Will Japan Ever Grow Up?

Masaru Tamamoto – Far Eastern Economic Review

Copyright Far Eastern Economic Review
July 2009
Will Japan Ever Grow Up?
by Masaru Tamamoto
Posted July 10, 2009
Japan stands on the threshold of a change that could signal a step toward political maturity. After six decades of being ruled by the Liberal Democratic Party, voters in the upcoming general election are expected to give a mandate to the opposition Democratic Party of Japan. While this possibility is certainly an encouraging sign that Japanese people are ready for open competition over national policies, what’s really remarkable is that it has taken so long. And indeed there is still a long way to go for Japan to become a “normal nation,” in the words of opposition politician Ichiro Ozawa. Japan remains in many ways infantilized.
It’s easy to forget how unusual Japan is in many ways, both politically and culturally. This is, after all, a country that is largely content to exist under the wing of a foreign protector, and one in which Tokyo University-trained bureaucrats have long enjoyed unquestioned authority. It’s also a country where initiative is stifled in the workplace, and a worrying number of children never leave home or have the chance to compete with other children. There are some signs that Japan is being forced to change, but this change is coming excruciatingly slowly.
To understand the sickness permeating Japanese society in recent decades, one must start with childhood. The Japanese used to like children and until recently would indulge the little ones. But that has changed. A Tokyo court recently ruled that voices of children gathered around a park fountain constitute noise pollution and ordered the fountain shut off. Society now widely constrains children, robbing them of their natural playfulness. In so many parks, there are signs written in the language of children and with illustrations, for those too young to read, prohibiting playing with balls. Teachers instruct children in schoolyards to keep the noise down to prevent neighbors from complaining. There is growing intolerance of children being children.
The distinction between preparing a child for adulthood and turning a child into an adult has been lost. A well-behaved child is a manageable child, one who is quiet, mild, obedient and passive. The Japanese word for such attributes, otonashii, is the adjective form of the noun adult. Passivity is understood to be the distinguishing mark of adulthood and maturity.
The adult world is wary of children, seeing in them the potential for nuisance and disorder. Whether it is a cause or effect, the number of children under 15 years of age has been shrinking continuously for about three decades. Japan registers one of the world’s lowest birth rates, and given present trends, the country’s population will decline to 95 million from 130 million in less than 50 years. With the burden of aging, social security and medical care are already in an insoluble mess. Still, the authorities have shown no sense of urgency in finding a solution. Meanwhile the number of unmarried adults living in their parents’ homes is growing, with one-third of those between the ages of 20 and 39 choosing to be “parasite singles.”
The Japanese definition of adulthood is highly specific: A grown-up is one who is accepted as a formal member by society. In liberal, more individualistic societies, maturity connotes the cultivation of independence, while in communitarian Japan, maturity depends entirely on social recognition. One study found that a very young Japanese child is likely to come to the aid of a friend being bullied, while an older child tends to turn a blind eye. This is counterintuitive, for growing up supposedly entails the development of the sense of right and wrong, of social responsibility. Yet the older child here is relieved that he is not the bully’s victim and does not intervene for fear of being turned into the next victim.
Absenteeism at school is a recognized social problem in many countries, usually among poor and minority communities. In harmony-stricken Japan, however, the problem is everywhere. Bullying is its major cause and even drives some to suicide. But there are usually no identifiable bullies to be disciplined. What the Japanese call bullying, ijime, is really ostracism. The problem is awkward, because society itself is the problem; in the classroom it is not uncommon to find the teacher participating in ostracism.
Passivity is the defense against certain humiliation and misery. This passivity is not withdrawal but its opposite. It demands active participation in society simply to remain an ordinary member-to be seen to show consideration even if not really concerned. It requires sophisticated communication skills in order to cover up conflict. To question general consent, to ask why, is the sign of a child.
For those endowed with personality and self-assurance, the passive life is full of stress and strain. Japan’s high suicide rate among industrialized societies is one symptom of this. Japan also has an increasing number of people not in education, vocational training or employment, especially among the presumably mature 35 to 44-year-olds. Then there are the estimated one million who simply shut themselves in their rooms for years on end, while family members leave food outside their doors.
The majority of Japanese, of course, are successfully self-alienated, otherwise society could not function. The well-adjusted embrace the adult ethic of loyalty and belonging, and are its keen enforcers. Even profit-seeking organizations tend to shun the dynamic, entrepreneurial ethic for fear of fragmentation and disorder.
Endless meetings mark Japanese organizational life. While organizations shaped by the bureaucratic ethic are strictly hierarchical and the chain of command is explicit, decision-making tends to disguise this top-down nature. The ultimate purpose of meetings is to make the decision into general consent, so meetings cannot end until at least all agree not to openly disagree. The decision then becomes the expression of organizational will. In this way, the location of responsibility is obscured.
The Japanese on the whole are educated and molded to perform fairly competently in clearly understood roles. The problem of the age is the quality of instruction, the paucity of effective leadership in a country that, revealingly, has had three prime ministers within the last two years—two of them having abruptly abandoned office. And this is not altogether surprising, for the generation in leadership positions today learned its ways as Japan crystallized the bureaucratic ethic and Japanese people became passive, equal and alike.
Finding a New Model
Change is coming, however. It was not long ago that more than 90% of Japanese responded in opinion polls that they belonged to the middle class. Now one hardly hears of such polls even being conducted. The issue for the last decade has been growing inequality of income and employment. The number of permanent employees has sharply declined, and the number of temporary and part-time employees, who earn substantially less and have no job security, is on an even sharper rise, making up more than one-third of the work force.
Middle-class Japan faces the onslaught of global capitalism, as firms have been forced to adjust their ways to remain competitive. Japan has begun to recapitulate the American transformation of the 1960s and 1970s from predictable lifetime employment to labor mobility and insecurity.
Pundits in Japan sound alarms about the demise of middle-class uniformity; some even asserting that being alike and equal is synonymous with Japanese culture and tradition. Such essentialism is utter nonsense, of course; inequality has been the norm during almost all of Japanese history. The life of conformist organization arose in the 1960s and began to decline in the early 1990s. This was the period of the “economic miracle,” which briefly inspired pundits around the world to assert that Japan had devised a very particular and superior form of capitalism. Now nearly two decades after the collapse of the Japanese belief that their economy can only grow, there is no counterculture in sight. The Japanese keep patiently waiting for the authorities to draw up a new set of social rules.
The Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology has come up with a national rejuvenation plan that proposes to define the university baccalaureate. It aims to forge innovative graduates with enhanced productivity to carry the social burden of the aging population. To this end, the bachelor’s degree is to become a demonstration of the holder’s ability to work effectively, and to become internationally competitive and recognized. Paradoxically, it wants to standardize autonomy, innovation and creative thinking.
“Japanese education is mind pollution,” a 2008 Nobel laureate in physics, Toshihide Masukawa, lectured the minister of education. Japanese education is singularly geared toward memorizing the correct answer, to be parroted in examination. Mr. Masukawa deplored that students are given no room to think, no incentive to ponder possibilities and differences. Education extinguishes creativity and the life of the mind. Most Japanese Nobel laureates in the sciences had done their work in America. Almost all of them profess that their work could not have been done in Japan, where there is rarely support for the kind of work that takes risks and leads to breakthroughs.
Education bureaucrats and professors lament the quality of university students because of their lack of independent thinking and intellectual curiosity. But surely the students are being wise. They won their university places exactly because they snuffed out any tendency toward autonomous thinking, any sense of adventure and ambition. They accepted spoon-feeding from an early age. Challenging conventional wisdom, which means challenging nebulous and all-encompassing authority, is a sign of immaturity and undeserving of a university place.
Japanese education is geared toward supporting a standardized manufacturing economy. A manufacturing economy really requires no more than high school education that instills the ability to read and follow instructions. Here, the university’s function is to pull up the level of education through high school by making students prepare for the entrance examination. What is taught and learned at university is of little concern; it is the ability to enter that matters. Once in, the system assures and assumes graduation with little regard for quality. This kind of university education has served Japan tolerably well up to now, but it is woefully inadequate for global competition in the service economy.
Tokyo University stands at the pinnacle of the Japanese hierarchical education system; other universities are in one way or another clones of Tokyo. Founded in the late 19th century, the university was designed to churn out state administrators, the best and brightest who in recent decades have successfully standardized and mechanized society. These bureaucrats carefully plan the future, making unpredictable evolution obsolete. But there is a critical difference between Japan’s present and its recent past that began in the mid-19th century.
Japan playing catch-up with Western modernity always found an array of outside models from which to pick and choose. Now, having caught up, there are no more models upon which to base plans. Thus Japan has no choice but to stand on its own two feet instead of swaying with the current of world history. Modernizing Japan showed great ingenuity adopting foreign techniques; now modernized Japan needs to think creatively.
Still, true to form, the education ministry’s plan to foster innovation and creative thinking posits the American university as the model. After all, almost all of the top 10 ranked universities in the world are American. But investigating minutiae is a habit of the bureaucratic mind, and mistaking form for substance is its common failing. The education ministry has notified all universities, public and private, that courses should have electronically posted syllabi. So universities across Japan now require professors to present syllabi following a uniform list of required entries, each with a set word count. This form, conjured up by some government bureaucrat following American samples, does not give enough space to write a full and sufficient syllabus, yet no university dares suggest alteration.
Obviously, innovation and creative thinking are antithetical to institutionalized guidance. The Japanese university needs to be set free. Yet in its usual competent, bureaucratic manner, the Education Ministry’s plan clearly warns that leaving university reform to market forces will lead to unevenness and chaos, thereby making international recognition of the value of the Japanese baccalaureate impossible. Universities as state-run bureaucracies must remain equal and alike. Seeking intangible innovation is full of risk. Education must serve the goal of social harmony, to keep people in bondage. The ability to challenge authority fosters liberty, but liberty to the bureaucratic mind is chaos so not allowable. The bureaucratically controlled Japanese university is not designed to create individuals who act to change their fate.
Bureaucrats Disrespected
The bureaucracy is increasingly seen as incompetent, corrupt and self-serving. For instance, there is a shortage of doctors because not long ago the Ministry of Health and Welfare predicted an oversupply, and the Ministry of Education restricted the number of places in medical schools. There are underused roads everywhere and more money is always available to build new bridges, but not to repair crumbling ones. Demographic predictions are drastically revised almost every year—not because the bureaucrats can’t count, but because their job is to prepare documents with numbers that justify current policy. Records are forged or mysteriously go missing, officially generated statistics are phony, and social security is insolvent.
The number of applicants for national civil service has been declining noticeably. Top-tier Tokyo University graduates are turning away from the civil service toward private-sector jobs, and mid-career bureaucrats are resigning in record numbers. The old bureaucrats who epitomize a passive Japan remain, reveling in what they believe to be their and Japan’s mature development.
Jean-Marc Coicaud of the United Nations University recently posed a critical question: “Can Japan become open-minded and not self-centered so that it can exercise political influence that matches its economic weight?” The problem is that a country can only present to the outside world values by which it lives. In a recent survey conducted by Pacific Forum, an American think tank, Japanese foreign policy and opinion makers were asked to name key elements of Japan’s national identity. Tellingly, the respondents could not even begin to answer, so the question had to be rephrased: How do you think other countries see Japan? The self for Japan and the Japanese is determined by what others think.
There is a nebulous unease felt by the Japanese about a rising China. The feeling is that it is acceptable to be a subordinate of America but certainly not of China. So Japan must remain subordinate to America in order to fend off Chinese dominance. With this logic, the Bush administration’s push to strengthen the U.S.-Japan alliance found resonance in Japanese policy circles. Simply put, if China’s transition to a middle-class society goes well over the next half century and more—as seems inevitable—then Japan’s relative position will be like that of Canada with America. Clearly, Japan ought to take the initiative in creating an international world in which having to choose between American and Chinese hegemonies holds no meaning, but that takes innovative thinking and open-mindedness.
Infants are innocent, and they trust their parents. The Japanese are willfully innocent infants who perhaps shouldn’t trust their protectors indefinitely. Parents in America are known to kick their adolescent children out of the house and make them fend for themselves. As for not competing with other children such as the Chinese, who seem intent on going through a belated adolescence as quickly as possible, the Japanese want to go in the corner and pretend there aren’t any other children around. Rather infantile, but perhaps a clever choice if you think you can count on your parents to protect you from the child down the block when it becomes an adult more vigorous and less distracted than your own parents. Perhaps Japan is destined to become the ultimate “parasite single.”
Masaru Tamamoto is a senior fellow of the World Policy Institute in New York and resides in Yokohama, Japan.
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One thought on “Will Japan Ever Grow Up?”

  1. Much of the essay rings true to me and reminds me of my own time in Japan. I doubt that the mandate that may be given to the DPJ really reflects the start of any sort of change in Japan. It just seems that there is no other alternative and so the Japanese are voting for the only other party that has a chance to govern, without much regard to what their policies might be, or how skilled they will be in governing.
    I also can’t see a way out for Japanese culture in this mess, the habits are too strongly set.

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