Maybe it was Benjamin Disraeli or maybe it was Mark Twain or maybe it was me who said, “There are lies, damned lies, and statistics . . . followed by Japanese financial data.”
For who can make numerical sense out of the last 15 years of Japanese money woes? Bad news haunts economic reports even now, with the loud pop of the bubble only a messy and distant echo. Mention the economy and staid businessmen will wring their hands, politicians will scrunch their brows and TV anchormen will breathe deep, before breaking for commercials.
The threat of cutbacks jars Japanese harmony like fingernails on a blackboard. Yet — everywhere I look — most people still seem to have jobs.
Sure, the not-so-distant claims of near 100 percent employment must be weighed with sarcasm in the shantytowns of the homeless that now decorate most Japanese municipalities. In similar manner, the gloom and doom prophecies of an economy spiraling into oblivion are no doubt viewed with skepticism in spots like Shibuya or Odaiba, where carefree teens toss around yen like confetti.
The final figures concerning exactly how jobbed or jobless this country truly is probably lie somewhere in the overstuffed hard drive of a government employee who toils away 70 hours a week, not because he has too much work or because his office is understaffed, but rather because all his pals are pulling in overtime too. In Japan, you see, it doesn’t pay to be different, especially at the workplace. Birds of a feather punch their time clock together — whether the work be needed or not.
From my long-nosed perspective, Japan is full of needless jobs, even in these bleak postbubble days when many people can barely afford their Luis Vuitton handbags. In fact, if I were job-hunting, I would not hesitate in leaping after any of the following plum positions:
Department store clerk: Not in my local department store, mind you, for there the clerks are all either racing to service customers or — as is the case when I need help — hiding somewhere out of sight. No, the better position is in one of those classy department stores in the Ginza or Nihonbashi, where the clerks almost outnumber the customers two to one and the job description involves mainly bowing and smiling. Which are not hard tricks to learn when you’re getting paid for them.
Municipal office worker: The other day I decided to count the number of staffers behind the counter at my city office as opposed to those citizens standing out front. I entered this decision because I had been planted out front for quite a while, hoping someone would either bow or smile at me. Twelve other residents stood alongside. Behind lounged the employees of the city . . . 95 of them.
I know that number’s accurate because I had a wealth of time to count. Yet most of those employees did indeed appear busy, slapping papers left and right — for what offenses I do not know. But I could do that. With the tax-palace city office being a rather ritzy place to do it.
Toilet cleaner: Most people think this job stinks. Not me. For toilet bowls and urinals only become dirty if they are used. If you spend all day cleaning them, that never happens. I know several public toilets that always seem closed for cleaning. I know others where the little ol’ toilet lady kamikazes in with her rubber gloves and brush almost the moment you finish up. Having a female spectator tap the floor in such earnest expectation has also been known to clog some men’s plumbing. Which makes the final job easier yet. Not bad work, if you don’t mind the view.
Safety guard: Safety guards are those fellows who guide you around minor construction in the road. Now that is a worthwhile profession and is only rendered superfluous by:
A. The fact that 99 times out of 100 there is only one possible path, with the alternatives being either to waltz into traffic or march into a steamroller. I gather most people could figure out the correct course on their own — especially since it is often traced with blinking lights.
B. The guards put too much body English into their work. All that is necessary is a simple “Be careful, please.” Instead, passersby receive a swoop of the arm and maybe even an escort of several steps. (And remember . . . there’s only one way to go). Such exaggeration makes me wonder how long some guards have been out in the sun. Nice work, though, if you can get it.
Ticket clipper: Alas, this job exists no more! Yet barely 10 years ago each wicket at each train station in this train happy nation had one — if not several — slouch-hatted, dead-eyed employees whose sole job was to clip your ticket as you squeezed on through. These men were also expert at twirling their ticket clippers around their fingers, not unlike bored schoolboys with mechanical pencils, which I am sure they all once were. Automated ticket machines, unfortunately, have erased this artful employment from the earth, also — could it be? — reducing the railways’ personnel costs. But, to paraphrase Butch Cassidy, ’twas a small price to pay for beauty. Which makes me wonder . . . where did they all go?
Automated ticket machine repairman: Ever notice that there is always at least one machine broken down? The repairman, some guy in a slouched hat, opens the machine, pokes around for a bit, then squirts it with oil and — presto! — all is well. The perfect job for bored schoolboys.
“All is well” might be a motto for the Japanese economy. It gets worse, but it never gets bad. And that is not a lie, a damned lie or a statistic. It’s just the not-so-awful truth.