March 11th, 2011 – Tokyo, Japan
My wife’s friend had just stopped over for lunch with her youngest daughter when the house started to slowly sway to-and-fro. No big deal. This was Japan after all, so we were quite used to these kinds of small tremors. That all changed the instant that books, glasses and appliances started flying off the shelves. The girls were already panicked. I didn’t really think it was a big issue until I saw the refrigerator slide across the kitchen floor and my 42-inch plasma TV fell face flat. Houston, we had a serious problem and mother nature was obviously pissed!
Time to head for the pantry with the kids.
In the aftermath of the 9.0M earthquake and following tsunami in Fukushima, which killed over 15,000 people with 6,000 injured and over 3,700 missing while simultaneously destroying six nuclear reactors on Japan’s eastern coastline and causing them to fail to the point of meltdown; many foreign nationals quickly packed-up, abandoned the country and returned to their homes abroad; leaving the rest of the Japanese population with just one question remaining: “What do we do now?”
The answer came much quicker than anyone would have expected and much easier than it really should have. The answer was; “Let’s just do what we’ve always done”.
While this answer was good in many respects in terms of keeping the Japanese population calm, unwavering and faithful to each other in the face of a major natural disaster, the potential future impacts of that answer are what disturb me now.
The Japanese culture for the most part is a very simplistic society; simplistic meaning “highly intelligent but not driven by any specific purpose or goal in life”. I refer to them as a “drifter society”. This is mainly due to the overall outlook of the society as a whole and childhood upbringing. The general rules of thumb in Japan are; “Don’t be different”, “Don’t stand out” and “Don’t want more than what you can see around you – live within your means and live within your space”.
Even in a bustling metropolis like Tokyo; full of partying, nightlife, lights, top fashion; a place where every relevant guy in town owns a Mercedes-Benz and every girl out of Junior High school seems to own a Gucci (or other brand name) handbag; at the end of the day, these rules still apply for most people. Go home, sleep it off, repeat the same process the next day. Japan is a highly methodical and repetitious society. That’s the way most people like it here – which admittedly, really isn’t such a bad deal per say, unless you’re one of those people can see where this pattern will eventually lead and the problems it will cause for future generations in Japan.
Japan is an industrial nation. Most of the island country’s economy is based on manufacturing, production, import and export of goods. With little to no land mass and a huge population, Japan doesn’t have much to offer in the areas of natural resources except those offered by the coastal areas. For the past sixty-plus years, Japan has survived solely on manufacturing and producing advanced technology for other countries.
Herein lies the cause of the cancer that will eventually kill Japan; turning it from a once mighty and indestructible samurai with glistening steel blade and a bright future, into a broken and rotting shell of its former self; still clinging to the tattered handle of a rusted blade that has long since gone dull.
Japan has six major sicknesses that are causing the country and society as a whole to grow weaker by the moment. These weaknesses are:
An aged population of people who really don’t see a need to care about the future. This is because they are pretty sure they are going to die soon anyway and therefore lack the motivation to change anything for future generations. They simply want to keep everything as-is until they pass on to the next world. We will look at how this affects the country on a larger scale in the next few sections.
Low birth rates due to self-imposed financial pressures, most Japanese couples do not try to have children until they reach 30 – 35 years of age. This is because for most Japanese parents-to-be, a baby doesn’t just equal milk and diapers. A baby also means “juku” (cram school) and college among other high level expenses that most parents in various other countries find optional due to the fact that we fully intend to kick our children out of the house when they reach a certain age and force them to fend for themselves to a large degree.
Additionally, the way middle-aged women in Japan work themselves and are treated at their companies is a high point of physical and mental stress, which effectively prevents them from having children. Most Japanese girls will miscarriage their first child due to their bodies being unable to handle their first pregnancy. Their first pregnancy is normally preparation for their second one to be a success. Japanese middle-aged men also have the same problem of being too over-stressed to reproduce. Because of this, the Japanese working class is steadily decreasing on a yearly basis and “skilled labor” being doled out to people who are well into their 50s as the workhorses of a “stable Japanese economy”.
While this is fine to a degree, as the old saying goes; “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks”. New tricks are exactly what Japan needs at the moment due to the next section.
Hierarchical society – The basis of Japan still has not changed in the past 1,000 years. Everything from schools, companies and sports clubs are still following a hierarchical “sempai” and “kouhai” structure (or rather Shogun, retainer) structure where complete loyalty, above that of family obligations is often sworn to a company, club or individual based on the rational explanation than “well, they’ve been around longer and we’ve been doing it this way for years, therefore it must be correct”.
Because of this thinking pattern, younger people with new, innovative ideas that Japan needs in order to survive are often shunned, shut-up or locked away by the older population who are still holding leadership positions within politics and major companies and see no need to change anything; even though they are well over retirement age. The average Japanese male adult will work long after he has retired until he dies. That’s just the norm here. As a result it causes the middle-aged workforce to shrink and more capable middle adults who have good ideas to seek work outside of Japan because they already know that until they reach 45 and have been at the company for 15 years, nothing that they say or recommend will be heard.
Unreliable leadership. Japan has had a total of seven Prime Ministers in 7 years. That’s one Prime Minister per year. I have bicycle tires that last longer than that. Because of the unreliability, indecisiveness and corruption of high level Japanese politicians; other countries are a bit put off to invest in the future of Japan. I mean, who wants to keep changing welcome signs and campaign buttons every 8 months just because another PM gets bored with the job, is caught in a scandal and decides to resign? It ‘s a waste of paper and defies common sense.
This constant shift in politics is just as confusing for the Japanese people as it is for the rest of the world. The problem is, Japanese people don’t say anything about it. Remember those rules I was telling you about? They are in full effect here.
A faulty educational system which doesn’t prepare future generations for dealing with the real world on an international level. Although most Japanese have studied the English language in some form since they were in elementary school, most of them cannot use it in functional day-to-day conversation. Even high school students who are forced to attend “juku” cram classes after school for 3 – 5 hours per day in order to learn English and prepare for college entrance exams cannot effectively use the language in day-to-day basic level conversation.
The fact that traditional schools, colleges and popular English Language Schools like Gaba, ECC, Berlitz and Nova have been making money the past 20 years by teaching the English language to them in a backwards manner while focusing on irrelevant Industrial Age English language skills doesn’t help.
Even in Tokyo, where foreigners abound; most major retails shops cannot communicate with them – the same thing goes for businesses. I’ve seen many Japanese sales clerks and businessmen literally panic and run away from English-speaking customers and potential clients as though Godzilla (not Matsui, the baseball player – I mean the green fire-breathing sea monster)himself had stepped through the door and was asking for a USB cable for his computer. Most Japanese actually fear basic English communication on an instinctual level.
Unfortunately for them, in the age of Information Technology, the English language is currently the standard for business communication and is an absolute necessity for the Japanese population who at this time has no chance of competing with rising previously third world countries such as China, India and Korea who have more land mass, natural resources and a better understanding of international culture than the average Japanese salary man.
In addition to the self-imposed language barriers, most Japanese children are still taught to simply “follow the mold” instead of being encouraged to think differently or be innovative. In the Japanese language, the Chinese characters representing the words different and wrong are exactly the same – “chigau”. That means that on a subconscious level, in Japan different automatically equals wrong; and this is boldly displayed in any Japanese elementary school system or business.
Japanese children don’t grow up with the drive to be different or challenge anything outside of the norm because parents, teachers and society itself make it their mission to resolve any “abnormalities” before the poor kid reaches junior high school so that they can begin processing them for high school, college and eventual assimilation into a “good company”, where they will be expected to work for the rest of their lives until death or retirement.
While this trend is slowly starting to change among younger people in this generation, it is the older people in positions of power that are staving off progress and advances in other areas that Japan needs to explore in order to survive.
Industrial Aged thinking standards in an Information Technology Age world. Most Japanese politicians and corporate executives still have not figured out exactly what happened after the Lehman’s Shock of 2008, which effectively ended the Industrial Age and signaled the ushering-in of the new Information Technology Age.
Because of his, most Japanese companies are still trying to stick to the same rule and standards that they have been using for the past 20 or 30 years.
The majority of my previous business clients in the financial IT industry here in Tokyo are still running severely outdated Windows XP Service Pack 2 operating systems today, even though Mac OSX is obviously a much better and smoother platform for business usage and also provides the option to run the latest version Windows 7. It’s not that these companies don’t have money to upgrade. They’re just afraid to because “it’s different“.
Japanese businesses and politicians simply refuse to change, even though the world around them is changing on a daily basis.
Companies are no longer building physical structures, requiring college degrees / formal education or hiring for on-site administrative positions such as secretaries or IT Engineers because all of these tasks can be managed remotely and for much cheaper costs in countries such as India.
Countries like China and Korea quickly realized this shift in policies many years ago and made the switch by focusing on technology related services and products back in the 1990s in addition to increasing their product manufacturing capacity.
Japan is still trying to produce cars and import parts for producing semiconductors from China with hopes that the industrial market will somehow rebound and return them to their former glory.
That’s why China has now replaced Japan as world’s second largest economy and countries like the U.S. are beginning to invest more in China, Korea and Vietnam instead of Japan.
The rest of the world knows that the lifespan of Industrial Age Japan is severely limited and it’s only a matter of time before the once mighty samurai crumbles; impaling himself on his own rusted sword of industrial age rules and traditions that are no longer applicable in today’s economy or business market.
How does this relate to the first paragraph of this article? In the aftermath of Japan’s earthquake and tsunami, the future of Japan; while seemingly bleak from certain perspectives, is still relatively uncertain. Japan is a country which holds a lot of potential to be a global competitor in today’s market and a major contributor in the Information Technology Age. The good thing about Japanese people in general is that they are very sharp and mentally focused when given a task. When they set their minds on doing something, they tend to push forward and complete their mission without fail and against all odds. That’s one of the things that previously made them such a great and powerful nation. The question now is; where will they choose to focus their energy and attention?
Will the Japanese continue to cling to old, outdated rules, regulations, traditions and economical standards? Or will someone finally take a good look at their children and say; “This is a problem and enough is enough. My time may be coming to an end, but the kids I see running and jumping around me still have a life to live and deserve a better opportunity for their future than what we’ve currently provided for so let’s get to work and fix what needs to be fixed”?
Will the current generation of Japanese adults take responsibility for the future of the next? Or will they simply be content to “leave things as-is” like their predecessors have done for the past few decades and see what happens?
I guess the final question for me is: Will the samurai rise again? Or is his rusted blade too much of a heavy burden for him to lift anymore?
Only time will tell.