I can always recall one of my earliest childhood memories of my “awakening” to Japan as a “modern country”, and not just as a land of the rising sun full of ninjas and samurai (TV can be a convincing media).
I was born and raised in the small town of Wednesbury in the UK. A village for most of its existence, when the Industrial revolution picked nearby Birmingham up and propelled it to Industrial “workshop of the world” Wednesbury was swept along in the pandemonium. Soon the banks of canals filled with barges laden fresh with coal for Birmingham’s roaring industries; brimmed to the edge with factories, workshops and steel mills – the modern age had arrived for this small town.
But history was not to be kind to Wednesbury. As fast as Industry had giveth life to the town it took it away. Post-war, as in other areas, British industrial output crumbled under the weight of cheaper foreign imports and factory closures, mass unemployment and mass unenjoyment soon followed. However as soon as the 90s began where once stood steel mills now stood shops, as the old abandoned land which once rang day and night to the sound hammers pounding steel now thronged with the crowds of Middle-England – row upon row of cars filled to impossibility with flat pack furniture and kitchen fittings crawling along the asphalt.
But that’s a story for another time, so let’s return to that 12 year old wide-eyed Wednesbury child – the most exotic thing in his life being an Indian curry. I clearly remember my father telling me about how his friend has been to Japan only to return flabbergasted, astounded by its neon metropolis and futurisms.
“Everything they have is at least 10 years advanced of anything we have over here”
That was it. That was all I needed. Japan from that point on cemented itself into my mind as certain kind of futuristic utopia. Everyday chores need not trouble, as your trusty robot would carry out those tasks. The flow of information is electronically controlled as everyday devices and appliances speak with each other to optimise your daily routines for maximised – Japanese style – efficiency. The age of men was over.
Fast forward 8 years and a fresh faced university first year me steps off a plane and onto Japanese soil for the first time. The wait was over. Soon I would arrive at my apartment and I could haul my bags over to Fido the robo-dog (he would have them sorted out in a flash). Meanwhile I could get on with whatever high-tech futuristic business that I had to get on with (I’m sure there would be something…).
Fast Forward to Reality:
Opening an account at the bank
“I’m sorry Sir, I am afraid that this name stamp appears to be a plastic one and in accordance with our rules we only accept wooden ones for our forms.”
“Can’t I just sign it?”
“I’m very sorry sir but I’m afraid we don’t accept signatures”
“But surely it is easier for someone to just steal a stamp, be it wooden or plastic, and use that in my name than to study my signature and try to forge it?”
“I’m sorry sir but you see, these are the rules”
Walking through a subway station
“Sorry for the inconvenience, but please be careful of the maintenance works”
– Shouts the helmet clad baton waving worker standing in front of a temporary built wall, guiding me via sight and sound so I don’t walk into said wall (this, is his job).
I could go on. But I think you may get the point.
WELCOME TO JAPAN LAND OF THE RISING SUN BUREAUCRACY AND RULES
While Japan may not be that futuristic utopia I dreamed of, it is to a certain degree more technologically advanced compared to other western countries. Its clockwork efficient trains and superbly interlinked rail networks, with all travel payable electronically via smart cards, contrast sharply to the British rail network – wheezing and spluttering along the passenger is assumed to be a vagrant unless proven otherwise (via presentation of a paper ticket, with no real way of authenticating point of sale). But I digress…
Japan has an unfathomable occasional reliance on low-tech, amidst a wealth of high-tech, and the problem, as I see it, lies in rules. More rules than you can shake a stick at (which in itself may or may not be subject to authorisation by the relevant authorities via submission of [shaking a stick at rules form 1-a] and/or [-1b]).
Modern day Japan was built on rules. Rules in the workplace, at home, at school, outside, inside, in the bath house, in the tea house, everywhere else. The societal structure they created facilitated the conformity and mass efficiency which was a vital component in both the Meiji Restoration and post war era Japan, enabling Japan‘s economy to go from samurai to salary man, from bust to boom.
“We have met the enemy and they are ours”
–Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry, 1813
But here within lies the problem. The very structured society of rules which raised Japan up would ultimately betray her. When Japan’s economic bubble burst in the late 80’s and Japan was hurled into a period of stagnation and economic despair, the rules now thus became a cage. The rules forbid you to change the rules, written and unwritten. Spoken and unspoken. For better or for worse.
Faced with tough economic realities back home many Japanese firms, now having to compete in an ever developing and competitive global economy, crawl tentatively back into their shells; the hierarchical structured institution which is the Japanese company working to stifle the voices urging to take risk in favour of those calling for the safe road.
They watch and wait as Chinese counterparts stride vehemently ahead. Similarly the regimented company works to oppress talent and diversity in the workplace by submitting to the male dominated age-structured hierarchy, few companies willing to break the mould and promote people based on ability (instead of years spent in the company).
An ageing population heralds a demographic crisis leading to a shortage of care workers and nurses. The Japanese government tries to solve the situation by inviting hundreds of care workers and nurses from Southeast Asia on short term contracts with the right to stay longer – if they pass a test. Most do not, and so return home, disheartened. Rules are rules.
August 2009 and the Democratic Party of Japan sweeps into power with a landslide election that would smash the Liberal Democratic Party’s almost unbroken run of 60 years in government. The DPJ promises change, and hopes are high. Real change in Japan-US relations, real change in the economy, radical social reforms, taking the political decision making process away from the hands of the bureaucracy and its civil servants and putting it back into the hands of the politicians… Nothing could stop the DPJ now. Well, except for that pesky bureaucracy and its civil servants that is.
The DPJ had practically publicly declared all-out war on the ministries and the bureaucrats, a heaving behemoth which through its system of elite university graduates had orchestrated political policy throughout most of the post-war period and the rebuilding of the Japanese economy; the organ grinder to the political monkeys if you will. If you don’t already know I don’t believe it will be much of a surprise to hear how this turned out; imagine a pile up in rush hour on the motorway and you may be along the right lines. The DPJ had failed to take into consideration that the bureaucrats were not exactly going to “take it lying down” so to speak. Ensued months of flip-flopping over political decisions, going backwards and forwards on key policies leading to public embarrassment and approval ratings hitting the floor, and then going down some more for good measure. The system and its rules had won again, this time even destroying the very will of the people.
Fast forward more than twenty years on from the bursting of the bubble and over a year from the ousting of the DPJ from power and maybe we are seeing the sun starting to break through the clouds. Just maybe.
Abenomincs has breathed new life and confidence into Japanese business and the economy seems to be heading to a brighter place. In recent years some Japanese firms have made numerous large acquisitions of foreign companies or have been increasingly following expansionist plans focused on foreign markers – Suntory, Uniqlio, and Softbank to name just a few. Also at the political level even Prime Minister Abe has made reform and workplace equality key political messages. Has the cage started to break under the pressure of a lost generation? Or are we just seeing a fleeting burst of sunshine, only for the storm clouds to gather and the rain to begin again..
I do not know.
But what I do know, finally getting back to my point, is that rules in Japan have a funny way of clinging on to the past; grasping for dear life amidst the winds of change – on to that which is familiar. I am ever amazed each time the piece of paper (the kairan, i.e “circular”) which makes its inevitable slug around the office, from desk to desk, salary man to salary man (in order of seniority and yes man, and not woman), being hammered with the red ink of the hanko (name stamp) along every stop of its journey. Usually its contents are half read or ignored, but what is important is that is it must be stamped – these are the rules. In this day of smart phones and computers god forbid they would consider replacing this daily ritual with a computerized system..
(On a side note, I would get a telling off if I did not stamp the kairan, but what makes this all the more confusing is that being the youngest in the office it is I who stamps last, therefore it is also I who must dispose of it, I who only ever sees my little red stamp…).
However, at the end of the day despite the rules, regulations, and things which I do not understand – I am still that 12 year old wide-eyed Wednesbury child, and Japan will always have that special in my heart. So they can throw all the forms at me they think I can take. With not even so much as a grimace shall I jump through the hoops they set me. Because let’s face it, this is Japan and Japan rules.