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    Can’t beat the feeling

    It’s kind of hard to make me unhappy lately, because this weekend there was a

    NEW KYLIE ALBUM!

    NEW KYLIE ALBUM!

    NEW KYLIE ALBUM!

    Seriously, is she the first disco diva ever to think of calling an album “Aphrodite”?…because that’s just genius in its obviousness…although, to keep the conceit going, I guess Track 10 should have been called “Eros Boy,” not “Cupid Boy.” Anyway, whatever things are called, who can get upset when there’s a new Kylie album to listen to?

    Okay, I guess this from Ezra Klein did rankle me just a little (via Megan McArdle):

    I can’t decide whether the right introduction to this post is “I’m moving to Japan” or “I’m not moving to Japan.”

    The chairman of Toyota makes $1.5 million. The CEO of Toyota makes less than $1.1 million. So does everyone at Panasonic. More here. It’s a reminder that CEOs aren’t just paid what the market will bear, they’re paid what the culture will accept.

    Let me help you out with that, dear man: You’re just in your mid-20s and have bypassed a lot of your more accomplished elders to land a high-profile, influential position at an established company. Trust me—you of all people in America would not want to move to Japan.

    Yes, fine—Klein thinks he’s just talking about CEOs. But the thing is, as many of McArdle’s commenters point out, Japanese senior-management compensation is part of its overall system. It’s not particularly illuminating to talk about what “the culture” is going to “accept” without weighing the actual strictures that the culture imposes.

    Japan prizes Organization Men. The educational system is designed to push as many people as possible into becoming capable, adaptable ladder-climbers in whatever occupations they sort themselves into. That means, as Japan’s scores on standardized tests in math indicate, that it does a good job of pulling lower achievers up; but it also tamps down the aspirations of the unusually gifted, especially if their gifts are of a quirky nature. (In my experience, when Japanese people talk about what they “dream” of doing, they’re almost always referring to pure fantasies they have no intention of even trying to realize.) You get ahead in Japan by doggedly doing exactly what is asked of you, lavishly deferring to your superiors, and ensuring that you don’t stand out among your peers too much. Plugging away and being detail-oriented are rewarded with a slow, steady rise up the hierarchy. But it’s nearly impossible to skip strata, even if you have the native aptitude and rack up the accomplishments to do so. When Shuji Nakamura invented diodes that paved the way for blue lasers and was rewarded with a hail of top technology prizes, he ended up having to sue Nichia for his bonus. From the point of view of the company, he was a grunt researcher; he was supposed to give credit to the company, go back to the lab, and keep plugging away. (He took a job as a professor at UC Santa Barbara instead.)

    IP is an evolving field, and generalizing from it to the private sector at large is often unwise. Nevertheless, Nakamura’s case is representative of the “culture” Klein refers to. It’s not just that top managers don’t get to make tankerloads of money they may not deserve; it’s that even people who do accomplish great things do without the recognition they do deserve, and people factor that into their goals for themselves. The geezers are expected to occupy all the positions of authority and power, and because they worked their way up to them so methodically, they tend to be ill-inclined to take nervy chances on new ideas or younger talent (or even on ideas that have worked and are considered venerable elsewhere but have never been tried in Japan). Japan is by no means the nation of automatons it’s frequently made out to be by reductive Western commentary, but Japanese society really is geared toward keeping everyone in line in ways many of its foreign cheerleaders wouldn’t sit still for, in their own lives, for ten minutes together. “The market” and “the culture” aren’t so easily differentiated as Klein’s verbal formulation makes them out to be.

    4 Responses to “Can’t beat the feeling”

    1. Julie says:

      You sound like Alex Kerr, a bit.

      About the “dream” issue: It seems to me (but I was only there for 3 years, so I defer to you) that it’s either what you said (something they will never even try to realize) or something so mind-numbingly normal that it’s not really what we usually call a “dream.” I actually had one group of middle school girls tell me (in response to an English-class question along these lines) that their dream was to be “futsuu.” At least those girls were almost assuredly going to find their dream come true one day, rather than have their hopes dashed on the hard rocks of life, eh?

    2. Sean says:

      There are worse things to sound like than Alex Kerr, so thanks. :)

    3. Julie says:

      Agreed. I keep Lost Japan by my bed so that whenever I get to feeling nostalgic, I can read the chapter on Osaka.

    4. Sean says:

      LOL. I was given my copy of Lost Japan by a friend in probably 1997; I have no idea where he is now, though now that I think of it, he may just have been lending it to me. I have a vague idea that he told me to keep it because he thought it was such an amazing book that he liked buying new paperback copies and passing them to people who’d not read it.

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