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    Big in Japan

    What’s the latest trend in Japan? Class consciousness, according to Time:

    Japan, a country that prides itself on social harmony, homogeneity and an equitable distribution of wealth, is bifurcating along geographic and social lines into camps of permanent winners and perpetual losers—the former a highly educated and trained core of élite employees and entrepreneurs working for internationally competitive companies, the latter an increasingly marginalized yet growing sector of society comprising primarily elderly rural poor and despairing urban youths like Ijiri. “In the past, people believed that the whole nation was getting wealthier, and the rich were simply the people who got there quicker,” says Toshiki Satou, a sociologist at the University of Tokyo (U.T.). “But that is changing. People are becoming more aware of class.”

    It’s funny that the writer, Jim Frederick, who happens to be Time Asia‘s Tokyo bureau chief, should say that. Long-term Asia residents may remember the puff piece from a few years ago in which he fawned over Japan and its resilience with embarrassing sycophancy:

    In the wreckage of Japan’s increasing inability to compete against the lower labor costs and rekindled ambitions of its rivals, however, a number of observers both inside the country and out are turning to the nation’s creative and cultural enterprises as a source of potential salvation. For this has been one of the greatest Japanese ironies: even as Japan’s economic leadership has been slipping for more than a decade, its cultural hegemony has only swelled. “Japan has changed from being a corporate manufacturing and industrial society to a pop-culture society,” says Ichiya Nakamura, a visiting scholar at Stanford Japan Center and M.I.T. Media Lab. Pokémon has supplanted Astroboy in the hearts of schoolkids in more than 65 countries, and 60% of the world’s animated-cartoon series are made in Japan. Games running on PlayStation 2 and (to a lesser degree) Nintendo’s Game Cube rule the video-game universe just as tightly as before, despite a frontal attack from none other than Microsoft and its sinister-looking black Xbox. And high-end Japanese fashion designers such as Hanae Mori, Yohji Yamamoto and Issey Miyake are not only as vital as they once were; they have also been joined by a generation of young turks such as A Bathing Ape, Jun Takahashi and Naoki Takizawa who set the style for hipsters from Berlin to Bangkok and beyond. Japanese films, TV series, music acts and lifestyle magazines, meanwhile, routinely spark fads all over Asia. (Turn on MTV in Singapore or Hong Kong and you are just as likely to see Ayumi Hamasaki as J. Lo.) According to Tsutomu Sugiura, director of the Marubeni Research Institute, an economic think tank, Japanese cultural exports—such as from the media, licensing, entertainment and other related industries—have tripled over the past 10 years to $12.5 billion, while manufacturing exports have increased by only 20%. Granted, $12.5 billion seems like a rounding error in Japan’s $4 trillion economy (Toyota alone hauls in nearly $11 billion in sales every month), but it’s still the result of a growth rate almost unheard of anywhere else.

    Note that in the article from this past week, it is exactly the imaginative/arty fields that he’s pointing to as unable to take up the slack of Japan’s domestic conventional industry. Of course, smart people discard prior assumptions as reality refutes them; I’m not finding fault with Frederick for changing his mind. The obnoxious part is the flat learning curve. His succession of articles over the past few years, each pushing the latest funky-news-from-Japan-of-the-week line, shows little to no ability to judge, based on long-term patterns in Japanese society, which trends are likely to last and why.

    He also fails to ask some glaringly obvious questions:

    Even if he could find work, Ijiri says he feels unprepared to join the winner-takes-all rat race of postindustrial Japan. He longs for his father’s era, the heyday of Japan Inc., when young adults were whisked directly from college into a womblike corporate career, where they would be sheltered by a paternalistic business culture for life. “People like me who aren’t particularly talented at anything are happier with the old system of lifetime employment and seniority-based salaries,” he says. “The supposed ‘chances and opportunities’ that a competitive economy offers is for those who are already steps ahead.” Ijiri later found work as a security guard, hardly the future he once envisioned for himself.

    Frederick lets these observations pass without comment, but they are hardly self-evidently true. The most uncharitable interpretation is that, now that Japanese workers are being assigned their true market value, many of them are discovering that they were meant to be security guards rather than engineers. But even that isn’t necessarily the case. Someone who wrote so rapturously about Issey Miyake and Hanae Mori and their successors must be aware that the post-War Japan, Inc., system worked by squeezing everyone into the mediocre middle. That meant that uninspired low achievers were lifted up, but it also meant that imaginatively brilliant oddballs were tamped mercilessly down. It may be, in fact, that Ijiri has talents that the educational system, bent on making him a good, noiseless cog, didn’t help him to discover, much less develop.

    A related point:

    To get a glimpse of the wealth gap, travel 400 km from prosperous Tokyo to the Shimane prefecture town of Ohda, a listless burg struggling to support its aging population of 33,000. Along an incongruously wide, modern superhighway linking Ohda with the nearest train station, the only signs of economic activity are abandoned construction sites. Shimane is one of the poorest and least populated regions in Japan and has no industry to speak of save public-works projects; one out of eight residents is tied to the construction industry. But because of fiscal austerity measures implemented by the Shimane prefectural government, even public-works jobs are under threat.

    Note the way a bottomless supply of public works jobs, even those that involve building unnecessary superhighways and other construction boondoggles, is considered normal, with any throttling back deemed a mark of “austerity.” In fact, the river of concrete that washed over Japan’s rural areas simply disguised what’s been true for decades: Japanese citizens have urbanized and to a great extent abandoned the remote countryside. They’ve taken with them the need for most public works projects; facilities built in outlying areas have mostly served pork-barrel politicians and helped the LDP to mobilize its important rural supporters.

    The 12.5% of Shimane residents in construction were laboring under an illusion long before the bubble burst. Taking the sensible abandonment of white elephants as a sign of some new “wealth gap” is just wacko.

    I think my, uh, favorite part is here, however:

    Yet, while the poor get poorer, the rich are getting richer. Last month, the national tax agency released its annual list of the country’s top 100 taxpayers. Tatsuro Kiyohara, a 46-year-old fund manager at Tower Investment Management, ranked No. 1, with a tax bill that suggested a personal income of approximately $100 million. This marked the first time a wage earner had captured the top spot, an occasion that many writers and talk-show hosts alternately hailed and lamented as a signature moment in the new, more Darwinian society—for Kiyohara’s pay is almost entirely performance-based. The Nikkei Weekly business newspaper opined: “This new era is one in which individuals can have a significant impact on a company and its image, as demonstrated by the enormous compensation paid to this one person for creating new revenue streams.”

    Yes, it’s a sure sign of doom when people start earning money at a level commensurate with their productivity, huh? What’s amazing about Frederick’s article is that, except for a glancing quotation from someone else about the social-democratic system, no one ever gets around to pointing out the obvious: Japan’s social and economic policy have painted it into a corner.

    The effects are exacerbated by but were not caused by that chic bogeyman the global economy. Post-War Japan built a society in which globally competitive manufacturers accounted for about 30% of the economy; their staggering success allowed the other 70% to operate inefficiently without much notice. The school system trained students to think of themselves as interchangeable team members who would be taken care of for life and would not have to use their individual resourcefulness and imagination to solve their own problems.

    But bills eventually come due. I feel very sorry for people like Ijiri–his elders assured him for his first two decades on this Earth that the world would work a certain way, and he has every right to feel betrayed now that he’s learned it does not. One can only hope that he and others in his position are eventually galvanized into action by the experience. What Time casts as the unfortunate intrusion of class consciousness onto Japanese society is simply the realization that a major economic power cannot afford, indefinitely, to pay millions of workers to stamp papers all day and pretend they’re actually getting something done.

    2 Responses to “Big in Japan”

    1. Joel says:

      I find the contention that Japanese were at some time in the mythical past *not class conscious* to be ludicrous at best. And when, since the end of the Heian era, has Shimane ever been as prosperous as Edo?

    2. Sean Kinsell says:

      Yeah, so much to refute, so little time.

      I do think there’s a point to be made: class stratification never disappeared in Japan, but the post-War government really did succeed in making it less explicit. So, you know, you’ll have a conversation–true story–in which your Japanese friends are talking about how the educational system offers uniform advantages to all citizens nationwide, and then they’ll find out what high school your boyfriend went to and be like, “Wow! You must really be elite!” And no one notices the contradiction. Now, with lifetime employment no longer a given, people are starting to acknowledge more frankly what the strata are. He’s right about that.

      He’s also right that all those ridiculously grandiloquent rural public works projects made people feel, at least in superficial terms, that they were sharing the wealth. There’s something touching about that.

      But as you say, it was obvious even then that certain regions were generating prosperity while others were not, and that certain families had resources that others did not. It was bad form to talk about it, but it was reality. It’s the way Time talks about all this as if it were some new development that’s irritating.

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