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Japanese society

The Sunday Times

Japan feels the squeeze

Another revealing dip into the language of this country retrieves the expression sodai gomi. Literally, it means "large garbage" and refers to big items of domestic waste, such as broken furniture, worn-out futons and old TV sets. But a different, colloquial, usage of the words is a self-reference by Japanese men. In this context, sodai gomi means the sad identity they feel obliged to assume when they finally leave their beloved workplace and go home to their wives and kids.

Despite amae, the family (at least in the way that we know it) is poorly-developed and the source of much discontent. In the homes of men who spend their waking lives at work, women commonly bring up children more or less in the style of lone parents. Marriages often seem emotionally empty (about one quarter are still arranged by parents) and the traditional roles of cook and child-rearer weigh overwhelmingly on one sex. This may sound familiar, but in Japan it's extreme: the wife is meant to behave something like a hotel-keeper, serving an honoured guest.

At face value, the economic downturn has made this problem worse. Although the country has not yet experienced a recession in the Western sense, poor growth has put large numbers of women out of work and stopped many more from getting in. Here, too, Japan seems locked tight, without any relief from stress. Two weeks back, there was a protest in Tokyo by female graduates demanding more access to jobs. But the turnout was in dozens, rather than in thousands, another sign of the Japanese way.

But here is a further example of how appearance can sometime prove an illusion. Just as the rise of Murayama to the prime ministership appears to signal change but is actually a sign of constancy, so the position of women looks hopelessly stuck while in reality it's surging ahead. Far from tiptoeing three paces behind their husbands and tittering behind their fingers, wives and mothers are increasingly educated, worldly - and openly critical. Always the hinge in the folding fan of the family, they are now using this fulcrum to become a social force for the sodai gomi to reckon with.

This force is arguably pressing for change more powerfully than anything else. In the face of a political vacuum at the heart of the state, an immovable bureaucracy guiding national affairs, great dependency-creating corporations and a male populace idling at work, women have emerged with the competitive buzzword for efficiency and progress: choice. Despite inequality more blatant than in other advanced economies - and without even an organised movement in the sense that many Western women would recognise - they are gracefully taking to the stage to help shape Japan's social and economic affairs.

Their advance is occurring everywhere, from politics to space research. Among Murayama's cohort of conservative cabinet appointments was Makiko Tanaka, who was immediately tipped herself as set to become a potential future prime minister. And among her first public duties last month was to welcome the return on the Shuttle Columbia of a Japanese woman astronaut. These are taken as potent symbols of social progress, shedding the kimono image for good.

"A change among mothers creates change within the whole family," Sumiko Iwao, professor of psychology at Keio University, explained to me. "When I was growing up, mother always said nice things about father in the front of the children - how he should be respected and so on. Now women are so highly educated that they will critique their husbands bitterly - and the children are listening and learning from those remarks."

Such a change, moreover, is not just of consequence for private domestic lives, but feeds through economics and world affairs. By undermining the salaryman's lifestyle (and convincing their children to do the same), women threaten to provoke a profound and potentially transforming shift in the culture. If they have their way, the office may soon be seen as a place of work, not primarily an emotional refuge. As a consequence, love of the big corporation might wane - and men might go home for leisure.

In an economy dominated by the voice of producers, this change would could prove overwhelming. An increased demand for leisure inevitably sparks consumer awareness, forcing more price competition and demand for imported goods. More imports will change the trade balance and take pressure off the yen. And was it not western anxieties about the strength of the currency where those deep earth rumblings began?

Of course, it would need a lot of imports to keep America smiling. Its huge deficits with Japan are caused less by cheating - which is what US negotiators claimed last week - than by the same bureaucratic and laid-back arrangements by which this society runs more generally. And no increased volume of Detroit's automobiles (currently grabbing a puny 0.6% of the Japanese market), or Louisiana's rice sales will quell Washington's implicit assumption that the world economy ought to run in a uniform way.

But whatever mountains of consumption Japan might scale, responding to the current stresses is a test of the nation's spirit. The offshore drift of capital will not be stemmed much by a boost in holidays and TV dinners, and poses crucial challenges for political life. Will changes in the bureaucrat's Confucian code, the nation's group mentality and the aspirations of women see the proceeds of overseas investment enjoyed more widely by everybody at home? If so, then change could spell a remarkable era of calm and prosperity.

Success, moreover, could mean emulation among Japan's East Asian neighbours. South Korea, Taiwan, Singapore, Vietnam and even mighty China all look anxiously towards Japan for ideas about how to proceed. If the land of the rising yen can ease the pressures and achieve some modest rearrangement, there may be new choices for other nations. And as a new millennium begins - a post-industrial, information, era - it may be that we have a lot to learn from life lived the Japanese way.

There are, however, other routes for the country - which need no involvement of women. When Murayama stepped up to the karaoke mike, the song the bureaucrats had chosen for him to croon was selected with a chorus of nationalism to every verse. Appearances, may be deceiving, but his talk of armed forces, the song and the flag were not-too-difficult codes. It could be that Japan will not move forward, but will seek to withstand the strain.

The great plates that shift underneath the Pacific touch East and West alike. There are jolts here, tremors there every day of the year. But if Japan stays locked, when it finally gives, the convulsions could rock the world.

Read another Culture Essay by Brian Deer, The Life & Death of Leisure, on "Athens without the slaves"

Japanese society
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