The population of Japan in the year 3000 if the current fertility rates continue (according to Thunder from the East page 16)

More Japan by Numbers here.


Japanese myths – Hard work and saving come naturally


“Japan is good example of the problems based on immutable culture. The Japanese are renowned today for their high savings rates, for their discipline and commitment to hard work and high quality. But a century ago, Japan’ savings rates were far lower than in the West. Likewise, foreigners used to be firmly agreed on the laziness and incompetence of Japanese workers. In 1881, a foreigner wrote in a Yokohama newspaper: ‘The Japanese are a happy race, and being content with little are not likely to achieve much.’ As late as 1915, an Australian expert told the Japanese government: ‘My impression as to your cheap labour was soon disillusioned when I saw your people at work. No doubt they are lowly paid, but the return is equally so; to see men at work made me feel that you are very satisfied, easygoing race who reckon time is no object. When I spoke to some managers they informed me that it was impossible to change the habits of national heritage.”

Thunder from the East page 132

The question then is, in good JapanExplained style, why the change happened. Mainly, it was a fabulous piece of social engineering where the government, starting in Meiji times, made up a version of the samurai spirit and convinced the whole country that it was their duty to live up to it, despite the peasant, merchant and later working class cultures having had nothing in common with it.

For more common bollocks about Japan, see here.

Why do Japanese wives love complaining about their men? 2nd attempt

This is very noticeable, or even shocking, when you teach Japanese housewives particularly if you expect them to avoid personal topics completely. It is even more common is group classes with other housewives, so it is not (just?) social norms being broken because a gaijin is in the room. In my first attempt, I therefore came up with complex arguments based on modesty and such-like. Might be, however, that they simply do have more to complain about:

“One survey that asked married men and women in thirty-seven countries about their views on politics, sex, religion and other issues found that Japanese couples ranked dead last in compatibility, by a huge margin. Another survey revealed that if they were doing it over again, only one third of Japanese would marry the same person”

Thunder from the East page 176

The next question is then, of course, why they are so incompatible…

Why are Japanese politicians so useless?

Not that I can point to any country which would set a particularly good model, but here goes being specific about Japan anyway…

“No major country has such a capacity to produce nonentities as prime ministers as Japan, but the problem is not so much the individuals as the political structure. Traditionally in postwar Japan, economic affairs were run by bureaucrats in the government ministries, and foreign and security policies were determined by Washington, so there was not much for politicians to do except to take bribes from construction companies and build bullet train lines in their home districts”

Thunder from the East page 87

I’m not convinced that is the biggest factor. Most of the Japanese elite are not attracted to politics because it is not a high status job (due to scandals etc), and also doesn’t have the much sought after job security and peace of mind (anzen-anshin). Then it got stuck in a vicious circle of worse people reducing the status of the job even more.

The public sector did attract the elite because it was a well-paid job for life and had high status due to, amongst other things, getting most of the kudos for the postwar expansion of the Japanese economy. As scandals hit bureaucrats too, pay lagged far behind the private sector, and the bureaucrats seemed more of the problem in the economy etc than the solution, the elite job became a well-paid job in a big Japanese company instead. And as the ability of the mandarins decreased, so did the pull for others to work in the same jobs, etc.

I’m not saying these factors are exclusive to Japan, just that they push in different directions at different times in other countries. If you were a computer whizzkid moving to a startup in the 1990s, you’d probably swear that it was just due to improved job satisfaction. So the fact that everyone thinks it is really cool and the wave of the future, and that people stuck in middle management in IBM are being teased stupid by their friends is just coincidence, is it?? Who knows, more scandals and downsizing reducing Toyota etc in the public esteem and the same thing could happen in Japan. Perhaps…

Why won’t the Japanese reform their economy?

Although they were probably expecting too much from very limited reforms, there is a general consensus that the Koizumi reforms did more harm than good, and the Koreans have already undone most of the IMF imposed free market reforms without any seeming bad effects for the same reasons. Generally, though, it has to be due to looking at other countries which are apparently doing better like America and China and thinking that they really don’t want to be less like this and more like that.

This is supposed to be a criticism of Japan, but it sounds more like a perfect understanding of why they shouldn’t throw it all away until they truly find a better model to aim for:

“Japan remains deeply committed at a fundamental level to certain pleasant inefficiencies, such as companies that are loyal to employees and do not throw them away like old socks… and subsidies for people living in remote areas” 

“Japan, in short, has fostered a gentle brand of capitalism, so that mercy does indeed seem to ‘droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven,’ as Shakespeare wrote. But Shakespeare never pondered the plight of a country with such a flood of mercy that it cannot restructure its economy. The effort to run a country as if it were a Disney movie is deeply admirable but hopelessly naive, and so Japan today abounds with charm but not much efficiency”

Thunder from the East pages 322, 323 and 324

“Gentle capitalism”, eh? God forbid! Anyone want to point out to the writers that (non-English speaking) Northern Europe not only works the same way, but actually has a welfare state that allows women to continue working and people to consider having kids? Perhaps that being a model that Japan can actually look up to is why Kan has mentioned the vague plan of producing a welfare state. And perhaps having critics such as these who think that Japan should rely on China for all its food by cutting agricultural subsidies and take away the supports that keep people off the minimal benefits that exist makes the Japanese ignore the much more sensible ideas of not supporting big and/ or failing businesses and not ruining the country with yet more concrete

Why is the playing time of a CD 74 minutes 42 seconds?

“Because its Japanese developers were determined that it be stretched long enough to contain Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, a huge seller in Japan” From Thunder in the East: Portrait of a Rising Asia, an interesting book I have a feeling I’ll be quoting more from.

Of course, that answer just prompts another question, which is “Why is Beethoven’s Ninth so popular in Japan?”

Here are some possible answers?

1. “It’s a mystery even for the Japanese why it’s so popular,” Suzuki said. “I think a lot of people in Japan sympathize with Beethoven. He was not a happy person, in constant agony, and that attracts people.”

2. “I’ve heard a lot of theories,” said Kerry Candaele, who is making a documentary on the cultural influence of the Ninth around the world. “Someone told me that it’s the only time that Japanese women are allowed to scream.

“But I think it really has to do with a coming together as equals, of climbing this musical mountain together. In a way, it represents a kind of utopianism.”

Both from this article in the LA Times

Personally, I just think it’s the connection to the New Year. That, of course, poses another question…

Why do the Japanese not speak better English? 2nd attempt

Finally found a written source that agrees with my own favourite theory:

“Not only do they not practice speaking English, but they do not wish to become too good at it for fear of becoming outcasts in their own society. I have found that business-people from the newly industrializing economies speak much better English, mainly because in their societies they get positive reinforcement for speaking English”

Gaishi- The Foreign Company in Japan, pg xx

Here is my first attempt over on my English teaching blog TEFLtastic:

Why do the Japanese not speak better English?

Why is the foreign source of something often still marked in Japanese words?

The one that always surprises me is youfuku (洋服ー ようふく- Western clothes) when it would seem to be more sensible nowadays to mark out the very rarely worn Japanese clothes for a special name, but there are a few more such as using gaisha (外車ーがいしゃ- car from outside, or foreign car) much more than “foreign car” or “imported car” would be used in any other language I know.

The book I’m reading says that gaisha is a way of showing off because even recently non-Japanese cars were rare and almost always expensive imports (Korean cars and European hatchbacks being rarely if ever sold here), but I’m not convinced that this is still a factor, even if it was in 1990 when Gaishi- The Foreign Company in Japan was written. I also don’t think that 1% of Japanese using the word youfuku are actually thinking of jeans or a suit as foreign. Maybe it is simply that two kanji expressions like this are just two syllables and so as easy to say as kuruma (車ー くるまー car), if not easier.

Why are people more fascinated with Japan than Korea?

There is little point in talking about the fundamental appeal of the countries as they are now, but I’ve come up with some possible historical explanations:

– Japan opened up to the world just as Chinoiserie was getting old hat, making Japanisme a sure fire hit. By the time that Korea also opened up, the last thing people wanted was yet another Asian fashion boom

– Like it or not, military success (even of your enemies) has a certain appeal. Just as the Nazis are much more interesting for the Hitler Channel (“affectionate” nickname of the History Channel) than the sufferings of the Dutch, the military exploits of the first Asian country to defeat a European one are much more interesting to read about, both as fiction and history, than the litany of victimhood that is the Korean past.

– Ditto for the militaristic Samurai and the bureaucratic Yangban, or at least the self image of them

– The economic growth of Korea is even more impressive than that of Japan, but happened when the Japanese overtaking the US made the news much more than the Koreans rapidly coming up behind.

– Korea simply doesn’t lend itself to the simplistic one line explanations that have spawned a million bullshit but still readable books about Japan

– Much of what we think we appreciate as exotic Japanese art (such as late ukiyoe, manga, Murakami Haruki, Kurosawa movies, and contemporary Japanese art) is much more affected by Western influence and therefore palatable to us than we might think

– Other examples of the Japanese just getting there first while we were still interested, such as Akira Kurosawa being the first Asian to win a big cinematic prize

– The conscious selling of Japanese culture by the Japanese government and business. The Koreans have mainly concentrated on selling their own pop music and soap operas to other Asian countries, a market with some understandable resistance to the Japanese, leaving the Japanese to take over the west

– Some random influences, like Memoirs of a Geisha, Shogun and The Last Samurai being the right kind of populist escapist tosh at the right time. They could just as easily have been based in Korea, but they just weren’t. Unfortunately for the Koreans, each random happening like that sets up another whole generation of people who are fascinated by Japan and so more likely to support the next Japan based Western cultural product rather than a

– Just as the Japanese economy was sinking and anyway becoming a story that had been covered to death and the Korean economic miracle looked like becoming newsworthy, the Chinese economy opened up and the film industry took off, making for a cultural version of most of their historical overshadowing

Why the brutality in Japanese POW camps? 2nd attempt

“[Unlike European knights], the samurai had no code of chivalry toward women, nor were they motivated by religious ideals… Most important, where the knights of medieval Europe saw mercy as a virtue, the samurai held it in contempt” Read the rest of this entry »

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