Is Japan the most culturally specific country on Earth? Each time I go there I marvel at the eccentricities: the taxi and bus drivers with their gloves, the ritual of the onsen bath house and the incessant bowing. Nowhere else induces in me such feelings of amused amazement.
David Pilling is an Anglo expert on Japan. Some might say that’s an oxymoron, but he is at least one of those foreign correspondents who does not have to try very hard to show his knowledge. Pilling spent most of the first decade of the 21st century in Tokyo and went back to cover the aftermath of the 2011 earthquake. The result is an authoritative and entertaining attempt to explain the mysteries of the shimaguni, the island nation, and its centuries-old determination to withstand outside influences.
The story begins and ends with the disaster that struck the coastal city of Sendai and destroyed the Fukushima nuclear station, with consequences for hundreds of miles around. The author points to systemic failures in the nuclear industry, a combination of the use of casual labor and a management culture that encouraged unquestioning loyalty over robust risk-assessment.
Some still struggle to take in the idea that Japan could be anything but efficient. But Pilling helps to explain the extent to which a business model that served the country so well during the great recovery after the second world war has also been at the heart of its more recent economic stagnation.
The postwar Japanese company was modeled as a social organization and most continue to be this to this day. Teams of graduates are recruited each year on the assumption that they will stay with the same firm until retirement. It is, the author suggests, a form of indoctrination, turning them into obedient employees. “It was a career escalator determined not by merit but by length of service, a system that encouraged loyalty and cooperation, not a battle among employees to prove who was most worthy of advancement.”
Bending Adversity: Japan and the Art of Survival
By David Pilling
For women, the prospect of promotion or even meaningful employment remains slim. Women still single at 25 have long been referred to disparagingly as “Christmas cake,” an item that plummets in value after Dec. 25. Home and hearth are assumed, the wife to wait quietly each weekday night until the “salary man” gets home after a heavy evening’s drinking. The after-party drink, niji kai often involves the boss and his team going to a massage parlor, discussing corporate strategy while being entertained carnally by hostesses. This might give a new meaning to the term bonding exercise. Suffice to say, it is not easy, Pilling notes, for female employees to be on the inside track.
The author deftly manages the trick of illustrating grand sweep with small anecdote. Thus during the earthquake, the first response in one supermarket of neatly uniformed staff was to use their hands, arms and bodies to prevent bottles of soy sauce and packets of miso soup from toppling to the floor. For months after the quake, the electricity grid in Tokyo was kept low, to prevent blackouts. Office workers might have been sweltering in the summer without air conditioning, but the lavatory seats were still heated. “Where else in the world?” you might well ask.
The answer lies in history. For centuries, Japan cut itself off; it was sakoku, a closed country. Another useful word is nihonjinron, the concept of a racially homogenous society. Only two million out of a population of 127 million are descended from a different ethnicity, most of them Koreans. This statistic is important when considering Japan’s terrible war record.