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Prisoners Of Prosperity


new internationalist
issue 231 - May 1992

The rise of Japan
Prisoners of prosperity

Japan is crushing its people under the pressure to conform.
George Fisher considers the impact on its neighbours.

Elvis is alive and well and driving a taxi in downtown Tokyo. He wears a hot-pink ski parka and wrap-around sunglasses. In summer, the parka comes off to reveal a Haines T-shirt. He goes home late each evening to a very small flat, wishing he could be an executive already relaxing in a larger one; a salaryman' who would wear a Burberry overcoat and whose wife would carry a Luis Vuitton bag. He sees them often enough in his taxi, as well as on the subway. Japanese consumption is nothing if not conspicuous.

Elvis - you could be forgiven for thinking he was Elvis - stops for his last coffee for the day at McDonalds, where the muzak sounds uncomfortably like the theme from the Brady Bunch played by Hammond organ.

For Japan's 125 million people life is a difficult though often unconscious exploration of Eastern and Western, Shinto, Buddhist and Confucian, traditional and consumerist societies. Most industrial cultures are individualistic. Japanese people are group-oriented. They shy away from anything which may be seen as a threat to the group ethic. A Japanese person may have a Shinto wedding, train their children in Confucianism, actively pursue a consumerist lifestyle and have a Buddhist funeral. Such an inclusive path is not seen as inconsistent. Rather, values are internalized; almost unconsciously Buddhist principles pervade Japanese design.

One outcome of this is that within Japanese society the individual is secondary. Individuals must conform and suppress whatever disrupts group harmony. Individualism is strongly distrusted. This inclines workers to see themselves as belonging to the enterprise rather than pursuing their own goals. Pressures to conform are enormous. Yet this group cohesion has been an important ingredient in Japan's remarkable economic success story.

Devastated by earthquakes, famine, military dictatorships and two atomic bomb blasts, Japan rallied back. Tokyo became the world's largest city in the 1960s, and Japan the world's most dynamic economy by the 1980s. Today no country in the world remains untouched by Japanese investment, tourism or trade. Brokers in New York, London and Frankfurt anxiously watch for signs of fatigue on the Tokyo Stock Exchange's Nikkei index. Factory labourers throughout South East Asia dread Japanese boardroom decisions which might mean the end of an income for tens of thousands of local families.

What made all this possible? Part of the explanation can be found in Japanese culture. The conditioning of Japanese children, for example, starts early. The Japanese Ministry of Education requires all schools to raise the Hinomara rising-sun national flag and sing the Kimigayo national anthem, which exalts the emperor. The Japanese teachers' union has long opposed such nationalistic activities.

Textbooks are still routinely 'amended'. Postwar Japanese children learn little about the Second World War from their school curriculum. A textbook reference to the Imperial Army's hideous experiments in bacteriological weapons development was removed by the Ministry, who said it was too early for such material to be known. An account of Japanese troops raping Chinese women was also deleted. The Ministry of Education continues to declare a morally neutral history, reinforcing the view that Japan had merely been the victim of other nations' aggression.

Since its defeat in the Second World War Japan has had a peace Constitution barring it from maintaining a regular army. While abiding by the letter of this law it still maintains a large Ground Self-Defence Force with 156,000 soldiers, 46,000 reservists and a number of additional reserve brigades.

Recent polls indicate that fewer than 1 in 10 Japanese adults would be prepared to fight in a war. Nevertheless, its $31.9 billion defence budget -although comparatively small in GNP terms - gives them top of the line US-made hardware, ranging from high-tech tanks to multiple-launch rocket systems and Hawk surface-to-air missiles. The subtleties of this are not lost on Japan's immediate neighbours. China's military budget is only one fifth that of Japan. The Japanese Government is also worried about the possibility of Korea developing nuclear weapons. Ironically, with the collapse of the ANZUS Pact, both Australia and Aotearoa have urged Japan - their former bitterly-fought enemy - to play a larger role in Asian security.

Sheltered after the war by the US's nuclear arsenal, Japan was able to devote much of its resources to becoming an economic giant. The country now boasts an industrial base that is one of the most modern and efficient in the world. In the space of a generation the phrase 'made in Japan' has moved from indicating a cheap imitation to meaning high quality value for money. Japan has, in particular, rapidly built an extraordinary regional presence. Its push into neighbouring countries has offered them enormous benefits - at a cost.

Last year the Asian nations of Japan's 'yen bloc' generated more real income than either the EC or North America. Japanese companies invest billions of dollars yearly in South East Asia's fast-growing economies. Over the past five years corporate Japan has poured $27 billion into these countries, compared with the US's $7 billion. Japan's aid budget, the Overseas Development Assistance (ODA), contributed another $10 billion. Malaysia, for example, now hosts 850 Japanese companies, including 77 construction companies and 26 banks, securities and financial outfits. There are, however, protests against Japanese dominance in Malaysia and Indonesia - both countries suffered under the Japanese occupation of 1942-45.

Japanese keiretsu (umbrella corporations) have the same sorry record as other multinational corporations, whether in promoting damaging and capital-intensive chemical agriculture in the Philippines, or supporting military regimes in Fiji or Burma (Myanmar). And in places such as Thailand, Brazil and Indonesia, mega-projects provide lucrative contracts for the highly profitable Japanese construction industry, as well as access to minerals and other natural resources.

In the past decade Japan has also invested more than $4.5 billion in US scientific and educational institutions, mainly to gain access to their technology. The West has sometimes reacted to such investment or marketing success with the considered restraint of a spoilt child, as if it was somehow the 'right' of the US or Europe to be the wealthiest regions in the world.

A similar reaction can even be seen in popular culture. With a perpetual need for mysterious enemies, Western novelists now depict Japanese keiretsu as the contemporary equivalents of the mafia or the KGB. Dozens of books have been published in the West in the recent years which talk of Japan in almost Cold War tones.

None of these tones have yet emerged with an exotic Third World setting, but there is plenty of raw material on this theme for budding authors. Japan's ODA budget is now the world's largest. Unlike other donor countries Japan has no agency with overall responsibility for the direction and policy of ODA. Instead, this is in the hands of the Foreign Ministry, the Finance Ministry,, the Economic Planning Agency and the Powerful Ministry of International Trade and Industry (MITI). The ODA budget is spread over 16 ministries and agencies, making it easier for the corporate clients of these ministries to gain access to ODA funds.

Japanese capitalism is neither more nor less predatory than any other variety. Indeed for the Third World dealing with Japanese businesses can be a refreshing change and provide some leverage for beleaguered Third World governments against Euro-American pressures.

But there are more factors contributing to Japan's international predominance than just aggressive capitalism. The relationship between employees and employers, for example, is more co-operative than in the West, and results in far more efficient production. That relationship stems from a sense of responsibility for the workforce from employers and a matching loyalty on the part of employees. Japanese companies develop a strong sense of group or public responsibility towards society which is rare in the West.

When buying or selling, hiring or firing, Japanese executives often bypass opportunities to maximize profits. Keiretsu ethics incline buyers to pay a fair price and suppliers to provide goods of high quality. In many other countries, buyers pay the lowest price and suppliers often provide goods at the lowest acceptable level of quality. At a more public level, travellers to Japan are rarely short-changed or robbed, not even in the anonymity of a crowded subway.

The community reaps what it sows. But all is not rosy. Lifelong employment now applies to a decreasing minority of workers. Women are regularly relegated to being 'contingent' workers, are found disproportionately in part-time and temporary work, and receive on average little more than half the male wage. Karoshi - death from overwork - highlights the cost of having the interests of the corporation overriding the interests of the individual.

Another key to Japanese success - and a frustration for both Western and Third World agencies and businesses - is the high level of co-ordination between bureaucratic emperors from ministries such as Finance or the powerful MITI, the political shoguns of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party and the executive samurai of Japan's corporate giants, such as Mitsui and Mitsubishi. In Japan such groups work closely together, often through 'old school tie' networks formed in university days.

These internal networks of responsibility are not, however, always matched by a sense of responsibility to the world at large. Japan's driftnet fishing has horrified the watching world to such an extent that the UN has called for a ban on all such operations from next month. Nets 60 kilometres long - sometimes called 'walls of death' - scoop the contents of the oceans to a depth of 15 metres. The Asian fleet in the Pacific, represented by Korea and Taiwan as well as Japan, comprises 1,000 vessels, 800 of which are Japanese. Such an awesome harvesting presence means that there are enough nets to circle the entire world. In a move some would see as hypocritical, Japan itself has prohibited driftnet fishing within 1,600 kilometres of its own coast to safeguard its remaining ocean resources. This is done in the vain hope of being able to continue harvesting 12 million tonnes of fish each year - the world's largest catch.

Sea birds, marine mammals, dolphin and shark populations, squid and tuna stocks have all been hard hit. There have been sustained outcries from numerous southern Pacific countries, many of whom depend on a reliable supply of fish for domestic consumption. Under international pressure Japan has announced it will cease its driftnetting operations at the end of the year.

A similar outcry can be heard about Japanese attitudes to forest timbers. Centuries-old tropical hardwoods from southern Asia now meet an inglorious end as Japanese daily newspapers and mass circulation comics, or on construction sites as formwork for poured concrete. Vast tracts of forest are disappearing to the tune of 55 million disposable chopsticks daily. Japan's attitude to its own forests is no better. Only one per cent of its original forest area remains, native birch being replaced by pine and cypress. Its largest national park is a mere 5,000 hectares.

Australian hardwoods have also found their way to Japan to be used in the production of printing and writing paper for consumption in the domestic market. Since the beginning of Australia's export woodchip trade in the early 1970s the country has been Japan's largest supplier of hardwood woodchips.

Harris-Daishowa, one of Australia's major exporters, is 100 per cent Japanese owned by its parent company, Daishowa Seishi. The company is in debt to the tune of $3.4 billion to finance an aggressive expansion of production facilities worldwide. Daishowa is also the name behind the clearfelling of a number of areas of Canadian forest, including the land of the Lubicon Indian nation, and Wood Buffalo National Park. Daishowa guaranteed the Lubicon their land would not be logged until land rights were settled, but circumvented their promise by using a subsidiary company and subcontractors for the logging. In Australia, Harris-Daishowa is heavily involved in woodchipping in the south-east forests of New South Wales. Their Eden woodchip mill continues to turn out one million tonnes of woodchips annually. Much flora and fauna are at risk, especially in the Tantawangalo region.

While official Japanese policy abroad might incline corporations to act unaccountably, at home Japan's 16,000 environmental groups tackle what they can in the face of corporate monoliths. Operating locally, and with an average of only 50 members in each, these groups mount thousands of small-scale protests annually, with a relatively high success rate.

The quality of life for Japan's own people bears some of these same contradictions. The peace and tranquillity of a Zen garden or a traditional tea ceremony are in stark contrast to the gnawing strains on workers forced to endure the world's longest office hours. Japanese women are increasingly reluctant to accept a partner who is already married to his career, and who disregards his share of domestic and child-rearing duties. Such husbands are often referred to as 'big dust', to be swept out in the process of house-cleaning.

Tokyo office workers pioneered the art of sleeping standing up on crowded peak hour trains. While the home and the office appear ordered, other social networks, public services and amenities are a long way behind their Western counterparts. Parks are rare in Japan's urban sprawls. While in global terms Japan is an economic giant, its people live in housing which is expensive, cramped and substandard compared with that of average income earners in Auckland or Singapore. One quarter of Japan's urban dwellings are not connected to a sewer. The cost of living is high: beef and tuna are expensive, and many fresh fruits and vegetables reach prohibitive prices. For those who can't compete there is little by way of welfare or unemployment benefits. Around the cities the disabled are spurned and treated virtually as an underclass. Water or wet sawdust is spread in places where furosha or homeless gather, to discourage them from settling in full public view.

For the Japanese, appearance matters greatly. Furosha have to move out of sight; the most popular fashions must be worn; the latest gadgets owned. Such appearances offer identity, membership, meaning. Social and ideological difference has to be absorbed into a more unified whole. Any challenges to traditional order and value are costly. But burying conflict can allow a nationalistic sense of Japan's global rule to go unchallenged. Such a silence has betrayed the Japanese people in the past, both at home and abroad. The world can ill afford to see the same betrayal extended to Japan's many neighbours.

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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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