Comment: Life In Japan is changing
Dean H Ruetzler in Japan
only sansa odori that has changed, but is a reflection of further
change in the fabric of Japanese society.
to the foreigners most familiar with Japan, it will still sometimes
remain somewhat vague, obscure, and enigmatic. Perhaps that is why Karel
Van Wolferen the Dutch academic/journalist/pundit who wrote is what
is considered THE definitive dissection and analysis of the Japanese
government, bureaucracy, business world, culture, and the interaction
between them all, called his treatise "The enigma of Japanese power".
To the outside observer, even the highly educated, experienced, and
generally neutral, Japan appears to be guided by a huge ossified, monolithic
bureaucracy (please allow me to speak in quite oversimplified generalities
at times in this article.)
It is aided by a sclerotic government that largely serves for the whims
of the bureacracy, and Japan`s system of "crony-capitalism",
which may be capitalist in general intent, but certainly brings favor
upon those businesses from tiny to mega-corporate which ally themselves
together, and work in concert with the ruling elite.
At the same time, this system has proven skillful at stifiling dissent,
especially coming from the liberal aspect of the Japanese political
and social spectrum.
Enigmatically, the system is also good at not allowing power to collect
in any specific areas, thus freeing many decision makers to work somewhat
collectively, furitively, and in a manner that ultimately, blame, responsibility,
and come-uppance will be obfuscated, diverted, and eventually dissolved.
This deflection, amorphousness, collectivity and ambiguity, is reflected
at many levels of Japanese society, from the top on down.
A large reason that modern Japan has this unique system is the leadership's
appeal to the homogeneity of the Japanese, its cultural aversion towards
diversity, and tendency to reward cooperative group behaviour over expressions
of individuality. A very famous Japanese proverb is "Deru kui ha
utarareu" or "The nail that sticks up will be hammered down!".
These tendencies all been reinforced by nearly four centuries of "Sakoku",
or "closed country" during which leaving the country or speaking
a foreign language was punishable by death, and contact with other countries
was kept to a bare minimum. Given Japan`s place in the world now, "sakoku"
is mostly a textbook relic. In light of the rapid development and global
interdependence that has occurred in Japan in the past century and a
half Japans progress towards "kokusaika" ("internationalization")
is now unidirectional, and the only debate now is how and to what effect
it is taking place. Though those four isolated centuries of "sakoku"
have certainly left their mark on Japan in one way or another.
Many outside observers still are frustrated with Japans progress along
those lines. Further detailed discussion of those issues, touched on
in this article, is truly the realm of another article, if not a book.
Suffice to say, a recent prominent Western academic writing about Japanese
society defined "kokusaika" as the "domestication of
foreigners", contrary to how one would assume the definition would
In Japans modern history, it has shown a willingness to "modernize",
"western-ize", and adapt to the "outside world",
at times with incredible speed and progress. However, it has always
been done with change only to necessary areas, often only if it meets
the needs of Japans strategic, economic, and political advantage, and
with the impression to the Japanese people that it`s "cultural
and societal integrity" was being preserved. This can be summed
up in a famous Japanese slogan, originating with the stirrings of "modernization",
that is "Wakon Yousei" or "Japanese Spirit and Western
Thus to the outsider, change if it does occur, is not blatant. Japan
is a culture of subtleties and paradoxes, that are never easy to decpiher.
Often more knowledge about Japan simply leads to more questions and
fewer answers. It is a society that can baffle many natives too. It
can lead both the resident foreigner and the citizen to a resignation
summed up in the words "Shiyoo ga nai" (lit. "there is
no way of doing things!") that goes beyond its literal translation
to; "This is simply the way things happen, It is the "Japanese
Way", no questions asked, and there will be no changing that!"
So why is it that I feel I have just witnessed a very blatant change
in Japanese society in the five years I have lived in Iwate Prefecture?
The "Sansa Odori" dance festival is something of a right of
passage for foreigners coming to Iwate. It very often coincides with
the arrival of the new English teachers and the like who will toil in
the public schools and English conversations schools of the prefecture.
It is often the first glimpse that a newcomer will get of a "Japanese
It consists of usually ten groups of taiko drummers, dancers, flute
players, bell strikers, sign bearers, and "andon"(lantern)carriers
numbering apporiximately one hundred per group. They all dance in syncopated
unison to an almost hypnotic rythym provided by the instruments and
chant "Sakkora ChoIwaYasse!"(or thereabouts, even my Japanese
friends have a hard time discerning) which is a plea for good fortune
The groups are usually sponsored by various civic groups, businesses,
and governmental organizations and NGOs. Each of the three nights of
the festival, a different set of groups performs. The festival is almost
invariably the first, second and third of August, from rougly 6.00-930
PM. These groups do take their sansa practice very seriously as the
familiar taiko rythm can be heard being performed by the various groups
as early as two months before the festival. As the festival draws close,
the rythym and chant can be heard emanating from the parking lots and
other large areas suitable for practice on a nightly basis in the muggy
summers evenings. Along with the calls of the "semi" (cicada),"kaeru"
(tree frog), its sounds are a signal that summer is in full swing. Sansa
itself may last only three days, but to Morioka, and the rest of Iwate
it is truly the apex of the season. The sounds of practice slowly building
to a climax in the fruition of the festival, and then the (relatively)empty
soundless reminder during the rest of the summer that Fall, "kooyoo"(fall
foliage), and a nasty typhoon or two are around the corner. Sansa is
more than a festival, it is an event that a whole season focuses on.
The memories of my first sansa festival, in 1998, are still some of
the most memorable and striking ones of my time in Japan. It coincided
with the prefectural orientation, held in Morioka, of my first year
of the JET (Japanese Exchange and Teaching) program. Still overwhelmed
by the experience of moving to Japan, reeling from the National JET
orientation in Tokyo (an introvert's nightmare if there ever was one),
sweating profusely as I never had in my life (I am from parts further
north than Iwate Prefecture), and trying to deal with the diminished
English skills of my surroundings, not to mention my near total lack
of the native tounge, I was not sure which end was up. Then I saw sansa.
It truly amazed me.
I recall a cornucopia of images. Hundreds of people moving in step to
an indecipherable chant. Colorful "happi" costumes, many exotic
beautiful women all looking like "geisha"(or my limited defintion
of the word at the time). Walking along the older section of town near
the parade surrounding some shrines, looking like the Asia of my media-induced
stereotypes with the crowds of people and kanji covered signs every
where I looked. The food stalls selling their fried noodles, meat, chicken,
octopus, salted fish, and the delicious aroma wafting from them. Eating
squid for the first time.. and loving it! Thousands watching, enjoying,
and as a denoument to each nights festival, joining in the participation.
Grandmothers to toddlers, businessmen to bar hostesses, all joining
in the same dance, and whatever indecipherable intangible qualities
tied them together as "Japanese".
My participation in this part of the festival was spurred last year
by a sake-soaked and insistent taiko drummer, who would not give up
until I relented and joined in the participation. It was fun, and my
participation this year, however unskilled, was entirely voluntary,
or at least required minimal prodding. It was truly a sight to behold,
having come from one of the world's more discordant societies. It was
striking to me that you could get all different parts of a society together
marching (pardon the pun) "To the beat of the same (Taiko) drummer."
"So this is the famous Japanese cultural unsion!" I thought
to myself. It was five years ago but it could have been yesterday. Thats
how well I remember it. Fast forward the clock five years into the future.
A five years that seem to have passed by with rediculous ease. Many
lessons taught in the classroom. Many learned outside. A panaolpy of
people, faces, characters, personalities, and incidences that have come,
gone, and sometimes come back again. There also has been change. Beyond
the change in myself, I have seen it in my surroundings. As oxymoronic
as it may initally seem, I have seen change in Japan, and in only five
years. Change in Japan? The country where change appears to be loathed
and feared to the pont of anathema? The country where in my first year
on the job I was told point blank by my supervisor; "Doing something
Yes, I have seen palpable change in Japan. Not overwhelming, not obvious,
but certainly there, if not obviously apparent. Slowly but surely, this
country, for all the stereotypes that exist to the contrary, has undergone
change. The change has been almost imperceptable at times, but reflecting
on these past five years, it has occurred.
That change suddenly became very apparent to me as I spent the evenings
of August 1st, 2nd, and 3rd of this year watching the venerable Iwate
Prefecture cultural cornerstone "sansa" dance festival. When
compared to the impressions I had back in August of 1998 when I first
arrived in Morioka, the difference is startling. What I had seen five
years before as a well ordered, almost military-like in its precision
demonstration was not any more. In its place was something moving away
from that to a more hedonistic, individualistic, and expressionistic
celebration. It still is far from the French Quarter on Fat Tuesday,
Germany's "Love-Parade", or "Carnival" in Rio, or
even Tokyo`s Roppongi or Harajuku districts or the "Kabuki-Cho"
pleasure quarters on a fast evening. However, judged by a more refined
Japanese standard, it has rapidly headed in that direction.
What seemed to be almost uniform dress in the past, looked more uneven.
Members of the same group would be yearing "yukata" and "happi"
summer robes of different colors and styles. This was to such an extent
that those groups who did look neatly coherent in dress, the groups
that tended to be populated by the older folks, and whose groups tended
to center on "cultural preservation" themes, looked painfully
anachronistic. Costumes abounded, and given the ambiguity and androgony
of sex roles and physical appearance in certain aspects of Japanese
society, more than a few appeared in drag, uni-sex, or neuter. However
the baring of breasts that is so common in the above mentioned places
did not occur. The author of this article is quite certain he would
have noticed if it had. Conversely, the high levels of alcohol intoxication
that does occur in those places was certainly apparent in a few festival
participants (and spectators).
The make up and hairstyles that many of the young women wore during
the festival has also changed. Before, I was enrapured by the demure
style of what seemed like hundreds of "geisha" and "maikoo"
parading in front of me eliciting a vision of feudal -era Japanese beauty.
The sparkling make-up, long eyelashes, lip gloss, and artifically tanned
style of many of this years young female participants remided me more
of the blatant "ganguro", "kogyaruzu", and "yama
n'ba" styles that are so common of todays young and rebellious
Japanese ladies, so frequent in Tokyo and more notoriously, Osaka. In
short, call it the "gangster moll wanna-be" look. A popular
fashion item among many of our young rebels (and androgynous "rebel
rebel"s to shamelessly plunder David Bowie's song lyrics) was battery
powered blinking light earrings. We have traveled, culturally speaking,
a long distance from Kyoto`s Gion district famous for its geisha, for
sure. Even the highly precise, well-practiced presentation of the dancing
and music seemed to be lacking. Especially among the younger participants,
there was not as much syncopation as in previous years. The participants
who did appear concerned more with the level of performance and less
with the pure enjoyment of the festival, again appeared to be older,
unhappier, and quite out of place among the revelers.
Perhaps there is a paradigm change in attitude among younger participants,
and they do not see a three day event (only one evening of which is
their participation) worthy of nearly two months worth of practice and
sacrifice any more? The inclusion of foreigners in sansa has appeared
to increase almost tenfold in the past half decade too. In talking to
a German friend who has been living here as long as I have, he noted
that in 1999 he was the only foreigner playing a taiko drum, and one
of few participating at all. This year, most groups had anywhere from
two to ten or so foreigners included amongst their ranks. The demographics
of the groups that excluded foreigners again tended to be older, dress
uniformly, perform with whip-like precision, look unhappier while participating,
and had a "Preserve Our Sacred Japanese Culture" air to their
group affiliations. Sansa also appeared much more individualistic. Aside
from the aforementioned changes in costume, make up, skill level, and
composition of the festival, the participants seemed to embody a change
in attitude. Faces that seemed to hide emotion before like a kabuki
mask seemed to reflect revelation in the festival. Demonstrations of
indivisualsm were much more noticable, be it a glowing earring, a Mickey
Mouse costume, a lime green happi with bright yellow, pink, silver,
and aquamarine stripes that nobody else wore, or a simple celebratory
In my five years I have seem Morioka tear down and rebuild many buildings,
many business change hands or start up. I have seen four Starbucks,
countless internet cafes, and umpteen new restaurants move in many with
non-Japanese themes and menus. I have seen the number of foreigners
living here increase fourfold, it seems. Before it was just English
teachers, a few trainees and exchange students, plus a handful of spouses.
Today a foreigner in Morioka rarely gets a gape, gasp, expression of
suprise, pointed finger or a stare, as non-Japanese have become much
more commonplace in these parts on a relative scale. Even the local
street walker (Excuse me, "Bar Patron Hostess") population
has recently had a marked increase in the nymber of foreigners working
in its ranks. As an indication of change on this scale, Elementary school
students now refer to me as the preferable "Gai-KOKU-jin"("person
from another country")on sight rather than the more aggravating
and personally insulting "Gai-jin" ("outsider" or
"alien"). Though this change is not as apparent in the more
rural parts of Iwate, it is slowly making its way there too, one would
So what is it that has brought about this change to Japan, to Tohoku,
to Morioka, and perhaps someday to Nishine, the small agricultural town
(Apparently, the spinach capital of Japan) I live in, 12.5 miles from
Morioka? This change is becoming ever so apparent in the younger generations
of contemporary Japan. Of course, this is not so say that every young
Japanese is a culturally savvy, open-minded, highly self expressive
person. Nor does it imply that every Japanese person over the age of
40 is a culturally myopic, highly group oriented person who gives their
all to work, society, the Tokyo Yomiuri Giants, and the preservation
of the "old values". All the while, simultaneously espousing
the righteous cause of the Japanese World War Two effort in the name
of the "freedom" and "liberation" of Asia from "tyranny",
serving their opinions with a healthy dose of hubris. However, this
change does gradate along generational lines, and it seems to be focused
in on those of college age, and the other young adults of Japan.
Since the festival, I have asked my friends, both foreign and Japanese,
if they too, noticed a change. Opinions about the change generally divide
on cultural lines. The Japanese not being nearly as enthusiastic about
the change as the foreigners. This lack of enthusiasm extends even to
those friends I consider very progressive in their outlook and attitudes.
One thing has been made clear though. It is apparent to all that sansa
has changed. One can derive that it is not only sansa odori that has
changed, but is a reflection of further change in the fabric of Japanese
society. The remaining questions are how deep and how permanent this
change is, and why it has happened. How deep and how permanent are worthy
of considerable analysis. It can also be a very subjective analysis,
probably beyond the scope of this tome. As to why it has happened, I
offer three main hypothesis.
The first one is
fairly obvious. The economy, as in "It's the economy stupid!"
(another shameless pilfered quotation on my part, I don't belive it's
necessary to quote the source in this case.) In plain non-Japanese English,
the economic doldrums have caused the youth of Japan to put the "Japanese
Way" under question, and explore alternatives. Since the Japanese
"Way" was one of the world's unquestioned best for a generation
or two, and took very good care of the Japanese, there was little room
before for questioning its viability. Japan is still an economic behemouth,
but with nearly fifteen years of little expansion, and the growing prominence
of Greater China, Japan`s pre-eminence in Asia is challenged, and it's
youth may be following suit in challenging the Japanese "establishment".
Several observers over the years have noted that Japans problems with
xenophobism, cultural elitism, nationalism, difficulty "internationalizing",
and the like have been a more recent phenomenon than one would expect
given Japans history of isolationism. It is more of a phenomenon that
was fomented in the immediate pre-war Colonial era, was briefly dented
post-war, and actually rose again with the size of the Japanese economy
in the rise of the "bubble economy". Far from being a Meji-Era
(the rise of Japan as a modern state) relic that is indicative of the
true nature of the Japanese, it has been an institutionally used tool
of the ruling elite of Japan. It has been manipulated to bring about
support for the Japanese war cause and imperialism, and then in a more
disguised form, funneled into fueling Japan's astounding post war economic
growth. With neither military or economic power to support these institutionalized
beliefs, there is less credence to their use in contemporary Japanese
society. Ironically, at this time Japans culture, the modern one of
Ichiro Suzuki, Utada Hikaru, J-pop, "manga" and "anime",
Hideki Matsui, Sheena Ringo, Misia, Tokyo fashion, the Academy Award-winning
"Spirited Away" ("Sen to Chihiro no Kami Kakushi"),plus
Hello Kitty and her Sanrio friends, is at unprecedented heights of international
influence. A few of the "Old Culture" stalwarts like "kanji",
"sushi", and "sumoo" wrestling, have ridden this
tsunami to fashionabilty overseas. This too has contributed to the fabric
of change in Japan. In a recent Time Asia magazine article "Whats
RIGHT with Japan" Jim Frederick writes; "Though the economic
impact of all these achivements is hard to measure, the message they
send about Japans's ability to compete culturally at a world-class level
is undeniable. Far more important than international status, say proponents,
are the broader changes Gross National Cool (The name, as coined in
a Foreign Policy magazine article about the phenomenon by Douglas McGray)
is already sparking in Japan`s still regimented society. Japan`s economic
nightmare, they claim has produced unexpected though beneficial social
chnges, thanks to the rising stock of entrepreneurs and others bringing
about the birth of cool. With on-again, off-again recession discrediting
the traditional big business career path, never has individualism and
risk taking looked more attractive...
"Now, as the very foundations of Japan Inc. start to wobble, that
bargain looks increasingly like a bum deal, and more potential employees
are simply saying no... ...Japan`s future identity no longer rests in
being the leading manufacturer of goods-wether cars, cameras, or stereos-but
as the worlds foremost creator of cool."
A new Japan may be coming, and those present in the country may be witnessing
a change that could equal the Meiji Restoration, and World War Two,
the Occupation of Japan, and ensuing postwar boom, not just in its impact
on Japan itself, but on Asia (Whose rise to global economic precedence
is almost a given within a century), and on the world as a whole. Far
from being a boring, stiff, regimented, and unrelenting society, Japan
is slowly and painfully, but clearly and perceptibly shedding that coccon
metamorphasizing into a new more dynamic society. The ensuing decades
may well see Japan, the new Japan that is, replacing The United States
and "Old Europe" as the hub of culture and dynamism of the
The next reason which, of course, has alot of overlap with the above
postulate, is also fairly evident. It is the intertwining and interdependence
between countries in todays world, the "globalization" of
commerce, trade, travel and media. This generation in Japan is the generation
of CNN, The Body Shop, Starbucks, MTV-Japan, NFL-Japan, the internet,
and a much smaller world than before. Japan is a democracy, but its
leadership has always used Japans cultural and geographic isolation,
homogeneity, and the previously mentioned systemic appeals to xenpohobism,
elitism, and self-perceived "uniqueness" to create a limited
view of alternative possibilities, replacing a totalitarian state in
order to maintain its power structure. This has worked to a large extent,
in the postwar era only Paraguay's Colorado party has had a longer period
of rule, than Japan's Liberal Democratic Party among democratized countries.
In this day and age, however, it is nearly impossible to keep outside
influence, and the exposure to contrasting views that it brings, to
a minimum in Japan.
The outside world lies at the sattelite dish, internet portal, cellular
phone, magazine stand, and bookshelf of nearly every Japanese. The rest
of the world is knocking at the doorstep of Japan, in ways that it never
has before, and the youth are not oblivious to it. To them a foreigner
seems to mean "from another country", not "another species".
Conversely, Japan is not the obscure, baffling, and obfuscating oriental
mystery it used to be. It is a player on the world stage, and understanding
of and interexchange with Japan, is slowly, but surely on the rise.
Japan may still be a mystery, but not as misunderstood as it used to
be. This process has also been aided immensely by the efforts of Japan
to internationalize. Most notable among these efforts being the JET
Program. The JET (Japanese Exchange and Teaching) Program, which has
no counterpart in the developed world, has placed up to 6000 foreign
nationals from approximately forty countries in full time jobs in Japan's
education and local government systems. The JETs have primarily been
assistant english educators, but have also included sports instructors,
translator/interpreters and international program facilitators. What
the presence of the JET program means to Japan, is that the current
generation of Japanese in their early twenties has had nearly constant
foreign participation in their education. A country that once sentenced
people to death for using a non-native language or having foreign contact,
made it a mandatory subject. The debates about the effectiveness of
the JET program are endless, and truly there is no comparable measure
to gauge its success or failure by. In the words of a friend of mine
currently on the program, JET (Along with the Earlham College AET program,
the "Hello World" Program, and countless others); "Is
caught between those in Japan who truly want educational and societal
reform, and those who want to pay lip service to it and see that change
does not really occur." The experiences of my three years on the
program, 1998-2001, would do nothing but support my friends opinion.
I have also seen a fair ammount of JETs who did nothing but support
negative sterotypes of foreigners prevalent among the Japanese. Conversely,
I have seen JETS who have given their best efforts to the JET mission
of education and internationalization.
In the end, what JET has done is give almost every Japanese currently
in school, a living, breathing example of someone who is not Japanese,
ultimately giving the student something tangible to make their own decison
on the outside world with. Being human beings, this is a double-edged
sword for all concerned in the process. However, it does not leave international
education to societally induced sterotypes, and text books that selectively
influence decisions. It gives an added dimension of reality to the realm,
and clearly it is taking effect. The "JET Generation" of Japans
youth is taking root and growing into prominence in society. The end
result is yet to be seen, but it is becoming clearer that change has
started and will continue, in one form or another.
The final reason for this change is not as clear cut and obvious as
the others mentioned, but is still significant to a large extent. That
is the effect of Japan`s Educators. It may come as a suprise to those
JETs, Earlham AETs, and other foreigners employed in Japan's schools,
but the Japanese Teachers Union (known as "Nikkyooso") has
been the largest thorn and most persistent irritant in the side of the
Japanese government and bureaucracy since the Japanese constitution
was signed. Karel Van Wolferen made this point repeatedly in "The
Enigma of Japanese Power". From loudly prostesting biased testbooks
glossing over World War Two atrocities to struggling with all its might
to keep any demonstration of nationalism outside of the schools, Nikkyooso
has been relentless. While many other factions of Japan's society quitely
acquiese to the pressure of the guiding monolith, Nikkyooso fights back
with everything it has. The Japanese Teachers Union has always been
the loudest voice calling for reform and revision in Japan's system.
While the pressure of society says "Preserve the old ways, keep
things as they are", Nikkyooso has shouted back demanding "change".
It has utilized its allowed democratic rights to the fullest, while
many other factions have simply used them in a superficial manner, worried
about disturbing the "wa" or "harmony" of Japanese
Change in Japan is coming from the young, and were it not for their
educators efforts, it would be coming much slower. As any JET can tell
you, their effect in educating and internationalizing the Japanese student
is very dependent on the teacher. It is the teachers who have chosen
to take advantage of the global community, the internet, the JET program,
and their pontential contribution to education, that are spearheading
the enactment of change in todays Japan. Without the support of educators
trying to give the students a fair look at the world, this task would
be so much harder. Without the backbone of the Japanese teachers who
do choose to internationalize, these efforts would only be window dressing,
lacking any real substance, in Japan's drive to internationalize. It
is quite possible to stifle change, there are aspects of Japanese society,
and even some in education who do not want to see it. I was recently
privy to an elderly education expert who advised many gathered teachers
to teach World War Two as "Not Japans defeat, but voluntary surrender
to spur on the cause of world peace." Fortunately, many of those
teachers either hinted or directly criticized that opinion. It is teachers
like them throughout the country who are truly bringing forth the change
that is developing in Japan.
So where does Japan go from here? Does change continue, picking up speed
along the way? Or will there be a vicious backlash, as the increase
of foreigners coming to Japan becomes an irritant to the sensibilities
of a strongly homogeneous nation? Both possibilities are strong. Japan
is undeniably changing. Alex Kerr, writing in "Dogs and Daemons",
his wonderful dissection of the Japanese economic collapse of the 1990's
and its causes and effects, wrote something to the effect that "Japan
appears perpetually to be on the verge of major change, but never moves
beyond that." This is not the first time observers have seen Japan
about to change. It has happened many times before only to see the greater
part of the "Japanese Way" survive at the expense of reform.
Will Japan continue on its path to a deep societal change? Or will the
amorphous power structure of Japan dodge another bullet aiming to revolutionize
Japan? Only the ensuing decades will tell.
Japan is a huge paradox. It is a very rich, ultra-modern, well-developed
society that clings on to its "old ways" with a tight grip.
It is a very homogeneous, often isolated country that is now being asked
to be one of the world's leading powers as it heads into the future,
one of a "globally interconnected" world. It is one of the
worlds largest supporters of peace and non-proliferation despite an
extremely bloody history of conquest both internally and regionally.
It is a country of a strong leadership structure, but independent or
individually strong leaders are few and far between, with only a handful
of reform-minded, unaffiliated Prefectural governors, Diet members and
Tokyo Mayor Shintaro Ishihara coming to mind. Mayor Ishihara, unfortunately
combines economic reform with a strong appeal to xenophobism. For all
its supposed systematic indifference to change, Japan has changed with
unparalled rapidity when it has benifitted the country. It became a
military and then an econmomic superpower in decades when most other
countries took centuries, or have simply never achieved such heights.
It appears to be approaching the worlds cultural vanguard at a time
when some Japanese citizens still voice surprise at a foreigner eating
sushi, reading a few kanji, or using chopsticks properly. It can appear
to be indifferent to foreigners, but in the near future considerable
foreign immigration will be necessary thanks to a declining birthrate.
How will Japan deal with all this? Truthfully nobody knows. Given its
history, it could be, and probably will be something quite unexpected.
I personally think that this time, given the economic malaise, and the
unprecedented influence of foreign ideas, change will be significant.
The Liberal Democratic Party may stay in power, but it will have to
make concessions to reform. Perhaps the current reform-minded prime
minister Junichiro Koizumi will be allowed to press ahead with his platform
instead of meeting strong resistance wherever he turns, including within
his own party. His election was a concession to reform used to save
the party. In the future more more reform could very well be politically
necessary. Conversely, a backlash against change, military pressure
from neighbors such as North Korea and China, or dire economic straits
could lead to the rise to power of a nationalistic leader like a Shintaro
Ishihara. Through all this analysis and speculation, one thing is obvious
to me. That is change has indeed happened to Japan, and in a relatively
short time. When I came here, just five short years ago, the Japanese
were more apt to think of a minature TV as "technology for the
masses at its forefront", and was several years behind the United
States and Northern Europe in "on-line" technology permeating
through society as a whole. Now, the internet is mandatory and well-stocked
in every school. It is even available on cell phones, of which the Japanese
have in abundance. The world is now available to any Japanese citizen,
and the knowledge to analyze and use it is growing every day. The days
for all but the smallest remnants of "sakoku" should not be
more than a few decades at this point. Where Japan goes from this change
is still anybodys guess. But it is clear that change has come, I saw
it at The "Sansa Odori" festival.
© Dean H. Ruetzler September 2003
Nishine,Iwate,JAPAN and Warren/S.Burlington,Vt.,USA
all rights reserved