New Internationalist

Good Morning Tokyo!

Issue 131

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GLOBAL REPORTING [image, unknown] Ageing

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Good morning Tokyo!
Debbie Taylor greets the Japanese workforce, young and old, and finds
out what the future holds for that country’s ageing population.

A second look

Editor: Assuming you weren’t there when Dr Ogawa woke up, you must be mixing fact and fiction. How are we to know the difference?

Debbie Taylor: You’re right. I did not become that intimate with Dr Ogawa - though I did spend an afternoon with him and discovered quite a lot about his work and home life. The precise words I attribute to him did not actually issue from his erudite mouth, although the arguments did. But facts need clothing before they make interesting reading. So, as with

Ms Ohiro and Mr Nakamura, Dr Ogawa has had his character ‘developed’ by stretching a little information a very long way. And this isjusta ratherextreme form of what happens whenever any writer strings facts together in a half-way coherent fashion. You could say I was doing you a favour in signalling so clearly that at least part of the article was fiction.

Editor: Singing the company song seems odd to us but presumably not to them. Aren’t you making them unfairly look ridiculous?

Debbie Taylor: True, this description of the Japanese devotion to work does run the risk of being racist. But I included it to create an image that needed explaining, not as an oddity to laugh at. I hope I raised a question (how can people be made to behave like this?) which I could then tryto answer with a brief tour of Japan’s economic history. After all, it’s not me that makes them look ridiculous: it’s JVC and our own prejudices about individuality. Ms Ohiro told me she never thought working fora companywould be so much fun. So obviously she doesn’t mind.

Editor: JVC are ‘prowling wolves’ with ‘waiting jaws’. But how do they justify themselves?

Debbie Taylor: They stress the exchange relationship they have with their workers. We provide employment, wages, security, clothes, housing training. They provide labour and loyalty. What could be fairer than that?

Editor: The old men playing chess are objects of pity. Aren’t you patronising them?

Debbie Taylor: Perhaps I would be if I suggested they were miserable when they weren’t. But if they were satisfied with their situation, why travel to the park in secret?

Editor: What are all these greetings for?

Debbie Taylor: It’s easy to be racist about Japan: such a strange history, such an unfamiliar culture. I wanted you to meet the Japanese as subjects rather than gaze at them as objects. The greeting were a way of doing this. Also Japan is not a poor country. It’s vibrant, energetic and colourful. The greetings are to give some flavour of that sense of life.

DAWN breaks over the Nihon University building in downtown Tokyo. Dr Ogawa wakes. He washes, eats, dresses quickly and hurries along the still-quiet corridor to his office. At the door he pauses and surveys twenty chairs around two huge tables. In front of each chair is a neat stack of reports and printouts. He selects one, and sits down to begin his day’s work. Good morning Dr. Ogawa!

Outside the rush hour is beginning. Millions of Japanese have rolled up theirfutons, breakfasted on sour vegetables and rice and joined the waves of humanity on bicycles and mopeds, in trains and in cars, on their way to work. Good morning Tokyo!

By now another tide of humanity has already dispersed itself for the day. Hours earlier, in the half-light, they had formed queues at pick-up points: tough, dirty, hopeful, angry. But now the contract foremen have long gone and their hand-picked teams of the youngest and strongest are already at work on docks, roads and building sites:

leaving the old, the lame and the drunk to pass their day gathered on tarpaulins, plastic bags or newspaper beside the road.

Greetings Sanya! Tokyo ghetto that houses - in bed and breakfast dormitories - the lump of unemployed labourers, down-and-outs, alcoholics, outcasts and refugees from the order of Japan’s ordered society. Be sure to travel by taxi through these streets. Sanya people don’t take kindly to voyeurs. Good morning, Sanya!

And good morning to you, Mr Nakamura, aged 65, former sales director, cycling to work on your bicycle. We will meet you again later.

Rush hour continues. Neat and clean are Japan’s workers. The tropical heat makes them sweat but each carries a fresh white cloth to pat perspiration from upper lip. Smiling, ordered, thoughtful, disciplined they are. Quietly and calmly they hurry. Have a good day!

In the head office of JYC Victor Ms Ohiro stands to attention. Head thrown back, proudly she sings the company hymn with the rest of the personnel department.

The song is the same in JYC’s newest factory in the suburbs of Tokyo. Fresh from company dormitories and company houses, wearing pale blue company clothes, the workers have arrived. And, standing to attention beside motionless production lines, they too sing the company anthem.

Eight o’clock start. The plant grinds into action bearing the bowels of what are to be video-tape recorders inexorably round the factory. White-gloved hands blur as a thousand minute wires are joined, furled, soldered. Gleaming disc-heads are plucked carefully as eggs from their trays and dropped gently into place. Conveyors ascend, descend, rotate in continuous motion.

Twelve-twenty stop. The first lunch shift begins as one thousand workers line up in the canteen. Bon appetit, JVC!

Had you forgotten Dr Ogawa? Dr Ogawa is a man with the facts at his fingertips. He gets up and paces his empty room. Then sits again at a different chair. Because every chair is his. Twenty chairs for twenty projects. Twenty sets of computer printouts. Twenty piles of reports all chorusing the same warning: Japan' s economic miracle is in peril. Japan has built a pyramid of people and machines, population and progress, that is about to topple into the polluted waters of Tokyo bay.

Unaware of his part in his country’s predicament, Mr Nakamura (whom we have already met) cycles home from work. Pedal hard, Mr Nakamura!

Born at the dawning of Japan’s modern age he moved from farm to city to add his young energy to his nation’s urgent push towards the twentieth century.

He remembers now as he pedals down the teeming streets. Yes. We had to work hard. We had only ourselves: no minerals, not enough land. Just people and work.

Dr Ogawa, his shelves groaning with history and statistics, agrees. Yes, work.

Competition. Survival. They became a way of life.

We were lucky: we had plenty of young workers, born, like Mr Nakamura, into the big families of the war years. But these new labourers of our golden age had fewer children. So our load of young children and old parents was light. Wealth could be planted again to grow more wealth. Only a little needed to be set aside for those too young or too old for work.

But that’s all changed now. He gestures towards his twenty chairs. Now those golden youths are turning silver and there are too few to replace them.

Oh, Mr Nakamura. You did not want to be replaced.

Now I empty every street ashtray in the neighbourhood. That is my job these days, he says. Dirty, smelly work it is. But keeps me healthy, better than nothing, better than hanging around at home, gives me money for cigarettes, lucky to have it. Nearby his old company building stands: deserted and quiet. One of the bosses I was. Sales. There for forty years.

[image, unknown] I’ve had a good life really. Thank you mother and father for raising me. Thank you my boss and your wife for giving me forty happy years. Thank you Silver Centre for finding me this work.

Thank you, Mr Nakamura!

Some 80,000 silver-haired Japanese have joined 151 ‘Silver Centres’ in their search for work. Others flick hopefully through vacancies at the employment exchanges, visit a friend of a friend of a friend, or swell the lines at the contractors’ pick-up points.

Over to you, Dr Ogawa. Well, it was like this. During the war years hundreds and thousands of golden young Japanese died. And the young became precious to the greedy new industries. Disciplined, flexible, stable workers were what the companies needed to beat a path through the crowds of competition. The lifetime employment system was how they achieved their goal. They took them early, paid them little, promised them everything. Trained them and retrained them, rewarding those that stayed with higher and higher wages.

It was the best way to catch and keep the young. But it made the old and the loyal expensive. So began the ‘tap on the shoulder’ for the middle-aged, and compulsory retirement for those as young as 55.

Goodbye, old friends. Don’t call us. And we won’t call you.

At the gates of Nihon University an old guard averts his face and refuses to talk. Three years ago he was president of a steel company. At Dr Ogawa’s house his father puts on his business suit and sets out to wander around the factory he once ran. Other men in suits spend their day playing Japanese chess in parks far from home where no-one knows them.

Dr Ogawa shakes his head sadly. They pretend to go to work. What else can they do? This printout shows employment figures. Two job openings for every high school graduate. Ten over-50s for every old person’s vacancy. They retire too soon, live too long, have too small a pension, and have never learned to enjoy leisure. It sits heavy on their hands.

Inside JVC’s slab of a head office, Ms Ohiro and the personnel department plan their autumn recruitment campaign. Like hungry wolves they prowl the high school gates, squabbling with the other companies over their tender young prey. ‘Golden eggs’ they call the fresh-faced, smooth-skinned young graduates. Ripe, malleable, crammed with learning, eager to work, they roll gladly into the waiting jaws.

Work well, my little chickadees!

Four men in white shirt-sleeves, ties askew, lean over Dr Ogawa’s latest report. The Ministry of Labour’s Manpower Policy Group will be working late again this evening. They frown over the facts. 40 per cent of companies refuse to raise retirement age above 55. From being nine per cent of the population in 1980, over 65s will be 21.3 per cent in 2025.

Ten blocks away Dr Ogawa sits back in chair number fourteen and yawns. He considers the possibilities: another night in the university room down the corridor? Or home on the sticky subway with other drowsy commuters to confront his father’s depression and half-accusing eyes? He hopes the boys at the Ministry of Labour agree with his conclusions.

We will have to dismantle lifetime employment, he explains. We can’t afford to reward the old for their experience and loyalty any longer. There will just be too many of them. We will have to use a different way of motivating our workforce. And a system of hopeless dreams, like you have in the West, seems to be the only way. It seems to work for you. You create an elite of well-paid people and tempt the rest with the illusion that, with hard work, they too can join the elite. Of course it’s a dream: there will be very few well-paid jobs. But I think we can persuade the majority to trade their poor wages in the present for the dream of rising into the elite in the future.

Folding his papers, locking his briefcase, shoving back chair number fourteen, Dr Ogawa rises.

Goodnight Dr Ogawa. Sleep soundly. Goodnight Mr Nakamura. Goodnight Japan.

Sweet dreams.


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