After I wrote that last post complaining about various aspects of life here in Japan, I discovered a book that summed pretty much every observation I've had since I came here. In "Shutting out the Sun," Michael Zielenziger discusses a confused and stifling society that was unprepared for the modernity it encounters today. He explains everything from why Japanese people don't help strangers who slip on the sidewalk to why middle aged, middle income people who can't afford their own homes spend hordes on Louis Vuitton bags.
Japan thrived in the democracy and capitalism thrust upon her after World World II through highly bureaucratic and rigid structures, without undergoing transformations in understanding Japan's place as part of a broader world. Japan's rigid triangle of bureaucrats, politicians, and government-sponsored corportions combines with a closed mindset regarding Japan's uniqueness. The government continues to refuse or make it difficult for foreign investors and firms to get a hold in the economy. In the new world, amidst the globalization accelerated by the internet, Japan's economy is in decline (though it's still the worlds second largest).
People live a consumeristic life rife with foreign products, without truly envisaging a Japan that exchanges both products and ideas with the rest of the world. A confusing blend of rituals and beliefs of the past incongruosly vie with modern life. A focus on national economic ends means people give all their time and energy to corporations, creating their identity from who they work for. A decline in the economy has been associated with disillusionment of this idea. Now, people don't have an intense connection to beliefs of the past, nor an intimate enough understanding of any modern ideas that could replace them. People continue to act as if only the corporate body matters, even though a career no longer brings with it a life-time community, or a hermetic group identity as it once did. People have the concept of individuality without the societal sanction and personal means to explore it. Hence the million or so young men who lock themselves in their rooms in favour of facing the corporate world. Hence the tens of thousands who kill themselves each year because they let the group down in some way, or simply couldn't express their individual stress or depression.
The society that so stresses homogeneity and group identity has yet to come to terms with individuals who selectively commit to group values - such as women who choose to work and not have children. The society that so stresses division of the sexes provides no networks for men and women to develop casual (and romantic) relationships, despite the fact that people no longer have the institution of arranged marriage to assist them. The closedminded society continues to aggressively limit immigration, despite the low birthrate that decreases the population by ten thousand people each year. Intelligent, creative, emotive people commit themselves to slow-moving, lifeless drudgery of innummerable professions at the expense of a developed network of family and friends, and creative and challenging personal lives outside work. People no longer feel a strong enough connection to their select groups, and yet cultural mores continue to inhibit the ability to trust outsiders and make new connections (people who slip on the sidewalk are outsiders, and so not one's responsibility to help).
Fear of dischord makes it difficult for any one (at university, in the government, in the press) to invite ideas of significant change. Nobody particularly desires whale meat, but the government refuses to cease hunting. Rigidity and fear of change mean that, even once proposed, changes are frightfully slow. Zielenziger sees a cultural malaise that stifles personal intellect, creativity, and meaning in life through anything but consumerism, hence the Louis Vuitton bags. The same malaise prevents the nation from truly opening up to new ideas, foreign investment, and immigrants who could help support the decreasing and rapidly aging population.
The dissonance between stated ideal and reluctance to change means Japan spends the most of all Asian countries on English studies, and yet continually scores among the lowest. Most people don't seem able to actually consider english a tool to connect Japan with much of the rest of the world. English tudors and extra lessons are just one more thing to buy.
[Japan doesn't have to 'open up' to the world if it doesn't want to. However, Zielenziger points out that the trends he sees are detrimental to many of the individuals who make up the Japanese nation.]