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Japanese society

The Sunday Times

Japan feels the squeeze

In Kanji - the ancient Chinese ideographs which are Japan's main writing system - there's a two-part compound character which translates as meaning "busy". Like thousands more in this complicated script, it's a compilation of simpler symbols, joined in a more elaborate idea. On the left are three strokes that denote the heart. On the right are three more for "die". To be busy, then, literally in written Japanese, means dead-hearted. Not a positive thought.

Since the genesis of words say a lot about culture, this Kanji may surprise some westerners. We assume, after all, that Japan's phenomenal post-war achievements are somehow rooted in a frenzy of work. Indeed, it is almost our first assumption about Japanese life - and that the giant corporate groups - such as Mitsubishi, Mitsui and Kango - thrive precisely because of this powerful ethos of toil that more workshy nations lack.

Nobody can doubt that in the manufacturing sector there is discipline, dedication and effort. And Japan's pre-university education system entails one of the most gruelling learning-curves anywhere. Elsewhere, however, the opposite is true: there's a prevailing sense of "nothing doing". Although company employees may quickly rally to urgent tasks, in the white-collar sector especially, the semi-idle atmosphere can be amazing to behold. Hundreds of thousands in unskilled work, moreover, are employed in jobs that don't need doing.

They do them, however, with a loyalty and dedication that would be hard to match in the West. A combination of unique ancient forces have come together in the twentieth century to make the Japanese company the prime psychological unit. White-collar "salarymen", who set the benchmark for appropriate behaviour, will think nothing of staying in the office until midnight, of sleeping under their desks, and of taking only three or four days annual leave.

But these same people spent much of last month watching the national sumo basho live from Nagoya when they were theoretically supposed to be working. They love to go to work, but in a spirit of recreation. Work is where you live. Rather than pushing paper, holding business meetings, or taking decisions, many get through much of the day reading comics, chatting to pals or booing the Hawaiian Ozeki Musashimaru as he stormed through the wrestling bouts. This relationship to employment - part of what is described as "Japanese group mentality" - lies somewhere near to the living heart of the world's economic number two.

This "groupism" is as well accepted among the people I spoke to as is any trait nations admit of themselves. When a Japanese doctor, Masao Miyamato, recently returned from abroad and wrote a book caricaturing the domestic workplace as a bed of ludicrous idleness, it sold half a million copies and made him a star. "The Japanese group mentality has a very great deal in common with Communism," he explained to me. "In Japan, everybody stays late and they don't take vacations, as an act of saying: 'We are the comrades'."

The spin-offs from this trait, however, are not all as bad. There is much to be said for Japanese life. There is little crime (apart from high-level corruption and police-supervised gangsterism), not much drug misuse and next to no teenage vandalism. Lose your wallet or handbag in Tokyo and you can be fairly sure it will be handed-in without as much as being rooted-through. Even in the concrete jungle of Tokyo, there's an ordered courtesy to human relations that is barely a memory in small Western towns.

Take this summer, where a serious social problem erupted in the capital. Such a storm was raised about young people joy-riding on Tokyo's Oi pier, that riot police were drafted in to put a stop to it. Sometimes more than 100 cars were involved, speeding through the streets and throwing on the brakes to put them into a skid. This is familiar in the West - perhaps a sign of convergence - but what we might find it hard to get our heads round is that the kids drive their own vehicles in these dangerous pursuits. They don't steal other people's.

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At least since the Reagan-Thatcher era, it has been an unquestionable axiom among western leaders that there is just one way to promote prosperity: the Anglo-American way. And with Japan more than ever in conflict with the American economic model, the time is approaching when the West expects some figure like Murayama to step up and foster real, not karaoke, change.

Many Japanese accept the need for reforms, but whether those reforms mean ending its planned economy, throwing hundreds of thousands out of work and accepting the accompanying social alienation, looks less likely to me in Tokyo than it might from Washington. Although some in the West argue that the country's success is based on American generosity during the 1950s and 1960s, followed by a mean-spirited protectionism from thence to today, this society has its roots too deep in history to be the subject of easy alteration.

The first obstacle to a swift about-face is that crucial "group mentality". Accompanying the laid-back life of the salarymen, hanging-out with his friends in the playroom office, is a lack of what we might think of as individual initiative or discontent to trigger change. With the company as family and the workplace as life's focus, this is a society that wouldn't agonise over a prime ministerial appointment, if it were Tomiichi Murayama or a monkey.

It would take more than a few social shake-ups to change that mentality - more like a cultural tsunami. Groupism is inherited from this society's first base: the conditions once needed to grow rice. Only 16% of these islands is open to agriculture, which more than anything demands communal water and the social relations to secure its supply. Upset the village, or fall foul of a feud and to survive you used to sell your daughter to the geisha house and have your next baby killed.

The next obstacle to reform that would need to be overcome is the legacy of totalitarian regimes. Until 1945, when emperor Hirohito finally owned-up that he wasn't a god, Japan had never known a government that wasn't brutal, arbitrary and absolute. In particular, under the fearsome shoguns, who ruled for 250 years from 1603, the general public was liable to execution for displaying the slightest sign of attitude. Villages were divided by local Samurai into disciplinary sub-units, each of which could be collectively punished for the transgressions of individual members.

A third obstruction lies in Japanese family relations, deeply rooted in its unique psychology. While the Western tradition of Homer et al boasts hero legends symbolising separation of a child from its mother, Japanese culture stresses retaining that bond as part of what makes it strong. Boys commonly sleep close to their mothers until they are three or older and often sustain a powerful attachment throughout their adult years. This creates what Japanese psychologists call amae, a deep-seated and lifelong need to be dependent - which can attach to the group, the company, or even the state.

And if all of this is not enough to inhibit western-style change, there is also the influence of kanji. To master the basics of this writing system (and there are four others in use, including English), children are taught more than 7,000 characters - inevitably crowding-out opportunities to question with a need to get a grip on hard fact. And where those ideographs build up to more complex meanings, ancient cultural assumptions may be absorbed. Every Japanese, for example, has been drilled at school to think of "busy" as "heart" and "die".

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Japanese society
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