A country very familiar to Australians but still so very alien… so weird. A country so synonymous with technology which in fact is still run on paper trails, ink seals, fax machines and ledgers. Internet banking anybody? Online government services? Are you kidding?
Since we moved here, the meandering no-one-really-cares bureaucratic machine that runs Norway, where the person you need to talk to is always on sick-leave the day you go to see them, now seems to us to be a trail blazing, world leading example in simplicity, efficiency and convenience. Here in Japan, every department has a sub-department, another desk in another cranny of another level possibly in another building. In Norway I have one number for my tax, my health care, my registered life — both government and private –and I like it. It makes life easier. And the system has existed for decades. Japan has just started exploring the possibility for establishing some kind of national registry database to possibly be used for taxes, or social benefits, or health-care or all of the above — they haven´t really decided yet. It will no doubt take some years to legislate. Then we can all wish this bastion of technology a belated welcome to the 21st century!
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Now I was born in the late 70s, but the government offices and corporate structures of Japan somehow take me back to the 60s. And I think I understand why. In Japan, you don’t get promoted to any upper levels of management until you are closer to 50. By the time you get there, you have been bowing to your superiors and sharpening pencils for so long that you just want to sit at your desk and do as little as possible to alter the status-quo. All the ways of doing business you learnt 20 years ago, from an older generation. Hell, you just waited 30 years for your dues — why would anyone want to reform anything that may cost them their own job?
Just keep that paper work turning over, and everything will be sweet until you retire and can start traveling like you always wanted to. Because in Japan no one ever gets fired, at least not from the older generation. I heard from a fellow Norwegian who was involved with a Japanese car-maker on a project, that old men litter the offices, sleeping at their computers, drawing circles with a mouse on the computer screen whilst sleeping, trying to look busy. They have nothing to do anymore, but can´t bring themselves to go anywhere else. Their job is their world. And nobody goes home until everyone is finished working, even if there is nothing to do. Holidays? One week a year — if you´re lucky.
But there is enormous change taking place, however slowly, which makes it a very interesting place to live. The status quo is kind of crumbling of its own accord. Japan is finally maturing into a democracy – at least more like one that we would recognise as a democracy. It is a transition that can be attributed in no small part to Ichiro Ozawa, the puppet master of the Democratic Party of Japan, who, together with the PM Hatoyama, just got shown the door. After having masterminded the first change in government since WWII, Ozawa seems to be guilty of doing exactly what every other politician has done since WWII ––bowing to the interests of the major corporations that really run the joint. After 20 years of building up a genuine opposition that finally ended five decades of a one party system, Ozawa sat back at his desk and collected his dues, in the form of dodgy financing contributions and property deals and all that other underhandedness that politicians do so well.
Or he was on the receiving end of a deliberate and calculated character assassination by the country’s establishment who considered him such a threat. But anyway, in his and Hatoyama’s place comes Japan’s first working class bred, ex-student activist Prime Minister who even seems to be a straight talker. Welcome PM Naoto Kan. “Yes we Kan.” Straight talking in most Asian cultures seems to be difficult. Especially saying “no.” It’s considered uncultured. You can say, “well….that may be….a little difficult….” by which time the listener should have understood that they are not going to get what they want. But us simple Gaijins never really learn, and just want to hear a clear “no” and when we don’t get it we just end up confused. But that lack of straight talking inherent in Japanese culture doesn’t bode well for quickly enacting desperately needed reform. Maybe Kan will bring that much needed directness.
This is the ultimate irony in Japan. You work till you drop, and everyone is raised to respect the work ethic, but in working so hard more and more people sacrifice starting a family because they have to work so much. This in itself means that there aren’t enough workers to care for the oldies who will soon make up 35% of the population. So by respecting the post war Japanese way of life, the Japanese have kind of guaranteed the demise of that same Japanese way of life. And possibly screwed themselves in the process — with a current debt at 200% of GDP. Hope the excesses of the eighties were worth it guys!
I always understood that low birthrates and an aging population supposedly means a need for more workers. It should have been easy to find a job by now, but no. Arriving a year after the GFC, the mood amongst Westerners living here is not so much pessimistic, as in a state of disbelief. All the guys I have met who moved here in the eighties and survived the first recession and then also survived the lost decade of the nineties, just saw it happen all over again. All of them have told me that now is the worst they have ever known it. Many of them lost their jobs over the last two years.
As a result there has been a huge amount of grass roots activity going on amongst Westerners based here. Networking events take place every week, and through social media it has been easy to get out there and meet people who know and love the city. But no one seems to be hiring. Middle management fired all the temporary workers, and are desperately hanging on to their own jobs, as is the way in a culture of over management. Entrepreneurs are nowhere to be found. The Richard Bransons or Bill Gates of Japan simply don’t exist. Established corporations own and run everything. Any other startups seem to originate overseas. So jobs are scarce. And for a Gaijin with no Japanese skills to speak of, most of the jobs going are out of reach — foreigners need not apply.
Although there is no shortage of people in uniform at construction sites waving red batons showing pedestrians how to walk around the witches hats. I have never seen that job being done in Scandinavia, or even witches hats, but here it seems to be absolutely essential. I’m sure I could do it. Reminds me of electric pencil sharpeners. Do you remember those? Big heavy metallic boxes, screwed down on the teachers desk, that automatically sharpened your pencil and chewed a few watts of electricity in the process. How much energy does it really take to rotate a pencil a few times by hand in an ordinary, blade in a box, pencil sharpener? How much energy went into the design and manufacture of that enormous clunky electric box – full of cogs, transformers, motors, wiring and sensors? What made it any more worthwhile than a simple blade in a box? How entirely unnecessary is that electric pencil sharpener, just like those people in uniform telling me not to walk under that crane already covered in flashing lights, surrounded by witches hats and workmen and blaring beeps and warning sounds at 80 decibels? It makes me wonder how much of Japan is just a false economy, over employed in entirely unnecessary jobs. And those electric pencil sharpeners were made in Japan.
It strikes me as an essentially chauvinist society too. Men become bosses, and women secretaries. Then women have children and possibly never fully re-enter the workforce. I spent the first six months at home with our 2 year old son, while my wife studied full-time, so being the white guy with the small child, shopping at the local supermarket in the middle of the day was an unusual sight for the neighbors, which must have given everyone plenty to talk about. But hey, we just got paid the new family benefit to help us with child-care costs, automatically deposited into our account, no questions asked. It’s less than half the Norwegian one, but it’s a start. And we have only been here eight months and haven’t paid a yen in income tax yet. So the new government is getting some things done. Change has begun.
One thing that I really like here though, is the thoroughness and honesty in matters of money. There are never any hidden surcharges and you don’t need to add tips. What people say the price is, is the price. There is a straightforwardness in those matters that is really refreshing. And whereas in Norway you’re hard pressed to get a hello out of the bank teller, let alone a please or thankyou (the Norwegian language doesn´t have a word for “please”). In Japan, you get escorted out of the bank, the doorman, the janitor, the parking security guard, they all bow and say “hello”. It´s the other extreme completely.
The best advice I got so far is that everyone tells white lies. Especially when it comes to lodging forms with the government. We are trying to climb the waiting list for a full time place at kindergarten for our son. The more forms we can get stamped by someone with one of those ink seals the better. Now we are at number 4 on the list, but just learnt that students with kids never get kindergarten spots. My wife is a student with a child –practically unheard of. We need another stamp. What’s weird though is, how, in a country with one of the worlds lowest birthrates can there be a shortage of kindergartens? But eating out is once again a reasonably priced affair. In Scandinavia, eating out is an often disappointing luxury, whereas Tokyo today is no longer the expensive city that we all grew up hearing about. The rest of the world has caught up. And speaking of catches — there is that thing with whaling.
The Cove, that documentary about dolphin meat harvesting, was about to screen locally through a Japanese distributor. But after protests by the lunatic nationalists, the screenings were cancelled. The lunatic nationalists drive around obnoxiously on motorbikes looking like American Bikie clones, only carrying Japanese flags, revving their bikes with juvenile abandon at 2am on a Sunday morning. They thought that The Cove was an assault on Japanese pride. And as for whaling, the cat may be out of the bag, according to this article where inside witnesses describe the culture of stealing whale meat from scientific expeditions for personal consumption or private sale to restaurants. Like with its politics, change in Japan needs to come from within, but in general the Japanese are fairly apathetic when it comes to politics and civic protest. I attended the Copenhagen Climate Change rally in Tokyo back in early 2010, which had a hugely disproportionate representation of non-japanese citizens, and couldn’t have numbered much more than 500 attendants in total. This in a city of around 15 million people? Pathetic. Change is going to take some time. Ultimately, we’ll head back to Norway in a few years, mostly because Norwegian welfare has a focus on families whereas Japanese welfare seems to mainly focus on old men in retirement, not their grandchildren.
UPDATE: Pleased to add that I got a job – and our son finally got a place at kindergarten, so the white lies paid off. In fact both these things happened on the same day. And i should add that the bank system isn´t so archaic as I thought – at least not once you use a private bank and not the weird Post Office Bank that was run by the State for way too long. Our experience here is only becoming more pleasurable, now that some initial hurdles have been crossed. In other good news, The Cove is now being screened here, thanks to the tenacity of it´s distributors. The Nationalists have been banned from going near any cinemas screening the film.