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The Vocabulary Of Control


new internationalist
issue 231 - May 1992

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The Vocabulary of Control
The NI looks at the language and levers of power in Japan.


[image, unknown] The first is literally 'examination hell'. The second refers to the kind of bullying that goes on in the Japanese school system. From as early as kindergarten Japanese students are under incredible pressure to succeed. They must pass tests and examinations to get into the best secondary schools and universities. Deviant behaviour - or just difference - is punished informally by bullying by cliques of fellow students, or by the exercise of sometimes quite brutal corporal punishment by school authorities. Students are subjected to a tyranny of dozens of petty rules and regulations which they are expected to obey both in and after school hours. The school system works to socialize the individual to the discipline of the group.



[image, unknown] These are the clubs (about 400 of them) of journalists attached to major Japanese institutions - ministries, big companies, the police, the ruling Liberal Democrats, the Bank of Japan. Some 12,000 journalists belong to these clubs that filter news about the institutions in question and decide what are the acceptable parameters of information and interpretation by their members. A journalist who steps outside these limits either by doing deeper investigative reporting or offering a different interpretation of events is risking expulsion, loss of access to news sources, and eventual loss of livelihood.


[image, unknown] Jinmyaku are the networks of unofficial relationships between civil servants, politicians and corporate executives. In Japanese public and business life these networks are forged with favours, money, marriage ties, exchanges of crucial information, and political support. They are the key to a successful career. What might raise eyebrows elsewhere is considered normal practice in Japan, where notions of conflict of interest or arms-length relationships have little currency. Only occasionally are the press and legal authorities forced to pay attention. Sometimes a politician falls out of favour, or there are major scandals that can't be ignored, like the Lockheed bribery scandal that landed former Prime Minister Tanaka behind bars.


[image, unknown] The former refers to peoples' real intentions - the truth of the heart. The latter refers to the pretence, the formal explanation or officially-given reasons that comprise the placid surface of Japanese life - the truth of the tongue. A great deal of effort goes into maintaining these 'official' explanations. Those who would expose the honne of greed or expedience behind the tatemae of fine words - the trade unionist, the environmental activist, the crusading journalist - are subjected to great cultural pressure for creating unnecessary conflict. A good example of maintaining tatemae (and hiding honne) is Dentsu - the world's largest advertising agency. Dentsu, through its stranglehold on the market in lucrative advertising, actively ensures that news that reflects badly on its clients is either downplayed or not covered at all by a compliant media.



[image, unknown] The Japanese for emperor and all that is implied by the emperor system. More than a mere constitutional monarch, the Emperor is held to have divine qualities. The somewhat vague values that he is held to represent are the very essence of Japaneseness. Yet the Emperor has little real power. Official acts carried out by invoking the imperial mandate are often the cloak for the actions of conservative power-holders. Anyone who criticizes the Emperor or the emperor system can get into very hot water. The mayor of Nagasaki was recently the victim of a rightist assassination attempt for publicly stating that the emperor was partially responsible for atrocities committed by the Japanese during World War Two.


[image, unknown] Company spirit. The plethora of company songs, emblems reminiscent of family crests, group callisthenics, sacred stories of the founders, and endless meetings to encourage co-operation, self-criticism and subordination of the individual to the whole that mark Japanese corporate culture are all well enough known in the West. Less well known are the rigorous, sometimes military-style training courses that are used to integrate new recruits into the demanding work-life of a 'salaryman'. Both free time and family life are sacrificed to shafu and a new word karoshi has been invented to describe death from overwork by 'salarymen' imbued with shafu.


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This is the theory of Japaneseness. The widely held view amongst the mandarins of business and government, as well as some scholars, holds that the Japanese culture is unique and subtle - essentially unknowable by outsiders. According to this theory certain types of behaviour - criticism of the Emperor, disrespect for national symbols, being too outspoken or controversial - are un- Japanese. Certain views - particularly radical ones - fall into a similar category. Nihonjinron has its roots in pre-war fascist philosophy when it was used as a tool to stifle dissent.

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New Internationalist issue 231 magazine cover This article is from the May 1992 issue of New Internationalist.
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