Philosopher Tatsuru Uchida, interviewed earlier this month by the Asahi Shimbun, merely confirms what we all know, or sense, when he says: “This is an age of transition. We’re going through the confusion characteristic of bedrock change.”
Transition, confusion — yes indeed. “Global capitalism,” he continues, “has reached its limit. Unlimited growth is no longer possible.” It’s a feeling, spoken or unspoken, that must lurk in the back of many minds.
Shukan Shincho magazine does an amusing take on it in a piece titled “Guide to Super-High-Class Japan” — “super-high-class” meaning super-high-priced, as in ¥300,000 tea, ¥50,000 strawberries, ¥80,000-per-hour fortune-telling, and so on. The consumer is the arbiter of whether the quality justifies the cost, but the overriding impression, among those of us unable to afford the experiment, is of excess to the point of pointlessness. Isn’t there an analogy here to Uchida’s point about growth? How much smarter can smartphones get? How much easier can robots, driverless cars, the “Internet of Things” and so on make life? “A lot,” is the correct answer to both questions, but it’s an answer that begs another question: “What for?”
“Bedrock change,” Uchida says. That suggests change touching the fundamental goals for which we live. There have been many such goals down the ages. Heian Japan (794-1185) lived for art, medieval Europe for religion. Modern times saw national greatness emerge as the supreme object of our strivings and, if necessary (or whether necessary or not), self-sacrifice. Postwar thinking idealized economic growth, which made sense when the material underpinnings of a decent life were lacking, but may not now that we seem to have everything — or would perhaps have everything if not for a system that relentlessly favors the rich at the expense of the poor. Uchida’s proposal for a new, post-growth goal is “fair distribution,” the elimination of poverty in a glutted world.
“Fair distribution” is hard to argue with, but purely moral goals seldom inspire prolonged mass ardor; nor is there any sign of it happening now, though if ever a time was favorable to such an evolution, ours is. People are educated enough to appreciate the beauty of justice, prosperous enough to afford some sacrifice toward it without seriously compromising their standard of living, and sufficiently adrift to take up a new cause with enthusiasm. The work of nonprofit organizations, and of volunteers in emergencies such as the Great East Japan Earthquake of 2011, is a hopeful sign, but the former is limited and the latter fitful. Overwhelmingly, the business of Japan remains business as usual.
The sense of a nation stuck in a rut forces itself upon you as you peruse a series of articles in the business magazine President. The key question it poses is (in President’s English), “What should I do to leave an impression better than other people?” “Be above trying,” snaps the snide reader impatiently, but President instead trots out the image consultants and “36 executives from 32 leading companies” for advice on the do’s and don’ts of impression-making. You’d think we were back in 1980. Diversity? Individuality? Rubbish. Japan Inc. remains a charcoal-gray world — meaning charcoal-gray suits make the best impression, with navy a close second. Brown? Light gray? Thumbs down.
Clothing is important, but more important still, says image consultant Naomi Tachibana, is facial expression. Japanese are at a disadvantage here, she says. The easy smile doesn’t come easily to them — unlike Americans and Europeans, who are always ready with a smile that says, “Trust me.” Or maybe it doesn’t say that. Maybe it says the opposite: “Here’s someone who’s been made over by image consultants; what’s he or she really thinking?” The same with clothing, hairstyle, facial expression, posture, briefcase, belt, fountain pen, business card case and so on and so on — all chosen, adopted or tailored with a view toward making that all-important impression.
Thus, for example, in the matter of hairstyles, the spiky “Goromaru cut” looks great on rugby star Ayumu Goromaru but not on you if your job is winning clients — for that, the standard “salaryman cut” is best. Carry a black briefcase, wear black straight-tipped shoes, lean forward slightly when seated at a first meeting (don’t fold your arms on the desk), look appropriately but not excessively contrite when delivering an apology, and above all, study, practice and master the art of smiling (nothing is said about bowing, interestingly enough). The trick is to appear neither dour nor flaky, let alone shifty. It’s a fine line.
President’s articles, of course, are not the last word on the subject, but if we think of them in connection with Uchida’s remarks about “bedrock change” in an “age of transition,” we can only conclude that, in Japan at least, the more things change, the more they remain the same. At the national helm stands a prime minister, Shinzo Abe, whose unabashed conservatism seems to be charting a course back to national greatness as the ultimate goal, above even economic growth, which is also dear to him but primarily, one suspects, as a symbol of national greatness.
This is Abe’s second time around as prime minister. His first term, 2006-7, was an aborted failure. His career seemed over. His comeback in 2012 was stunning but explicable — he promised an economic recovery. Equally stunning but less explicable is his enduring popularity now. The recovery is faltering, and the fears aroused by his policies in other spheres — a state secrets law, an end-run around constitutionally enshrined pacifism, an ambition to revise the Constitution itself in a strikingly illiberal direction — show up in opinion poll after opinion poll. Notwithstanding, his support ratings hover around 45 percent. How? Why?
It has nothing to do with policy, Nihon University “performance studies” professor Ayako Sato tells President. It’s performance. Abe has become a performer. He wasn’t one in his first term, and failed. He is one now, and succeeds. His first time round, Sato says, he would deliver wooden speeches staring at his script, his face expressionless. Now his eyes sweep the room, he makes eye contact, his speech is rhythmic and vibrant, he punches the air for emphasis. Experts call this “non-verbal communication” and say it accounts for 70 percent of a speaker’s effectiveness.
Anyone who has ever seen newsreels of “performances” by the strutting dictators of the 1930s will sense the truth of this, and the terror of it. An “age of transition” ours certainly is, but not necessarily toward “fair distribution.”
Michael Hoffman’s new book, “In the Land of the Kami: A Journey into the Hearts of Japan,” is now out.