Magazine article Management Today

Coming of Age Japan Style

Magazine article Management Today

Coming of Age Japan Style

Article excerpt

COMING OF AGE JAPAN STYLE Western ideas about the East, and Japan in particular, have long been tainted by wishful thinking. These people are different, goes the common analysis, but they are becoming the same. They are becoming like us. They will envy our attainments and, seeking to equal them, will become like us. Or (recently), they will fall for our vices and come to resemble us in negative ways.

Japan's postwar development has been a thoroughgoing refutation of the westernisation theory. General MacArthur's men energetically transplanted a whole spectrum of Western ideas and institutions - but Japan did not become America. It took all the changes on the chin and carried on. Like a roughly pruned but well-rooted bonsai, its essentials survived.

Japan's postwar success has been a spectacular vindication of the Japanese way of doing things: of the continuing power of the corporate hierarchies to instil loyalty, of the willingness of the Japanese employee to subsume himself in the group; of the willingness of one and all to do pretty well as they are told, whether by the boss or by the government, and to take their pleasure in largely collective gratifications.

But perhaps this is all changing. A body of opinion both inside Japan and out has been growing, to the effect that the country already is, or soon will be, going to hell in a handcart. And doing so in a very familiar way.

The idea is best expressed in the old adage, from clogs to clogs in three generations. The Japanese who exerted themselves to build up the nation after the war were hungry people - literally. Many went without enough to eat for several years. Japan was again an `underdeveloped country', and a major recipient of aid as late as 1964, the year of the Tokyo Olympics. The postwar effort was fuelled by an urgent desire for self-esteem.

Now self-esteem has been achieved, the argument runs, some of the vices familiar to the West have begun to set in. People who have never been hungry will not work so hard. They will become greedy and self-centred, motivated more by the desire for money and possessions than for communal satisfactions. Combine this with the problems bound to beset a society which is ageing faster than any other in the world, and the scene is set for Japan's quite rapid demise.

For anyone who has experienced a frisson of worry about Japan's newfound economic clout, it's a very gratifying picture. Nor is it a scenario that is the exclusive property of Western doomwatchers. Some five years ago the editor of a prominent intellectual weekly invented the term shinjinrui, `new breed', to describe Japan's decidedly different younger generation. Jinrui literally means `human race', `mankind'; the word caught on because many older Japanese found dealing with their juniors a baffling experience - as if these apparently Japanese young people were in fact skilfully disguised aliens.

A manager at a Sony TV factory laments the decline of the work ethic among the new breed. `People of my generation would work till 11 p.m. five days a week without question, if it was necessary to meet a production schedule,' he says. `These new people might do that once a week, but you have to ask them, and they feel they are doing you a big favour when they agree.'

Similar complaints are heard from all areas of Japanese enterprise. The young people are wagamama, selfish. They have lousy manners. They are not sunao, that crucial Japanese adjective which translates as docile, obedient, meek, but has much more positive force as a virtue in Japanese than in English. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.