'Drenched in peace,' Japan needs to restore balance

Wakako Hironaka

June 16, 1993|By Wakako Hironaka

SOMEONE recently said to me: "There is something wrong with Japanese society. Children study too much; university students play too much; wage earners work too much; and retired persons have too much leisure. Everything in excess."

Although Japanese society may look rosy -- we have peace, low unemployment and low crime -- there is definitely a lack of balance.

Japanese people want change. However, no one seems to know in which direction to turn; all we know is that we are dissatisfied.

People most frequently and vocally express their disenchantment with politics, but I suspect this may only be an easy target for our resentment, behind which lurks an even more profound and widespread dissatisfaction with the way we have been living our lives.

Some people say that we should be thankful for the affluence we enjoy. But others complain that "drenched in peace," we have become "frivolous and stupid," especially the young people.

I was born in Japan before the war. I lived through an evacuation camp, the postwar confusion, poverty, homelessness and massive relocations. We were very hungry.

"We'll never starve again!" we pledged, just as Scarlett O'Hara did. "Never again!" would we be involved in war.

Three words capture Japanese postwar philosophy: peace, internationalism, recovery. Our hatred for the war and our anger at ourselves for allowing it to happen were expressed in the Diet resolution forbidding the construction, possession or entry of nuclear warheads in Japan.

Nevertheless, we have been protected by America's nuclear weapons. We vowed never to be involved in war again, yet the major improvements in our standard of living coincided with the Korean and Vietnam wars.

We are very proud of our "peace Constitution" but we use it to disengage and insulate ourselves, physically and psychologically, from the rest of the world.

A lack of knowledge of the world led us into war. So we have emphasized internationalism -- have learned about Western countries' technology and know-how and the social institutions that made them strong.

Internationalism has been the convenient philosophical underpinning of Japan's economy, its quest for free markets and the free exchange of information. We knew that a small country with no resources and little arable land had only the importation of raw material and the export of finished products on which to rely.

We assumed that people would buy our products because of their high quality and low price. We didn't think about the people in other countries who were being forced into making the same type of sacrifices as Japanese workers.

We've said we don't want to destroy our rice industry. It's part of our culture, so we have to protect it. But when it comes to automobiles, we don't consider that the automobile might be to America what rice is to Japan.

When other countries seek to safeguard their industries, we call In Japan, family life has been supplanted by the race to get ahead.

them protectionist. However, when we want to protect our weak industries, it's a different story.

We have said that we intend to become leaders in the environment, but our record is far from clean. We export dirty industries and import tropical rain-forest products. Such elementary issues as environmental assessments, drift-net fishing and whaling remain contentious within the government, yet we say we are going to be leaders in this area.

Until recently, the pollution here was unbearable: bad air, bad water, contaminated soil, respiratory disease, cadmium and mercury poisoning and noise. If people complained, they did so privately. Not even labor unions dared challenge the national consensus. Pollution was a necessary evil of economic growth.

There were other side effects: the depopulation of the countryside and overconcentration of activities in Tokyo, in and around which 25 percent of the population lives. The countryside is deserted, a place where only old people live.

The city is hellish. The roads, parks, homes, offices, trains, movie theaters, restaurants and hospitals must contend with two or three times the numbers they were designed for.

The damage has been personal as well. I lived for a year in a Tokyo suburb. The husband of the family next door left home at 7 o'clock in the morning and returned at 11 p.m. every day. There was no family dinner during the week.

In Japan, family life has been supplanted by the race to get ahead; even the children, from kindergarten to high school, are too busy with cram schools. If they are fortunate enough to get into an elite university, they are so exhausted and fed up with rote memorization that they spend the four years at college at play, rather than developing real opinions and interests, before they enter a corporation where they will work like robots until retirement.

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