My Mother is a Tractor - Chapter 5
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Economic Bubbles and the Salaryman’s Vomit…
What do we want our kids to do? Sweep up around Japanese computers?
- Walter F. Mondale
We walked out from our hotel, the very salubrious Hyatt - that was most recently made famous by the movie ‘Lost in Translation’. A word of thanks to Japanese taxpayers is appropriate at this point as I will never be able to afford to stay there myself, nor fly business class most likely. As we wended through Shinjuku station we found the hundreds of homeless living in cardboard boxes. These men, but no women, I guessed were an obvious sign of the recent economic decline in Japan after the bursting of the ‘bubble economy’. Since I arrived in Japan the problem has not improved but become even greater and more institutionalized. In Kawasaki, outside of Tokyo the homeless have, “erected scores of wooden shacks, neatly spaced, with locks and, sometimes, ornamented windows and doors. As a sign of the suburban life many had led, some have transformed tiny patches of land into gardens. Many keep dogs and have bicycles. Others sit in lawn chairs in front of their shacks, reading novels.” These homeless have become easy targets for Japan’s newly disaffected youth and assaults are soaring. Youth arrested have apparently told the police that they were “killing time,” “getting rid of stress” and “disposing of society’s trash.”
On the other hand, some families on ever-reducing low-incomes are experiencing such extreme poverty that there have even incredibly been some cases of mothers and their children dying from malnutrition. One such case was reported in February 2005 when a 27-year-old mother and her three-year-old son were found starved to death in their apartment near Tokyo. Police sadly reported that there was no food left in the apartment and the woman only had a sparse eight yen left in her purse.
Students of economics will remember how Japan’s economy never missed a beat after the stock market crash of 1987 that had sent other major economies into a tailspin. Bloated by the excesses of towering land prices, political kickbacks, and money leant to dubious projects and criminal gangs, Japan Inc. was considered to be on its way to being the world’s number one economy. Japan could do no wrong and the idea was floated that corporate Japan could “…wind up owning the Grand Canyon, the Lincoln Memorial, and the New York Stock Exchange - and still have enough left over to buy Latin America.” Though why they would want to do any of that is beyond me. Just chalk it up to notions of insecure paranoia. The covers of TIME screamed headlines like, ‘Super Japan’, ‘Yen Power’ and ‘How to cope with Japan’s business invasion’. History shows that the 1990’s, now known as Japan’s ‘lost decade’, brought something very different. By 1992 TIME’s covers now led with headlines such as, ‘Japan’s Recession, Why the powerhouse will never be the same’, ‘Japan’s new anxiety’ and ‘The mighty fall’.
This was perhaps to the relief of some of the other major economic powers. This was most noticeable in America where business and political leaders spent most of the 1980’s frothing at their mouths and reading a steady stream of best-selling books on Japanese management that were cranked out faster than Toyota minivans. Nowadays they are blaming the Chinese instead. However I have yet to see any management books based on the financial sophistication or enlightening precepts of The Great Leap Forward, Cultural Revolution or crowd-control in Tiananmen Square.
I read recently that Japan’s economy of the early 21st Century was likened to a driver thrown from a speeding car. As the country’s politicians and bureaucrats, playing the metaphorical role of paramedics, attend to the driver at the side of the road, they have many difficult decisions in their treatment. There are just so many complex choices to be made, and done in the right order, if the patient is to survive. Some skeptics may insinuate a priest and last rites may be more appropriate. However by 2004 the share market had begun to show some life and some optimism was returning at last.
However with continuing economic fears and concerns about the soundness of financial institutions, the Japanese appear to be hoarding more money under their futons. The amount of cash in circulation reached a record ¥75.5 trillion (USD$70 trillion) at the end of 2002, central bank figures showed. The total number of bank notes on issue amounted to ¥13.03 billion. According to the Nihon Keizai News, if this money was stacked it would be 345 times taller than Mount Fuji and if lined up end to end, it would go around the globe about fifty times.
Mixed amongst the homeless were salarymen (office workers and businessmen) obviously just too drunk or broke to go home. One lay on his back on a bench - his tie askew, his briefcase still firmly clutched in his fist and…his front covered in vomit. Even on a Sunday night there were many of these salarymen (and their accompanying O.L.’s – office ladies) out late in their suits drinking and standing around. To the uninitiated (e.g., me) it resembled an invasion of Asian Mormons.
In the days of the booming ‘bubble economy’ a salaryman would work hard for at least ten hours, usually more, and then stay out even later with their colleagues drinking and talking shop. Traditionally the three words they would utter, and nothing else, to their devoted spouses when they eventually came through their highly mortgaged front door, or if, in the case of the previously mentioned souls, would be meshi, furo, neru (meal, bath, bed). If feeling particular chatty they might also add biru, terebi (beer, TV - usually baseball). Since the collapse of the economy Japanese women in the 1990’s stampeded out of the kitchen and into the workforce, no longer happy to practice gaman (self denial) and be dependent upon the patronage of what used to be called the nure ochiba zoku (‘wet leaf tribe’).
However it often seems that the Japanese would rather let their economy stagnate than send their women up the corporate ladder. Traditionally Japanese companies hire almost exclusively men to fill career positions, reserving short term and casual places, mostly clerical tasks and tea serving, for women. Resistance to expanding women’s professional and/or managerial roles remains high in a country where the economic status of women trails far behind that of women in other advanced economies. While forty percent of Japanese women now work - a figure that reflects their rapid, recent entry into the job market - they hold only about nine percent of managerial or authoritative positions in industry compared to about forty-five percent in America. To top it off, women’s wages are only about sixty-five percent of those of their male counterparts, one of the largest gaps in the industrial world.
Nonetheless, despite the seeming non-threat from the fairer sex, this has caused quite some consternation in such a male dominated society. One example of this ascendancy was that it took more than thirty years to legalise birth control pills, yet only a few months to approve Viagra. Yet, if you saw some of the men who buy the product you might wonder why. In a metaphorical sense I think it would be similar to sticking a new flagpole on a condemned building.
Also, with the collapsing status of the Japanese corporate warrior and its promise of lifetime employment, salarymen must stretch themselves to simply avoid being sacked. Salarymen used to be so devoted to their employers they would report for work through snow, sleet and brain surgery. It reminded me of a former fellow employee. One morning the phone rang out and the ensuing conversation went something like this,
“Hi Nic, it’s Mark. I won’t be able to come in today.”
“What’s the problem?”
“I had an accident on my motorcycle on the way in.”
“So, are you okay?”
“I don’t know. I’m waiting for the ambulance to arrive…”
It was not difficult to envisage Mark pulling his torso, trailing its bloody and bleeding stumps, across the road to a public phone and calling work with his one remaining limb. Back in Japanese society in light of the vast sea-change that is now occurring, the groups of dark-suited company men that can be seen walking everywhere two or three abreast, chain-smoking and heads bowed, are now viewed as iketenai (uncool) and nasakenai (clueless).
Young men in particular are now rebelling against the traditional ‘give it all for the corporation’ type sacrifices of their fathers and grandfathers, and having a succession of jobs, many of them casual and part-time. These ‘rebels’ are referred to as freeter – a combination of ‘free’ and arbeiter, the German word for ‘worker’. But increasingly, the members of this swelling army of temporary workers is realizing that ‘freeterism’ is a most likely in reality a sugarcoated way of marginalising Japan’s new generation and cutting wages and benefits.
Reports state that a decade ago, four job openings awaited each graduate of a Japanese high school that was looking for work. Since that time the number of job-seeking high school graduates has plummeted by two-thirds (roughly four hundred thousand people) because of falling birth rates. Despite this, there is now barely one opening for each student who wants a job. In the late 1990’s, ninety percent of Japanese high school students who sought work after their March graduation had a job lined up by late January. However by 2002 the job placement rate had fallen to 75 percent, the lowest on record. Now it is not uncommon to see university graduates taking positions that once went to high school leavers. The whole Japanese concept of collective good and wa (harmony) appears to now being slowly being sacrificed on the new altars of individualism, materialism and personal happiness.
Despite all this Japan is still the world’s second largest economy, a veritable country mile ahead of the third placegetter, Germany. Not that Germany is not without its own economic troubles. In fact Japan could remain in a withering economic funk for a further few years, even endure another deep recession or two, and the worst case scenario might be that it slips to Number Three – not exactly the end of the world you would think. The Japanese are talented beyond belief and anyone can have a bad decade, or two.
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