comfortable people living in the present, bent on travel and devoted to family and friends, but with no great career ambitions and little passion. The students are hardly more inspired. As already noted, Intellectual pursuits, which should come at the top of their list, only merits 4th place, behind Friends, Self-discovery and Travel. It certainly confirms what I was told about the limitations of the educational system and the immaturity it breeds.

These findings are echoed in the answers to the question: Are you satisfied with your present life? A third of the adults and half of the students answered No, but when asked what changes they desired, all they came up with were banal concerns such as better housing and relief from boredom. Again no articulated goals, just vague, unfocused dissatisfaction with the status quo.

Yet among the bland pronouncements I found once again hints of that understated, inward-looking quality and integrity that I have always seen as the mainstay of this culture. The Japanese as a whole never have been, and are not generally today, given to hyperbole or self-assertion. Many seem to have a well-honed aversion to taking the initiative and a tendency to prevaricate, preferring instead to practice what might be called 'intelligent acceptance' of one's circumstances - the weather, noisy children, unreasonable bosses, long commutes, obnoxious in-laws. One's station in life. Life in general.

It is tempting to equate this attitude with fatalism. But there is a distinction between blind surrender to the consequences of one's birth, and the positive interpretation of a reality that, at least for the present, one cannot or does not wish to alter. The former is a defeatist state of mind, impelled perhaps by abject poverty, and it lacks hope. The latter approach to life, traditionally common in Japan, is intelligent in the sense that, while it accepts that prevailing reality should not be forced, it recognises the possibility of a change in circumstances. This attitude is marked by a muted alertness to the immediate surroundings. For its nourishment it requires no manifestos or compelling philosophies, perhaps not even a personal dream. What it does need, besides a good education, is continuous reaffirmation of the existence of social channels and personal networks, any of which could act as conduit for change, or at least for optimal functioning.

Some may dismiss the previous paragraph as a complicated way of describing the 'open mind'. But what we are talking about here is something more subtle, the kind of attitude to life coveted by those in the West who are exhausted from the excesses of an aggressive and opportunistic society, where sensitivity, introspection and integrity seem lost commodities. What they look for is a fully informed but calmer and intellectually honest way of dealing with the rigours of contemporary life.

Some seem to find it in this alternative 'Japanese' approach, which, though by no means universally followed even in Japan, nevertheless can be said to be a distinct product of Japanese culture.

The obvious downside to non-assertiveness is vulnerability to manipulation and exploitation by high-handed superiors and unscrupulous rulers. Below its façade of contentment, my poll exposed a worrisome defencelessness to exterior forces, rooted in what at best is an accommodating disposition, but too often can only be called indifference.

e. The slow escape from insularity

About three years ago, while I was waiting for a commuter train on the platform of Tokyo's Shimbashi station, a man in his early forties, wearing a suit and carrying a briefcase, came up to me and stopping at five or six paces, started to look me over. Inspecting me from head to toe he seemed amazed at what he saw, though I too was dressed inconspicuously. 'You are not Japanese,' he half-asked. 'No,' I said, but as he made no further effort at conversation, I resumed reading my paper.

The man changed his position a few times while continuing to gaze at me from different angles. At one point he cocked his head and while contemplating the strange apparition before him, he muttered 'Ho-ho …… sotobito!'

The normal word for foreigner is gaikokujin (gaijin for short), but this strange man chose the uncommon sotobito, which translates into 'outside person'. Although Tokyo is fairly teeming with outside persons these days, this character saw fit to pick on one in particular, and he didn't give up so easily either. Following me into the train, he took the strap next to mine, and continued his ogling and half-hearted attempt at conversation. I felt annoyed and uneasy and tried to tell him off in a loud enough voice to alert other passengers that I was being molested - to no avail. The creep kept following me around, to another part of the carriage, and out at the next station, where I finally got rid of him by jumping back onto the train just as the doors were closing.

This man was clearly deranged, or drunk. The only reason I recount this trivial incident is that it reminded me of the unalterable foreign-ness of all Westerners in a society that has always prided itself on its racial and cultural homogeneity. During my early years in Japan it was common for urchins - and even well dressed city children - to point fingers at you in the street while shouting Gaijin! Gaijin! It was always unpleasant and I preferred not to know whether it was just childish prankishness or the parents' attitude that made them behave like that. After all, curious and hostile glances from grown-up Japanese in the train, too, were commonplace in those days.

Eventually the juvenile taunts stopped, though the adult stares continued right up to the mid-1970s. Nowadays they have become a rarity, even in rural areas. A foreign face has evidently ceased to intrigue or offend. The Shimbashi stalker catapulted me back into the past.

In today's Japan inter-racial relationships and marriages have become commonplace, and immigrant labour - from all over Asia and Africa - is on the rise, even in small towns. I was curious to learn how the average Japanese views this gradual transformation of their society. What I found was increased tolerance mixed with apprehension.

A third of the adults and two-thirds of the students said they welcomed 'the increase in the number of foreign residents as it makes Japan a more cosmopolitan society.' A slightly smaller number of adults and 40% of the students agreed that 'without a vibrant, integrated foreign community, Japan will never break out of its insularity.' But some are uneasy about the prospect of a multiracial Japan: 15% of the adults and a quarter of the students prefer to see only foreigners from 'developed countries', or students who don't stay on after graduation.

The number of foreign university students in Japan increases year by year, reaching 78,812 in 2001 (and jumping to 121,812 as of May 2005). Eighty percent are from China and Korea, and most of the rest from elsewhere in Asia.

While I was conducting my poll The Japan Times reported that non-Japanese Asians studying in Japan and intending to stay on after graduation faced 'diminishing job prospects amid language and cultural barriers [and] a hermetic corporate culture. Society is not yet ready to accept them,' said the paper. One problem, continued the article, is that foreigners cannot grasp what is meant by 'tacit understanding', a manner of implied communication that is a characteristic of corporate life in Japan. This leads to friction between 'what the companies require and how [foreigners] behave.' Even so, the evident support particularly among students for more foreign residents and a less insular Japan is heartening.

There was much less equivocation about my question whether Japan should 'get more involved in international politics, to help solve crises'. A massive 80% of the 60 adults that gave their opinion, and 90% of the students said 'yes'. Even if it would involve certain risks? I persisted. Yes, even then, felt 70% of the grown-ups and again 90% of students.

These findings, for what they are worth, confirm my personal experience that relations between Japanese and foreigners have lost much of the self-conscious formality of the past. Many Japanese now seem quite comfortable in the company of non-Japanese, even when a lack of English limits communication. Education, travel and prosperity, and the receding shadow of the 'lost war', obviously have done their salubrious work.

Yet, as one of my Japanese friends, a fluent English speaker in her mid-thirties assured me, this apparent ease of socialising is less the product of natural inclination than of deliberate effort. 'From early childhood we are told that we should be assertive in our relations with Westerners. It's hard for us to do so because it is against our culture, but we learn. Yet even now the moment I switch to English I become a different person, a stranger to my true self.'

Be that as it may, there appears to be an increasing interest in living abroad. Aside from the large expatriate Japanese communities of businessmen and diplomats in the world's major cities, there are now untold thousands of unaffiliated Japanese making their long-term home in some foreign country or other. There are Japanese retirement villages in the US and Australia, and almost everywhere you go you find individual Japanese of all age groups living and working as professionals, journalists, teachers, artists, or in some business or other. Yet as a percentage of the Japanese population, 125 million strong, it is still a drop in the bucket.

So how great is this interest in 'abroad' among those who haven't left? I tried another question to tease out the truth. 'If you had the choice,' I dared ask, 'which country would you like to belong to?' To my surprise half the adults and most of the students chose one, 14 countries in total. Ten adults and 5 students answered 'Japan, after all', with Italy, the US, the UK and Sweden being most favoured among the 13 foreign countries named. One student picked Papua New Guinea, perhaps because he wanted to live and 'exciting and adventurous life'.

To the question, 'Would you ever consider emigrating to another country, for example if Japan's current economic problems get worse and would affect your job or standard of living?' again half of the adults and three-quarter of the students said they would. This is a remarkable finding, particularly when seen in conjunction with the answer to another question, 'Are you proud to be Japanese?' None of the adults and only three of the students said there weren't. But the interesting part is this: although only 50% of the adults answered 'yes', the other half said they were 'neither proud nor not proud' of being Japanese, an indication perhaps that they had, in the words of one of them, 'joined the world', or wished to do so.

The conclusion seems inescapable that this cross-section of Japanese has broken out of its insularity. Yet I don't fully trust this assessment. Just look at some of the almost 300 write-in comments.

First of all, the reasons given for 'being proud to be a Japanese' included a plethora of references to Japan's mature or 'unique' culture, aesthetics, delicious food, rich past, way of thinking or ethics. Others mentioned Japanese thoughtfulness and respect for harmony. Twenty of the respondents, half of them students, wrote 'because I love Japan', or words to that effect.

Another question, 'Do you feel Japan is misunderstood by foreign countries?' turned up further indications of the complexity of these feelings. Forty adults and 20 students answered Yes, with many blaming foreigners for the misunderstanding. Examples:

  • Foreigners think we are
    • a boring and stiff people
    • cunning and dishonest
    • still a land of samurai and geisha, or they mix us up with the Chinese
    • all rich; they don't understand we have lots of poor people too
    • ambiguous and vague, because we seek harmony
    • a small and weak people who can't express opinions.
  • Foreign media are biased against us, or portray us either too favourably or too unfavourably.
  • People in Europe and America don't understand the value of silence.
  • Westerners' attitudes to Japan tend to be patronising.

Others, feeling that Japan should look at home for the causes of misunderstanding, were scathing in their criticism of their own country:

  • What can you expect? We Japanese are not straightforward with other countries.
  • The Japanese are zurui (sly, deceitful).
  • The information Japan is giving about itself is inaccurate.
  • Japan's diplomacy lacks principles and is too heavily identified with US interests.
  • Japan's overseas activities are too materialistic and lack voice.
  • Don't blame foreigners: even we Japanese can't understand our own culture.

Self-criticism notwithstanding, the overriding impression I took away from my meetings and discussions with Japanese of all age groups - and most especially the young - was that of a deep attachment to their land and culture. The questionnaires confirm this impression. Even those who most strongly attacked their country's weaknesses didn't waver in their loyalties.

Things foreign are no longer referred to as batakusai (smelling of butter) as they were a generation or two ago. Foreigners no longer necessarily stink, though their bathing habits and frequency of sock changes still do not always meet Japan's high standards of hygiene. (My wife remembers vividly being 'nauseated' as a child by the odour emitted by some Europeans she shared a lift with in the Yokohama Grand Hotel).

Interest in and knowledge and acceptance of Western culture in all its manifestations has become truly widespread, incomparably greater than our own vis-à-vis Japan's. Even so, when it comes to actual physical contact with 'abroad' most Japanese still prefer travelling in groups, as protection against alien languages and customs.

So is Japan more or less 'foreign-minded' than a generation ago? By the superficial yardstick of popular culture and lifestyles, I should say 'more'. At the same time there appears to be, paradoxically, a general decline in interest in what goes on in the rest of the world. Corporate employers encounter increased resistance to overseas postings, and most Japanese are non-committal when asked their opinion about major international issues and disputes. In a 2005 BBC/GlobeScan poll about the US impact on world events in 21 countries, the Japanese scored consistently lowest in the percentage of respondents expressing an opinion. Only between 25 and 50% of those polled expressed an opinion to a range of questions, compared to 75-95% in China, South Korea and major Western countries.

Yet while American latent isolationism is rooted in self-sufficiency and the presumption of invincibility, Japan's inward-looking stance may well come from quite the opposite source: an abiding sense of vulnerability and the consequent wish to avoid the limelight and stay out of trouble.

f. Emperor - or President?

January 7, 1989 - 1pm, at the Imperial Palace Plaza, Tokyo. The Emperor died this morning at 6.33. Businesses have been invited to stay closed for 2 days. So far I've seen no closed shops, although the banks hang their flags half-mast. Here, in the vast but still almost empty Plaza the atmosphere is a cross between solemnity and blatant curiosity seeking. Six itinerant priests of the Myouhouji Sect just passed by in single file mournfully beating their drums. But most of the people that have come to the Plaza seem more interested in clicking their cameras than in sparing a thought for their dead emperor……. I entered the tent to sign the visitors' register. There was no queue. I signed not as a mourner or loyal subject, but as 'witness'. The historic importance of the day is undeniable, marking as it does the end of a controversial life that saw Japan's rise to world power, calamitous defeat and re-emergence as the second-largest economy. In the name of this fragile man countless atrocities were committed, though the extent of his personal involvement remains unclear. At least he is credited with having taken the decision to end the war, thus saving countless lives……. His death closes a troubled chapter. It sets his country free…… (Notes taken from my journal)

Any discussion with or about the Japanese sooner or later arrives at the gates of what disrespectfully has been called the world's most valuable piece of real estate: the Imperial Palace in Tokyo.

The lineage of the imperial family can be traced back almost two thousand years, if you are prepared to equate adoptions with natural births and accept children fathered with concubines as legitimate offspring, both ancient practices in Japan. The imperial house has survived rebellions, civil war, usurpation of power by shoguns, and the threat of abolition by a victorious America. To this day the Emperor retains his seemingly unassailable position as head of state and symbol of the nation.

Compared to the democratic monarchies of north-western Europe, with their bicycling and divorcing royals, the Japanese imperial family live a closely guarded, distant, and very formal life. The public appearances of the Emperor and Empress are even more strictly choreographed than those of the British Queen and her consort, and largely confined to official functions. There is no gossip industry or paparazzi culture around the imperial family.

The failure of Crown Prince Naruhiko and Princess Masako to produce an heir to the throne in a 'timely manner' had the nation exercised for years. The absence of a male heir would mean the end of the monarchy since under the post-war constitution illegitimate or adopted children could no longer succeed . The anxiety ended, more than eight years after the couple's marriage, with the birth of a baby girl in December 2001. This joyful event presented the nation with a dilemma: wait for a further birth, of a male heir, from the 37-year old crown princess; or change the constitution to permit a woman to occupy the Chrysanthemum Throne. This problem remains unsolved at the time of writing.

But the media handled even this story, with its potential for intimate probing and unseemly rumour that would have a UK-type tabloid press salivating at the royal couple's bedroom door, with deference and restraint. I couldn't help wondering how deep popular respect and support for the Emperor and the institution he represents ran in present-day Japan, and decided to ask.

My poll included the following question: 'Do you believe Japan's "Emperor System" makes sense for the 21st century?' 72% of the adults and 60% of the students answered Yes, the rest No. This suggests a divided nation albeit with the monarchists heavily in the majority. Let's look at some of the reasons advanced for both positions, roughly in the order of 'votes' cast:


The imperial system preserves ancient traditions / The emperor is the symbol of the nation / The Imperial Family is useful in international relations / Japan's soul has its true home in the Imperial Family / The Imperial House helps set moral standards for the nation / I support a change in the constitution to permit an empress


I fail to see their importance / The Imperial Family are a distant entity, wrapped in rules / The imperial system is a waste of taxes; diplomacy can be better handled by the Foreign Office / The system abuses the human rights of the Imperial Family / The imperial system increases the potential for war and invasion.

Two academics I questioned on the subject betrayed republican sentiments. They both blamed Japan's resistance to fundamental change on its failure to end the monarchy. The older professor observed that unlike all major European nations, the Japanese had never committed regicide. The younger man was even more outspoken: 'The Emperor should have been executed as a war criminal,' he said. 'That would have enabled us to start with a clean slate.' These were obviously minority opinions held by radical intellectuals.

None of the respondents mentioned the connection of the Imperial House to the Shinto religion, perhaps because of lingering embarrassment over the now discredited myth of the Emperor's descent from Amaterasu, the Sun Goddess. But the elaborate court ritual is heavily steeped in Shinto tradition and mythology, and Japan's political right, which favours a return of the Imperial House to something close to its erstwhile glory, worships ostentatiously at Shinto shrines.

Although Buddhism, first introduced from China in the 6th century, achieved almost total penetration of Japan, it never really replaced the animistic traditions of Shinto. In a sense it complemented them, with the two religions co-existing both in space and in the mind of the population. To this day you can find small Shinto shrines within the compounds of Buddhist temples, and many Japanese consider themselves followers of both Shinto and Buddhism.

This is not the place for a serious discussion of Japanese religion, but I venture to make one or two personal observations. It has always been my impression that the spiritual nature, temperament and aesthetic of many Japanese are closer to Shinto than to Buddhism, let alone Christianity, which in any case represents only a few percent of the population. In my own contacts over the decades I seldom met a Japanese ready to unequivocally acknowledge the existence of one Supreme Being. Even many traditional Buddhists (in other words, almost everybody) seemed to be more comfortable with the notion that there are 'spirits' everywhere, even in inanimate things like rocks and rivers and (yes!) broken needles. The failure of Christianity to gain more than a toehold in Japan after centuries of missionary work can perhaps in part be explained by this deep-seated hesitancy to accept one all-powerful God. Another factor may well be the popular perception that Christian values are essentially un-Japanese.

The preoccupation with newness and cleanliness and bathing rituals, and the minimalist lines and spaces of Japanese architecture, all hark back to Shinto, as do the harvest festivals up and down the country. Many weddings are still solemnised in spare ceremonies conducted in Shinto tradition, though church weddings are more popular these days, for their 'romantic mood'. Funerals on the other hand have mostly been the province of the Buddhist temples, with their tradition of providing family tombs and their dark, gloomy interiors, which form a suitable backdrop for the solemn chants of sutra texts and the sounding of deep gongs. In Shinto death is considered a form of 'pollution' and Shinto's funeral services must therefore be held outside the shrine's premises.

In any event, apart from the ardent followers of the popular 'new religions', most Japanese are probably more preoccupied with maintaining correct social relations than in improving their relationship with the Infinite. In my wife's view, 'social ethics' constitute the true religion of the Japanese.

The affinity for the clean 'atmosphere' of Shinto may well have something to do with the continued widespread support for the Imperial House. I suspect that in their hearts many Japanese would probably agree with the above-quoted opinion that the Imperial Family is 'the true home' of Japan's soul.

Whatever the reason, support for the imperial system seems sufficiently solid for now to give little hope to those favouring a republic. But the 40% opposition to the monarchy among 'my' 31 students, if sustained into adulthood, may spell trouble for the future.

g. But what do you really think?

This, in essence, was the last question of my poll - a large blank space intended to draw out ideas and opinions that hadn't been aired elsewhere. I expected few takers. In the event, more than half of the 100 respondents took up the challenge.

There was a wide range of opinion, both in defence and critical of Japan. These were some of the more startling views:

  • Unless we can adjust more swiftly to the great changes in the world over the past half century, Japan will be defeated by Korea and China
  • Education has helped form our identity. But the thought that the State has instilled in us traditional concepts such as wa fills me with fear.
  • I can't stand octogenarian politicians, celebrity politicians and political 'dynasties'. We've got all three.
  • The Japanese, especially politicians, have double standards. The kanryo (bureaucracy) is corrupt.
  • Japan has lost its identity and sensitivity. It has been westernised and now relies on English and katakana. We are a peasant people.
  • Individualism is not the way forward for Japan.
  • We must learn to live with our dichotomy - both shunning and welcoming individualism. The key to our true identity may be found there.
  • Nobody can change Japan. So it will never change.
  • We'll have to admit refugees and other immigrants, even at the cost of a dilution of our values and an increase in crime. Japan cannot survive without imported labour, and we must help those who suffer.

There is much more, most of it betraying uncertainty about Japan's national character and anxiety about the future. But the frustration is more with the way the country is run than with its fundamental values. The 'childish' debates in the Diet are attacked and the Japanese tendency to follow others ridiculed, as is the leaders' inability to take decisions. But pride and love for Japan's history, natural beauty and culture is well-nigh universal, and many argue that Japan must do all in its power to preserve and propagate its strengths and virtues - tolerance, wa, group-based thinking, sensitivity, love of peace, its position between Asian and Western cultures.

Several writers point to Japan's 'successful foreign policy' in not getting involved in a single war since 1945. This is not blamed on fear or selfishness, or the anti-war Constitution, but credited to the people's genuine abhorrence of armed conflict. The world would 'lose its balance' if Japan would turn militaristic, 'like the US'.

h. Conclusions

My main findings from the written survey can be summed up as follows:

  • little change in long-standing conservative belief in group-based thinking and reliance on the government for security and protection, even among the young
  • fear of disturbing status quo and much evidence of passivity in facing life's complexities, both individually and as a nation
  • high priority accorded travel and 'enjoying life'; dearth of ideals or life goals
  • complacency widespread, apparently little interest in anything beyond protecting personal pleasure, comfort and safety
  • among university students 'discovering self and realising my dreams' scored high - ahead of 'education'
  • dramatic decline in interest in lifetime corporate employment; desire for 'freedom'
  • ambivalence about foreigners, with most being against permanent immigration from developing countries, though willing to 'help' those countries
  • people from the West are welcome, though US widely seen as an aggressor and main source of what's wrong with the world
  • strong, censorious opinions voiced about Japanese society, yet few would chose another nationality if given the opportunity.

Most were agreed on two fundamental issues: Japan will never have a revolution, and the economy will never collapse.

Is this wishful thinking, or could we state with some confidence that given its past ability to emerge stronger from every crisis, Japan will continue to flourish, following the path of its own choosing?

In 2003 I put this question to a former high government official I've known for over 30 years. Now officially retired this well known gentleman is still very active in various multinational commissions. His answer was forthright.

Japan, he said, is suffering from complacency. This is the result of job security and, ironically, of the educational system, which was devised to enhance minimum and average standards, not to turn out leaders. The seniority system provided no incentive either. Against this background moods can swing easily between over-optimism and over-pessimism, the latter not free from an element of masochism. He refers to 'repeated mistakes in macro-economic planning, both fiscal and monetary', and bemoans the delays in deregulation - in distribution, construction, property development and financial services, including banking.

In the opinion of this highly articulate ex-bureaucrat, the Japanese are 'over-regulated and over-protected', and he added half seriously that 'we need a foreign impetus - foreign leaders - to get us out of the rut.'

What kind of impetus? What leaders? We no longer lived in the 1970s when President Nixon's bold overture to Mao's China and his decision to break the dollar's link to gold put Japan on the spot and forced it to make overdue policy changes of its own. True, gai-atsu, or foreign pressure, has often been instrumental in helping Japan resolve intractable financial or trade issues. (It also proved a nifty way to place the blame for 'unavoidable measures' elsewhere.) But aren't we talking about even more fundamental matters this time?

What my friend was actually referring to was hands-on involvement. Foreigners taking over. Something along the lines of what was achieved at Nissan Motors, where Carlos Ghosn, appointed by Nissan's controlling shareholder Renault, had succeeded in turning the ailing company around with a minimum of disruption and making it profitable again. Surely, he said, the banking sector could benefit from similar treatment. What is needed is a change in the law to permit foreign majority ownership of banks and other financial services companies.

But he wouldn't stop there: he wanted Western experts as puppet masters at the Government level, running things behind the scene, as 'under our present system we are unable to do a proper job'. He waited for my reaction but before it came he said quickly, with a mischievous smile: 'Just joking'.

And then he added something that I had heard before, while I still lived here. 'What I mean is, the Japanese need a sense of crisis before they will act. Not a real crisis, just the sense of it.'

A sense of crisis. It seemed simple enough. Any number of issues could be seized upon to cook up a sense of crisis. But why would that be necessary to 'resolve Japan's fundamental problems?' And what exactly are those problems? Are they really so serious as to warrant the pessimism voiced by many, even now, in 2006?

In my book, Showa Japan: The post-War Golden Age and its Troubled Lewgacy (Tuttle, 2008), I attempt to address some of these questions. Click here for details.