Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Cultural Contributions - part 1

In the comments section of one of my other posts, Michael asked me what I felt was Japan's cultural direction and/or contribution to the rest of the world and whether or not I believed that Japan was headed in one direction or another or just wandering aimlessly. I wrote a long and involved answer thinking all the while that maybe a post would be a better way to answer it and, as I was reviewing my answer in a preview, Blogger disconnected me and trashed the entire reply. So, I concluded that fate had intervened and maybe a post (which will auto-save as I work on it) would be a better way to answer this interesting question.

Before I get to the answer(s), I'd like to make it clear that I'm only offering a perspective and an opinion and I'm not presenting myself as any sort of definitive expert on this topic. To be honest, I think no one, even a researcher on culture, is really qualified to answer it because it's too vast a question covering much of the world. Even if you could be well-versed in the movement of a culture, you couldn't be well-versed on the impact that culture has had world-wide without the perspective of a lot more history. Life is simply too short. So, before undies become tightly-wadded and keyboards grow hot with venomous rebuttals, keep in mind that these are just a few ideas from someone who has lived here awhile doing her best to answer a question a nice fellow asked her. Feel free to offer your ideas as well in the comments, but remember that none of us are any more qualified than the rest of us in this regard, no matter how confident we may be in our status as armchair experts on Japan and that any jerks will be bounced in comment moderation. Without further adieu, I will finally get to the point.

I arrived in Japan during the last few years of its economic bubble. For those who are not well-versed in what this is, I will tell you that Japan enjoyed a brief time when their economy expanded rapidly and it seemed they had a Midas touch when it came to making successful products. Those who are outside of Japan may remember it as the time when Japan went around buying up real estate and pricey artwork around the world and people in the U.S. started smashing Japanese-made goods in protest of how bad their success was making us look. Money was so plentiful in Japan at that time that local governments were thinking of ways to waste the money they were raking in, possibly on gold-plated statues and what-not. The perception was that the Japanese were a force to be reckoned with that could eventually unseat the U.S. as the biggest economic power in the world.

Being here when the bubble started was a good time for expatriates. Wages for teachers were high and conditions relatively cushy, both because the Japanese had money to burn. It was before everyone and his brother came here to work for a year or so and the market wasn't as saturated. The Japanese you taught were generally pretty arrogant about Japan's superior work ethic, education system, and product quality. This attitude was famously parodied in various comedy programs as Western actors pretended to be Japanese and denounced Americans as lazy, stupid, and incapable of making high quality products. While this attitude wasn't necessarily shoved in our faces all the time, it wasn't hidden or subdued when the topic happened to come up. If you have lived in Japan for any length of time, you know that humbleness and subtlety are the order of the day and, for anyone to express superiority in an overt fashion is not the norm.

The bubble eventually burst as the personal computer and Internet boom were peaking over the horizon. Japan still lead the world in cars, televisions, personal stereo equipment and VCRs, but it didn't have a toehold in the burgeoning computer business. As Japanese electronics companies struggled to make their mark in the computer industry, and only Sony really got a decent footing internationally and NEC domestically, the smug started to wear off of the Japanese sense of superiority. Instead of leading the world, they were starting to follow, and feeling a bit like they couldn't keep up.

It's not like Japan wasn't still owning or doing well in certain markets like console gaming systems and cell phones, but rather that the money was no longer being dumped at their feet in huge piles and they were being edged out of new markets and seeing demand for their old market goods wither. As time went by, the superior attitudes I experienced when I first arrived vanished and were replaced by expressions of concern about a certain level of inferiority when it came to adjusting to the demands of the marketplace and their ability to innovate. In particular, a lot of the old Japanese businesses who made a strong mark domestically started to have stronger concerns about brand awareness and being able to meaningfully break into world markets.

I wasn't here before the bubble, but based on what I know about what Japanese culture values in terms of personality, I wonder if this was a full circle for Japan. That is, from post-war defeat and feelings of inferiority to smug and superior and back to feelings of inferiority. The puff up didn't last all that long from a historical view. However, in terms of lasting impressions, I believe Japan has left its mark. For one thing, people used to associate Japan with the sort of cheap, low quality goods which are currently associated with China. I would be surprised if the image of Japan as a producer of efficient, high technology, small, and well-designed goods changed any time in the near future.

In terms of the question I was asked about the direction Japan is headed, I think that there are a lot of possibilities, but my best guesses are:
  • Japan will continue to be associated with high technology and particularly with robotics. I think it will make this move because of the diminishing population and a desire to compensate for a lack of labor with mechanical assistance. I don't think it will make it's mark in homes worldwide with its technology as I don't believe that the Japanese developers can accurately market domestic products abroad as the needs of those living in Japan are different from those in other countries and most developers lack cross-cultural experience. I do believe they will license their core technologies and have a heavy influence on industry worldwide.
  • Japan will gradually (and reluctantly) start to attempt to integrate more foreigners into the population. This change will occur at a glacial pace in terms of actual rights and acceptance of foreigners, but a faster pace in allowing more (legal) manual labor from Asian countries. I think it will continue to be seen around the world as insular. The population will continue to consider being Japanese as a matter of blood rather than of breeding.
  • Japan will continue to be seen as America's lackey though it will very, very slowly inch away from that position as the U.S.'s status world-wide diminishes. However, until the North Korean political situation looks a bit less intimidating, Japan will continue to allow the U.S.'s foreign policy to heavily influence it and it will not be seen as any sort of world leader politically.
Generally speaking, I think Japan will continue in the same direction as it has for years now. That is, it will remain irrelevant in shaping policies or playing a part in world leadership and tend to follow wherever the stronger powers go. I think Japan will continue for a long time to come to be relatively insular and more interested in isolating themselves while still availing themselves of the advantages of being a part of the world market.

(to be continued)


A Joe said...

Interesting article.

With an extensive pension system, I wonder if Japanese are as savings-inclined as other Asian culture.

In U.S. a culture of Social Security has encouraged consumer spending as people dump more into disposable income. In most Asian countries, government sponsored pension is unheard of.

Japan has always been an early adapter to Western policies when it comes to social engineering issues like these. Likewise, I have an impression that the Japanese people have a very high amount of disposable income due to this mentality.

What's your take on this?

tornados28 said...

The global economy makes old ideas not too relevant anymore. Japan's bubble burst and yet Toyota is on the verge becoming the largest auto manufacturer in the world.

Their population is declining but this is leading to new innovations in robotics. Innovations that will probably have applications around the world, even in countries with expanding populations such as the USA.

The one thing that does concern me though is the shrinking population and its impact on the domestioc economy. Fewew people means fewer shoppers, fewer amusement park guests, fewer people eating in restaurants, fewer pachinko players.

Kanagawa G said...

Interesting post.

In response to "a joe said..." I would like to say that many Japanese have larger disposable incomes due to living with extended families. Now that the number of nuclear families is increasing, the amount of disposable income is as well. This can be seen in the large amount of private lending firms. New ones seem to pop up every day.

I'm looking forward to a shrinking population...maybe I can buy a big country house one the cheap!

Toyota is becoming the world's largest automaker despite continued Japanese recession due to decisions made on all levels. Some people got rich during the Greeat Depression, too.

a joe said...

I'm unsure of the meaning to your 'nuclear' families comment. Maybe more families are possessing WMDs and are selling annuities off them? LOL

But, in my humble gestimation, I think what you mean is that children are moving in with parents thus the younger generations can save rent and have more to spend on disposable/luxury goods.

This probably goes true for most of other Asian countries. One of the interesting phenomenon I see in Asia besides Japan is that old folks do tend to live with the young and some housings are designed to accomodate three generations.

But, in generalization, asians have a moral responsibility to support their parents. What you're seeing there is young adults are actually moving their parents in to their house, not vice versa.

On the flip side, many adults also are savings inclined just in case when they become of old age their children cannot support them and there's no government nor any guaranteed pension available.

Thus, with government sponsored pension, many young Tokyo working adults I've talked to said they see no need in private savings. They typically pay the government pension tab and spend the rest of their earnings to enrich their respective life-styles.

Kanagawa G said...

I just realised that I phrased my response poorly. It should read, Now that the number of nuclear families is INCREASING the amoung of disposable income is DECREASING. However, young people do tend to mooch off of their parents well into their late 20s or even 30s.

a joe said...

Interesting observations. g-

It's been estimated that the number of 'NEETs' (Not in Employment Education or Training) in Tokyo exceeds 1 million people.

For those who are unfamiliar with the term, it's an official name for people who 'mooch' off their parents by either refusing to leave home or living in 25-ish square meter studio rentals that are prevalent throughout Japanese metropolis surviving solely on allowance sent from home.

This puts further strain on Japanese retained income as parents now have to spend what little is left of their salaries on their mooching children, with nothing to put away for their retirement except relying on a government pension system.

Fundamentally, post-modernized Japan is slowly fading as a role model for other Asian countries when it comes to Westernization.

Anonymous said...


I'm very happy that you have decided to write in more depth on this subject and I'm looking forward to Part 2 and beyond. With your 18+ years in Japan and during interesting times indeed, I was hoping and have read about your insightful perspectives on Japanese culture.

I also applaud your courage in tackling this issue, because even with a lengthy disclaimer, I'm quite familiar with the strong feelings that foreigners have about Japan, having lived their 3 out of the last 5 years, and am acutely aware of the wrath they can bring given the anonymity granted by a medium such as the Internet.

On a slightly related topic, I am slowly reading "Japan : An Attempt at Interpretation" by Lafcadio Hearn, written 100 years ago. Having relatively unbiased (aren't we all a little biased?), well educated and well spoken westerners living for great stretches in Japan and the opportunity to learn from that experience is a great blessing.


Shari said...

a Joe: You raise an interesting point about the relationship between pensions and savings. However, I can't say I have very good details about the pension system. All I know is that the government system provides for a very small basic payment (60,000 yen a month) that needs to be supplemented by company pensions. In the U.S., I imagine this is akin to being paid something like $300 a month. It's less than most people could live on.

I tend to think the Japanese save because of a lack of trust in the government in caring for them coupled with a lack of space for copious amounts of material goods (or possibly less of an acquisitive nature in general because advertising here is rather different). Also, Kanagawa G makes an excellent point.

Thanks to all of you for making comments and adding your thoughts!

a joe said...

Do Japanese save by putting away money in savings accounts or in stock markets?

What little interests paid by Japanese banks are easily negated by inflation. If people have excess money where would they put it?