The Nail That Sticks Out
issue 231 - May 1992
The nail that sticks out
Conformists belong, non-conformists and ethnic minorities get hammered in Japan.
John Charles and Peter Mallat unravel Japanese groupthink.
'SHIGOTO ARIMASUKA?' pesters the tall, dark-skinned man at the railway exit. He bows incongruously, imitating the mannerisms of the culture he envies. 'Sir, Sir... do you have a job for me?'
He is an Iranian day-labourer, doing the hard, dirty jobs now scorned by almost all Japanese. After getting one day's work he prowls endlessly in search of the next, before bedding down for the night in a local park. Sleeping rough is his only option since the local flophouse was closed by the authorities. For the most part they cause him little trouble. The indifference of the public is, he says, almost worse.
He has - or had - a wife in Iran. Is she still there?.., he doesn't know. His working conditions?.., a finger-stump is mute testimony. Accident insurance?.., the gentleman surely jests. 'We Iranians are...' he begins in English, but words soon escape so he switches to Japanese. 'We are proud... but war has ruined us.' He shrugs, smiles ruefully, and is consumed by the surging crowd.
The old man crouches on the granite steps, mumbling to himself and re-fighting long forgotten battles. The salarymen weave wary circles round his stinking nest. Nobody has spoken to him here - he says - for 20 years. In his sad delusion he imagines that his wealthy wife drives him out of the house each day 'to avoid gossip' and picks him up at night. In this most group-oriented of societies even the dropouts cling to rags of respectability. Wa means 'harmony' or 'proper place': the executive in the office and the Little Woman minding the hearth. The consequences of social deviance are so alarming that office workers between jobs are sometimes forced into masquerades of leaving home in the morning to return at the end of the working day. You see them snoring in theatres and glumly clock-watching in coffee shops.
Japan is unthinkable without groups. Perhaps they developed from the co-operative labour needed in the scattered villages of a rice-growing culture. To this day the threat of Mura Hachibu ('rejection from the village' or ostracism) by family, university alumnus league, company or even golf club would be enough to bring the most determined social deviant to heel. It can sometimes seem as if the only escape from the demands of the group lies in madness.
The boy shakes his fist and menaces the train guard through the glass. He suddenly begins to weep. Everybody on the train is desperately playing the game of 'pay no attention'. One passenger - fluent in English from residence abroad - feels it necessary to apologize to the foreigner for such a wanton ruffling of the 'perfect face' of his country. 'I am sorry,' he says. 'He is... strange. His behaviour is... not Japanese.' Not Japanese. The words evoke the whole mentality of group cohesion and rejection and endlessly-interlocking social nets.
Who are the Japanese?
Anthropologically it is not at all clear: a conglomerate of Polynesian, Malay and mainland Asian elements, perhaps from Mongolia, who imposed themselves on the aboriginal Ainu and gradually drove them northwards. The precedence of the Ainu in the islands, like the thorny subject of Japanese army atrocities against the Chinese in the 1930s, is another point glossed over by the schoolbooks.
Culturally it is a different story. Japan has a notion of its own uniqueness that many Japanese are convinced an outsider could never fathom. The Japanese language ovefflows with words of status, words of self-abasement, words of guile and subterfuge - and many words that defy accurate translation. Words like Ciri and On translate as 'duty' or 'obligation', but the depth of their meaning is quite different. Within the tightly-ordered framework of Japanese groups - village, family, school, workplace - they weigh heavily indeed. Outside these groups they lose almost all meaning. Thus in Japan there is little goodwill for someone you don't know and little sense of a broader public interest. Peter Tasker, in his book Inside Japan, calls the Japanese the 'kindest, cruelest' people in the world. The face presented depends entirely on whether you are seen to be part of a group or outside it.
On April 28 1952 Japan was restored to its sovereignty after the post-war American occupation. The nation had miraculously 'endured the unendurable', as the Emperor had enjoined it to do, and had proved a surprisingly warm host to thousands of US troops. This paradox is usually explained in terms of the group system: events had shown that Japan's imperialist ambitions were illusory, and the White Man was top dog. Thus all ranks and groupings moved down one notch giving Americans top status. One of the first acts of the post-occupation government, however, was to require all foreigners to carry a fingerprinted ID card. Protests were immediate and continue.
Jack McIntosh, a Canadian missionary with 30 years in Japan, has no doubt this law was directed against Koreans and Chinese - the two groups who might pass for Japanese most easily. The 680,000 people of Korean ancestry are the largest minority group in Japan. Most were born here and many speak only Japanese. Yet they must still regularly register as 'aliens' and carry the demeaning ID card at all times. Some 12,000 apply to become Japanese citizens each year. Detailed investigations of kinship and lineage follow. The assumption that they will abandon their cultural heritage and even their family name provokes hatred and rebellion. Usually only about half the applications are successful. McIntosh is an illegal resident himself, on account of his refusal to be fingerprinted in 1985. He therefore cannot leave Japan. He believes the real purpose of the Alien Registration Law is 'to show 16-year-old Korean youth that they are no good'.
Many schoolchildren of Korean extraction can give you a harrowing description of hiding their backgrounds from their classmates at great psychological cost - only to be found out when presenting a different passport on a school trip. Their friends melted away before their eyes. In Osaka's Ikuno, ward where a quarter of the population is Korean, less than five per cent use their real names in business dealings. Kim Sung Il, a second-generation Korean, refused fingerprinting, was arrested and had his finger prints taken against his will. He recounts the story of a school teacher accused of some trifling infringement of the Registration Law who was taken from her classroom by a hundred police.
Prejudice is deeply ingrained and government policy does little to alter it. A ministry spokesman, Kawakami Tomimi, hit the right level of bland government euphemism: 'If Koreans remain here indefinitely without assimilating, maintaining a separate identity, Japan will have a minority problem. That is undesirable.'
In fact, Japan has had a minority problem for centuries, ever since the Yamato peoples drove the Ainu to the inhospitable northern island of Hokkaido, where they largely remain. Like indigenous peoples everywhere, the Ainu have rediscovered their own identity, and are pressing for reform.
The Burakumin minority are actually Japanese, the lowest in a pecking order of rank that was supposedly abolished way back in 1868. The remnants of caste discrimination linger on outside Tokyo or in the districts of the capital that tourists never visit. Such people did and often still do the 'defiling' tasks of slaughter, tanning, corpse disposal and scavenging that society is squeamish about. Despite the 'Economic Miracle' labour is still needed to remove human excrement especially in country districts - and even in Tokyo itself one on eight homes lacks proper drainage.
'Official Japan' is keen to gloss over the case of the Burakumin - it detracts from the image of perfect harmony they want to present to the world. The word Burakumin means 'community or hamlet people'. But a hostile Japanese society often refers to these outcasts as Eta, a brutally frank word meaning 'extreme filth'. Semantics aside, a caste of untouchables is still clearly in evidence. The Government has tried hard to overcome such prejudice - for Burakumin are Japanese after all - in marked contrast to its meagre efforts on behalf of Koreans. But such feelings die hard.
One problem has been the Koseki, or Community Registers. Japan is a society that pays elaborate courtesies to ancestors and their spirits. They are yet another group to which obligations are owed. The Japanese go out of their way to prevent any 'mixing of the blood' which they feel would pollute and dishonour their family tree. To preserve this purity of the lineage (Ie) extensive record-keeping is needed. Hence the social importance of Koseki, which details intimate family information.
Formerly open to casual inspection, the records are now kept locked in an attempt to reduce their influence. Questions about ancestry - in job interviews for example - must be carefully posed. But potential employees are still vetted for ancestry. Robert Steiber, a worker at the Buraku Liberation Centre, suggests one reason is that the employer - always seeking 'harmony' - may feel other workers would be uncomfortable in the presence of Burakumin. The blame is thus deftly transferred to the victim. But the Burakumin are now asserting a pride in their identity and challenging conformist Japanese society to accept them as they are. It is an uphill fight.
Another use of the Koseki is to establish the social background of suitors in marriage. For many - perhaps most - Japanese the admission of low-caste stock into the family remains unthinkable. One of the present writers married a Japanese woman only to find that his mother-in-law would not talk to him for eight years. Such reactions are not at all uncommon. The closure of the documents to the public has led to a brisk trade in illegally obtained copies and the use of private investigators.
There are other disregarded minorities, like those who fail the unforgiving test of the Japanese work ethic. The Madogiwa- Zoku ('window-side people') are one such unhappy group. Passed over for promotion and officially regarded by their employers as useless, these usually elderly workers are never dismissed. Day after day they check in at the office, where they are assigned conspicuously humiliating desks by the window, suggesting that they will waste time looking out. They are pitied by the most junior of secretaries; victims of the refined cruelty of Japanese management. Some descend into addiction or madness while others can be found in the Kamagasaki district of Osaka where they must compete with younger and stronger workers from Iran or Bangladesh for casual labour jobs.
The Kamagasaki is where contractors go to get casual labour - usually supplied through the Yakuza or Japanese gangsters. There are similar districts in most other major Japanese cities. This is the home of the notorious '3K' work: Kitsui (hard), Kitanai (dirty) and Kiken (dangerous). In the absence of a viable social welfare system these districts rake in all those found wanting by Japan's rigorous social tests. These sad people have proved as dispensable as everything else in the new society built on consumption. Their average age in 1990 was 51.2; in 1965 it was just over 34. Between one and two hundred die in these mean streets each year.
After the social unrest of the sixties the Kamagasaki district officially ceased to exist. It was renamed Airin ('brotherly love') although no-one who lives there actually uses this name. This is a typical sleight-of-hand of Japanese bureaucracy - call something by another name and you change its nature. Ask ordinary Japanese about it and they will say it is abunai (dangerous), but few have ever been there. Ironically, love really is more in evidence there than danger. A genuine sense of community does seem to exist among people stripped of every claim to group-belonging except to each other. The low drinking houses are full of a spirit of rough comradeship.
The West has been in awe of the Japanese success story for so long that the inequitable nature of traditional society, the way it is grafted onto modem capitalism, gets as little attention as the run-down housing stock. Gross injustice and exploitation, prejudice and social control get submerged beneath the robotics, electronics, geishas and sumo. Women are second-class citizens. Medical and pension benefits are inadequate for an aging society. Xenophobia and cultural one-upmanship flourish. Racial attitudes are hardly exemplary. There is, in particular, a real danger that weak and exploited classes, who have traditionally done the jobs no-one else wants, will be replaced by an even more exploited class, people unable to voice their complaints because of their position as illegal immigrants.
Yet it would be a mistake to think that Japan is a society without compassion. The main problem is the familiar one: ignorance. For most of its citizens Japan has a reasonable lifestyle. The system works for them. They have deep cultural inhibitions against leaving home, let alone attempting to assess the need for social change. So, lacking any real sense of social obligation other than a vague patriotism, they continue to elect a group of corrupt politicians whose scandals keep making the headlines. The politicians in turn pay lip service to the 'problems' of society while presenting Japan's composed, poised, smiling face. The fact that the real scars on Japan's 'perfect face' are now being revealed is, however, a much better harbinger for the future.
John Charles is an experienced scribbler whose latest nest is Tokyo and Peter Mallett is a seasoned observer of life in Osaka.
YEN FOR UNDERDEVELOPMENT
Left in the lurch
It has become a cliche to say that Japanese-style management is the key to the country's economic success. The paternalism of Japanese management, the 'family' relationships between management and workers, and the so-called 'lifetime employment' system are most often credited for building a loyal, obedient and well-disciplined work-force which has made the economic miracle possible.
The workers of Korean Sumida Electric, a subsidiary of a middle-sized Japanese firm, know another side of Japanese corporate practice. On 14 October 1989 they were informed of their mass dismissal by a fax from their company's Tokyo headquarters. This signalled the beginning of a period of great hardship for the mostly female workers from the plant. They sent representatives to Japan to negotiate with the company and eventually reached a settlement.
Korean Sumida is typical of the 'runaway shop', an increasingly conspicuous problem in Asia. Since early in its history the company has followed a strategy of chasing cheap labour in order to keep down production costs. In 1972, lured by a cheap and plentiful labour supply, tax breaks and a state willing to repress labour activism, it set up a factbry in Masan City in the South Korean Masan-Changwon free trade zone. The firm also set up plants in Taiwan, Hong Kong and Singapore, and now has nearly 96 per cent of its production-base abroad. Its overseas labour force has reached 5,000, but it maintains a domestic staff of just 200.
In August 1987 a labour union was established at the Korean Plant. Wages were doubled within two years and working conditions improved. The company reacted by beginning to close down the plant while establishing new operations In Malaysia and Guangzhou Province. China. In 1988 Sumida Electric began soliciting 'voluntary terminations' from among the workers. Some 1,500 of the original 3,000 workers left before the axe finally fell.
The workers, in conjunction with a solidarity network in Japan, sent representatives to negotiate with the Tokyo headquarters. They demanded official apologies, a retraction of the dismissal and a good faith negotiating response from the management. They also demanded the reopening of collective bargaining.
At first the company refused to respond, despite 12 rounds of negotiations. The workers arranged hunger strikes and sit-ins, and finally in June 1990 arrived at a settlement. The company formally apologized for its behaviour, agreed to pay the 450 original union members their full unpaid wages up until October 1989, and living expenses for the 150 current members of the union. This represented a total settlement of two billion won ($2.8 million).
A report by the Pacific-Asia Resource Centre in Tokyo.