By Masakazu Yamazaki / Special to The Yomiuri ShimbunAlmost six decades passed between the birth of the Emperor of the Reiwa era and his ascent to the throne this year. In retrospect, the past half century can be said to be remembered as a period of transition in the history of modern Japan, causing the country to change its appearance as a nation together with that of its population’s lives.
Japan’s modernization, which began at the outset of the Meiji era (1868-1912), can be referred to as a history of expansionism, be it good or bad. During this process, Japanese society was driven by the “catch-up-and-overtake” development model. Japan’s economic credo remained intact even in the wake of World War II and its defeat. In the postwar years, it continued sticking to the model by adopting a national policy of gauging and enhancing national strength in terms of gross domestic product.
At the start of the 1970s, an ad campaign presented Japanese society with the slogan “Moretsu kara byutifuru he” advocating a shift of life mode “from breakneck to beautiful.” This campaign, now remembered as an advertising classic, was a harbinger of the societal transformation that was about to begin. In fact, substantial change began occurring to consumer behaviors with styles and tastes becoming individualized and with greater demand for quality, instead of quantity, of goods and services. There was also a surge in services tailored to individual customer needs.
Up until then, Japanese people had worked intensely to earn enough money to buy “white goods” such as washing machines and refrigerators as soon as they could. One of the country’s automakers had aimed to stir up a size rivalry among consumers with a campaign showing a consumer at the wheel of one of the company’s vehicles, with the slogan, “The car running next to you looks small.”
But from around that time, people no longer minded paying money for things that would not be evaluated simply in terms of volume or size. A design they favored was inducement enough. For example, those days marked the dawn of the popularity of distinctive T-shirts. The garments might contain only ¥100 worth of cotton, but few consumers would object to paying ¥3,000 for one they liked, essentially accepting the additional expense of ¥2,900 as a design fee.
Sentiment turned to reforms
In the 1960s, there were about 200,000 eateries and restaurants across Japan. The 1970s saw the number double with casual family restaurant chains emerging. Everyone in Japan now began to desire individualized face-to-face service. The business landscape in the fashion industry also changed with the launch of select shops offering unique tastes and the proliferation of garage sales where customers exchanged fashion items of choice among themselves. In the music industry, audiences thronged to live concerts. Then a new business category was created to enable people to entertain themselves with karaoke.
The diversification of consumer desires was just one of the aspects associated with the societal sea change. It can be said that, as a matter of fact, the Japanese population’s sentiment was already turning to the acceptance of reforms during the 1970s. The individualization of tastes reflected a broader rise in individualism, which in turn would give rise to an independent-minded selective approach to human relationships. As a consequence, the pre-modern order based on people’s regional and blood ties and the more modern order based on company connections no longer worked as the absolute foundation of relationships among people.
The latent social energy stemming from the change in popular sentiment built up till the Heisei era. The accumulated change finally became intense enough to surface during that era in the form of volunteer activities to help victims of numerous natural disasters. It was epoch-making that when the Great Hanshin Earthquake hit Kobe and its vicinity in January 1995, a total of 1.37 million volunteers gathered from all over the country for relief activities over the course of a year despite having no regional or blood ties to victims.
The example of the Hanshin Earthquake response led to the immediate launch of widespread volunteer activities in the Tohoku region following the Great East Japan Earthquake of March 2011 and in Kumamoto Prefecture following a major quake in April 2016. Volunteer operations became so common that the word “volunteer” became a part of everyday Japanese. As such, volunteer activities have become a natural trait among Japanese people, with many of them combining individualism with a sense of civic virtue by acting in the public interest on their own will.
It is true that the bottom line of Japanese people’s civic virtue has improved remarkably during the past half century. Now, it is common across Japan for people to properly separate household garbage for disposal and recycling. Likewise, a growing number of people pick up their dogs’ waste while taking a walk with their pets. Moreover, few drivers these days honk their horns to vent their frustration while stuck in traffic jams. Japan is globally acknowledged as having the world’s highest probability of lost items being found and returned to their owners. In the meantime, it seems that there is a connection at the bottom between Japanese people’s care and thoughtfulness in apparel design and their spirit of dedicating themselves to struggling in the mud in disaster-devastated areas.
No reason for concern
The Reiwa era has started against the background of such a state of national sentiment. I see no signs that the major transition from the quest of modernization, as seen above, will be reversed in the foreseeable future. I do not expect Japan to try once again to expand domestic demand and compete with China in terms of GDP growth. For their part, Japanese consumers, who have already experienced the advantage of information infrastructure over a quantity of material goods, are likely to be provided with more diverse solutions to further their fulfillment. The diffusion of smartphones and other advanced information devices is expected to accelerate people’s inclination to spend more time in an increasingly less costly manner.
Of course, the country needs to keep attaining a certain extent of economic growth to maintain social stability. Yet, it is hard to predict that the growth rate will go well beyond the current level of a little less than 2 percent. Nevertheless, we need not worry too much about the future, considering that Japan managed to ride out the so-called lost two decades without a disruptive surge in unemployed or bankrupt people and while keeping income inequality at a relatively moderate level.
Even so, some people fear the possible loss of the positive psychological effects of high GDP growth and Japan’s national prestige, which have been sources of self-confidence at home and a strong presence abroad.
This article is actually intended to dispel any concern about such a possibility. I would like to emphasize that in the past half century Japan’s culture has developed in such a way that it should be spread abroad to improve the image of the country. In this context, Japan’s cultural exports now include not only manga shipments but also its civic virtue, which constitutes the very basis of Japanese society.
In February, I referred in this column to a campaign by a group of Japanese residents in Paris, who were members of a nonprofit organization, to voluntarily clean up some streets in the French capital. French people’s reactions were initially negative. However, interestingly enough, the Japanese group’s humble and honest dedication and confidence that Japan’s public order and morals would be accepted by foreign countries eventually made the highly proud French people join hands with the Japanese or embark on their own volunteer campaigns to keep the streets clean.
New cross-border norm
A letter to the editor of The Yomiuri Shimbun, Tokyo, from a Chinese student studying in Japan that appeared on Feb. 3, 2018, offered a sign that Japanese society’s civic virtue is being accepted abroad as a new cross-border norm, giving ethical enlightenment to people in foreign countries. Focusing on how clean and neat houses and public buildings in Japan are, the writer thought such a trait showed how considerate Japanese people were of others. In the letter, the Chinese student went so far as to candidly criticize the comparable circumstances in China.
In this regard, an ongoing development in Egypt, as described by Shinichi Kitaoka, president of the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA), in his latest book, “Sekai Chizu wo Yominaosu” (A new way to read the world map), has particularly drawn my attention. It is about the adoption of Japanese-style primary school education, an idea that was floated by Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi and turned into a reality by the JICA chief in 2016. The main object of the initiative is to provide a primary school environment where students take part in a “tokubetsu katsudo” (special activities) program that includes cleaning their own classrooms.
The Egyptian leader, who is said to be interested in the fact that Japanese people are polite and well-disciplined, seemed to have instinctively understood that primary school education in Japan has traditionally cultivated such characteristics. Since Japan introduced modern public education in the Meiji era, it has truly given importance to primary school education with particular emphasis on discipline education as the core part of early childhood education. Students learn the simple rule of cleaning any place once they make it dirty. Acquiring such a simple virtue was the key for students to understand the importance of both cleanliness and responsibility on the one hand, and to build up a sense of equal fellowship on the other.
Now that Japan’s civic virtue has been accepted in the Egyptian education system, with the first batch of 35 Japanese-style schools opened in September 2018, the initiative expects to increase the number of such schools to as many as 200. As we want to know what Japan will become in the Reiwa era, the fact that one of the country’s cultural traits is being utilized for societal enlightenment abroad is more encouraging news than any efforts to boost the country’s national prestige abroad through GDP buoyancy.
Japan will inevitably have to accept immigrants from abroad in the future. It will be indispensable for them to assimilate into Japanese culture. For the Japanese population that will be required to open up the country sooner or later, it is certainly encouraging that there now appear to be people abroad willing to respect and follow Japanese culture.
Special to The Yomiuri Shimbun