How Japan created its own lost generation

Written by an intelligent and scrupulous journalist, Shutting out the Sun, is a worthwhile read. The book's defect is that it confuses value judgments with rational argument.
It is worth reading Shutting out the Sun for its good writing and quirky insights into a major culture and economy. But it pays to remain sceptical when the author compares Japan to the US.

Author Michael Zielenziger pays passing tribute to superior Japanese craftsmanship, its public safety, and the tendency to stick together and share resources equitably. But overall, heÆs horrified at what he finds after seven years as a reporter in Tokyo. And he does an excellent job seeking out interesting angles through which to deliver his criticism.

The central metaphor of the book is the æhikikomoriÆ. This refers to young men (usually) who become so paralyzed by fear and hatred of Japanese society that they lock themselves up in their rooms. They literally do not step out of their rooms for years, and doting mothers leave meals on trays outside their doors. There could be up to a million of these dysfunctional people û although the Japanese government has refused to take the problem seriously, so numbers are hard to determine.

For the author, this phenomenon exemplifies the whole of Japan, not just the people it afflicts. Usually, the æhikikomoriÆ are people who are unusually intelligent and creative. Ironically, thatÆs precisely why they canÆt fit in with Japanese society. Not fitting in can carry a death sentence, as the suicide rate of 3,000 Japanese each month testifies. They are driven by shame and bullying, including widespread adult bullying. So retreating into your room makes a kind of sick sense.

Zielenziger links this relatively new problem to the rise of the internet. While the internet has unleashed a storm of creativity in other countries, it was long resisted by the Japanese state and its corporations. The then-monopolist, NTT, charged an exorbitant rate for access. And unlike geeks in other countries, the Hikikomori rarely used it to reach out to others in a positive way. ItÆs awfully symbolic that the most famous use of the internet in Japan is to organise group suicides among strangers.

JapanÆs uncomfortable relationship with the internet is grist to ZielenzigerÆs mill. He argues that Japan excelled at classic manufacturing, but came to grief in a new era, where the internet suddenly permitted a community enabling instant customer feedback and adaptation, as well as the empowerment of individual employees û at least in terms of their communications.

The internet has thus created a distinct model whereby customers effortlessly signal their slightest wishes to manufacturers or service providers. Software innovators such as Mark Zuckerman of Facebook and Eric Schmidt, Larry Page and Sergei Brin of Google use the customerÆs own inputs to learn exactly what he wants, and even get customers to come up with ideas and services. By harnessing information technology to online communities they can collect extraordinary amounts of data from willing contributors and sell them ever-better services. This new breed of companies is viciously meritocratic and often deeply unpleasant to work for û despite the lavish perks.

How different to Japan, where internet banking has only fairly recently made inroads, where product and service prices are generally high, and where foreign competition is restricted. All this is clearly negative for the consumer. Japanese ATMs are expensive and tend to close down alongside the actual branches. The mobile phone industry is engineered in such a way that foreign cell-phone manufacturers cannot compete. Very few foreign retailers have succeeded in Japan, often being forced out by arcane regulations.

Japanese companies are not meritocratic, but equally unpleasant to work for. Workers cope on a few hours sleep a night. Information is not shared, leading to the almost comical catastrophe accompanying the creation of Mizuho Bank. This bank was the product of several failed banks, who hated each other. As a result, the IT platforms were completely incompatible and led to massive data mix-ups when the supposedly unified ænewÆ bank was launched.

On the other hand, Japanese consumers benefit from very good manufactured products. White goods, electronics and cars are all first-class, and accompanied by excellent after-sales services. Retailers, while pricey, provide world-class service. High prices in those industries go towards keeping unemployment low in Japan. As a result, Zielenziger states that labour productivity in Japan is 30% lower than in the US, and that over-manning across a range of industries leads to expensive inefficiencies.

It is difficult to analyse another country without showing your prejudices. Like many Americans, Zielenziger seems baffled why Japan is not more like the US. But to a European reviewer, his criticism merely seems to reflect his own experiences. To take just one example: Zielenziger (a æsecular JewÆ in his own words) is very keen on religion as a way of creating a æcivil societyÆ. Looking at the strength of the Christian church in Korea, he believes it played an important role in modernising Korean politics. That could well be true. But ZielenzigerÆs enthusiasm for religion could be partly because the US has never suffered the wars of religion which devastated Europe for decades in the 17th century and caused civil wars in the United Kingdom, France and Germany û as vicious as anything in Africa or the Balkans today. The state secularism in the France of today is a deliberate rejection of the harm caused by religious obscurantism prior to the French Revolution. This is not to say the author is wrong û just that a European might have a more nuanced view of the effect of religion on a countryÆs political system. A European might even see a civil society dominated by religious organisations as rather sinister and the precursor to irrational and fanatical strife.

Zielenziger disapproves of Japan because values which he, as an American, values highly, are crushed in Japan. Roughly speaking, Americans value autonomy, creativity, drive, democracy, and participation within the community. Japan is much more likely to value consensus, mutual support and dependence, sincerity, loyalty, sacrifice, self-denial, hard work, attention to detail, stamina, obedience, modesty and frugality. In other words, itÆs rather like the US or UK Marine Corps. ItÆs difficult to say which set of values is superior.

Again from a casual European perspective, Americans are unattractively obsessed with: crime, violence and guns; sex; a superiority complex; movies and television; race; nationalism; conspicuous consumption; outward appearance over content; salesmanship over product; religion; and winning at all cost. Looked at it this way, Japanese values donÆt look too bad û and indeed, rather more æChristianÆ than US values. But Zielenziger argues that the Christian conscience also involves the individual in a unique dialogue with God. That mitigates the WesternerÆs reliance on the group û since on Judgment Day, the Western individual will be on his own. As a non-believer, this correspondent will have to take him on trust, along with the many millions of other Westerners who rarely step into a church.

Most unacceptable to Zielenziger is that JapanÆs obsession with æthe groupÆ inevitably downgrades individual human lives. On the other hand, that means the value of the community is automatically upgraded. Kamikaze flyers, as used by the Japanese military in the World War II, donÆt disparage human life - they downgraded a single human life versus the continued existence of the community û both todayÆs community and the future community. The latter is, by definition, almost limitless, making serious losses in the present relatively more bearable. The value of the individual versus the nation are issues that America is also exploring, not least through Jack Bauer controversially torturing suspects (to protect America) on the popular TV programme æ24Æ.

But irrespective of ZielenzigerÆs own biases, he is right to raise the question of what is good for Japan. Innovation is a good place to start, and here is his comment: ôInnovation tends to flourish in a complex habitat, where a diverse selection of birds, grasses, insects and animals randomly rub up against one another and cross pollinate, adapting to one anotherÆs spontaneous behaviours.ö

This looks very persuasive. But in biological terms, itÆs nonsense. Insects and animals, or even most plants, neither cross-breed nor cross-pollinate. Diversity in nature is created by an environment with a sufficiently broad range to accept the genesis of numerous species, and by genetic mutation over millions of years.

ItÆs ironic that Zielenziger equates innovation with diversity, while simultaneously implying a preference for US values over Japanese values. Theoretically, diversity would be best encouraged by Japan keeping to its unique course, and with both countries picking and choosing what they like from each other. Fortunately, this is more or less what has happened: Japan is adopting financial engineering, for example, and the internet; while the US has re-tooled its manufacturing sector.

These points are not to disparage Zielenziger's insights. For example, he perceives fascinating contradictions in the way the Japanese describe themselves, and the actual practice. While theoretically favouring æthe groupÆ, communal living is rapidly dying out in Japan, at least in its most core areas of family and friends. Families are often awful, he argues, with house-bound wives spoiling (usually single) children and hating their husbands for spending their whole lives at work, or drinking. Children spend so much time working (but not studying computer science, since itÆs not on the University Entrance syllabus), that they fail to develop social skills.

Zielenziger also highlights the contradiction of the Japanese not welcoming the internet, which in the West, has brought a welcome shift back to communal living after decades locked into ever more specialised and lonely jobs. But the Japanese donÆt seem as interested in the casual, egalitarian groups the internet produces, and much more in strictly hierarchical groups formally organised to accomplish a clear function (such as the company). They are thus missing out on the advertising business opportunities fostered by the likes of Google and Facebook. All is not lost, however: Facebook and Google need the companies that actually make things and generate ærealÆ products. Ultimately, software companies provide a brokerage service rather than the product itself. Perhaps the US and Japanese models can happily co-exist.

As well as pointing out that certain, very important groups have weakened in Japan, Zielenziger is nevertheless concerned by the infantile characteristics that Japanese group pressure seems to produce. Children routinely stay at home until their late 20s, especially women. Individuals donÆt speak out against the group, or often, even have a point of view. Risk-taking is shunned, and entrepreneurialism is rare. Voter participation is low, and the same political party has bossed Japan around for 55 years. This destruction of the family for the benefit of society is becoming an impossible burden, Zielenziger points out, with women simply refusing to have babies. Even the Japanese themselves would surely agree with him about the psychic damage of an inadequate family life. On the other hand, there are plenty of happy families in Japan, just as the high divorce rate in the US has contributed to many dysfunctional families and youth crime.

So whither Japan? Is the author right, and can Japan only be æsavedÆ by a sharp shift towards Western values of risk-taking, entrepreneurialism, and so on? ItÆs not clear. Much of the US economic model is currently being re-examined in the wake of revelations that all that apparently successful ærisk takingÆ was financed by 'other peopleÆs money' (via hedge funds, private equity and investment banks), and the results were inflated by an unsustainable credit and consumer bubble. Japan has undoubtedly been a great power since the 1860s (thrashing China and Russia, as well as Britain's Far Eastern empire over the next 80 years), about the same time as the US began to overtake the United Kingdom.

Currently, it is still the most powerful economy in Asia, and the second biggest in the world. It has not experienced the wild swings of its neighbours, either in a negative or a positive sense. It has also contributed to keeping the peace in a region with a sometimes twisted view on history.

If Japan does have problems, perhaps they are mainly because of America, rather than intrinsic to Japan. The elite in Japan that helped to cause World War II were rapidly reinstated by the US in the face of the Soviet threat of the late 1940s. This stymied industrial liberalisation and the healthy evolution of democracy, but did have some powerful economic consequences. Zielenziger transmits a neat comment by Haruki Murakami, the famous Japanese author: "In the past 60 years, Japan has been a testing ground for an American-style capitalist economy, protected in a greenhouse. The results are so bizarre, they are perfect...we Japanese are deeply, pampered children."

But economic progress must be balanced by political progress. The US tendency to evangelism, diluted by military considerations and hypocrisy, inevitably results in distorted structures. The danger is that the hybrid that thus arises tends to lose the benefits of both the original, and of the new model.

The real question is how Japan would have evolved if it has been left to absorb the US's numerous social and economic virtues in a truly free and open environment after the war. Would it have reverted to the ultra-nationalistic 1930s model? Or would it have emerged as a rambunctious Taiwan-style democracy? It's not clear. Despite Japan's apparent uniqueness, it is actually an uncomfortable composite of local and international influences. At the moment, Japan is failing to balance its own cultural needs with the requirements a new global economy. Until it finds that magic formula, Japan will continue to amaze and horrify in equal measure.
¬ Haymarket Media Limited. All rights reserved.
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