Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

US and Japan: A Generation Gap

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

US and Japan: A Generation Gap

Article excerpt

HOW can we deal with such striplings!" That, said a senior Japanese politician, is a frequently heard complaint among Tokyo bureaucrats and politicians as they await the coming to power of the Clinton administration.

Japan's leaders, in politics, in business, and in the bureaucracy, belong to George Bush's generation - and some, even to that of Ronald Reagan. Prime Minister Kiichi Miyazawa is 73, and Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Michio Watanabe is not much younger. Senior business leaders are of similar vintage, while senior bureaucrats in the Foreign, Finance, and Trade (MITI) ministries are in their 50s.

Across the Pacific they see a vigorous, mid-40ish president-to-be preparing to install a cabinet that reflects the generation gap between himself and his predecessor. Of course some Clinton officials could be called venerable. But in general, there is a conspicuous age gap between the newcomers and their counterparts in Tokyo.

Yes, age is venerated in the Orient, and nowhere more than in Japan. And yet, when policies are framed and implemented, the input of working-level officials in Japan is often far greater than in Washington. In powerful ministries like MITI or Finance, it's the heads and assistant heads of divisions - men (and very rarely, women) in their early 40s and late 30s, who initiate policies and pass them up to their superiors.

These august creatures would bridle at the suggestion that they merely rubber-stamp policies sent up from below, and indeed, bureau chiefs have been known to fling back papers presented them, ordering that they be drafted anew. Yet in any ministry, it's the initial draft prepared at working level that becomes the key element of policy, and the execution of this policy once it has been approved and sent back down is in the hands of these same working-level officials.

Clinton administration officials at the cabinet and sub-cabinet level are likely to be in the same age group as Japanese officials much further down the bureaucratic chain of command.

The life-experience of these younger officials is different from that of their superiors. …

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