Newspaper article St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)

Squalor Hides Behind Japan's Inner Doors

Newspaper article St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)

Squalor Hides Behind Japan's Inner Doors

Article excerpt

TO UNDERSTAND the mystery of Japanese economic power, consider a typical "soba" noodle restaurant here in Nagano prefecture where the buckwheat noodles are a specialty.

The front of the restaurant is tastefully decorated in a traditional manner: simple, unpainted wood that has aged gracefully; a flower arrangement in a hand-thrown pot; "noren" curtains hanging halfway down at the doorway.

Inside, the scene is serene as diners remove their shoes, step to low tables and order from a relentlessly cheerful waitress. By American standards, everything is spare and at the same time elegant. The service is superb, the decor rich, yet understated. Every detail is in order.

But behind the curtain that screens the kitchen from public view, the owner and several workers crowd together in sweatshop conditions to knead, boil and rinse the noodles. In a room only a few feet square, they arrange the servings on lacquer wood trays lined with bamboo mats.

So it is throughout much of Japan. Beautifully finished products are produced under what would be considered intolerable conditions in the United States and Western Europe.

The best Japan has to offer is shown to the world in its cars, electronics, computers and cameras. Yet behind the "noren" - inside the country itself - conditions for ordinary people are far worse than Westerners expect.

In Japan, the primitive and the technologically sophisticated co-exist in astonishing proximity. Tokyo has 3,465 garbage trucks and one of the most efficient subway systems in the world. The city also dispatches 74 trucks to collect human waste from thousands of homes not hooked up to sanitary sewers.

The dichotomy between Japan's public and private areas seems to explain a lot about how modern Japan works.

The public Japan dazzles the world with high-tech products. For example, a new global positioning system for private cars is now being sold in the Akihabara discount district in Tokyo. The device, which costs between $1,500 and $2,500, uses satellites to tell motorists their location in a city. …

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