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Japan suffers from the grand illusion of prosperity

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There are so many reasons to hate your job, if you’re lucky enough to have one. The top four, according to Spa! magazine, are: stagnant salaries; a sense of being underappreciated and underevaluated; an overriding, unfocused anxiety; and a lost sense of purpose.

Sixteen additional dissatisfactions follow. They are pretty much what you’d expect in a list like this, the only surprise being how widespread they are, shared by some 70 percent of 1,140 male full-time company employees in their 40s surveyed by Spa!

The picture that emerges is of work as, at best, an unhappy experience; at worst, a miserable one. You work yourself to the bone only to be urged to work harder; you barely met this month’s inflated quota only to find next month’s even more demanding; your boss hates you and you hate him; your subordinates hate you and you don’t know what to make of them; the expected promotion didn’t come through and it was your last chance, given your age and the accelerating pace of technological and other change that leaves you at sea even in your present job, let alone the one on the next step up. Never mind promotion — what if you get laid off, or the company goes bankrupt? Is it impossible? Is anything?

Prosperity has not been kind to Japan. Signs of worse to come were visible as early as 1983, when, amid the giddy affluence of what a decade later was to reveal itself as a “bubble economy,” a middle-aged steel company executive quoted by the American newsweekly Time sounded almost nostalgic for wartime poverty: “We work hard, but even we don’t know what we work for. Those of the war generation experienced hunger, and that spurred them to work with a passion. … But look at us.” Spa!’s complaint No. 4 evidently has a long history: “We just work to support our wives and children and meet our mortgage payments.”

Today’s nostalgia is for the confident ability to at least do that. “I leave for work in the morning wondering if today’s the day the company folds,” Spa! hears from a 42-year-old advertising executive. Or the employer might survive, but not the employee. “Am I next?” frets a 49-year-old food company executive who knows how vulnerable his age group is to layoffs that have already begun.

Salaries that were supposed to rise on the wings of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s “Abenomics” reform package have in some sectors but not in others — not in that of the 41-year-old IT worker, for instance, who complains he earns no more than he did in his 30s, which would be tolerable if not for the added expenses of a home loan and looming college fees for the kids. Financial strain and a swelling workload have him toiling overtime and on Saturdays. “Work-life balance? Forget it,” he says.

Why are workloads swelling? For numerous reasons. Cut-throat competition is one. The shrinking workforce is another. A third is a seeming paradox: the widespread effort of late to curb overtime. High-profile episodes of karōshi (death due to overwork) have given overtime a bad name, as has media exposure of exploitative practices of burakku kigyō (black companies). So some companies at least usher everyone out at quitting time — but the work still has to be done, and the pressure to do it within regulation time can be as taxing as working 100 hours a week instead of the standard 40.

Consultant Hisashi Otsuka may have hit on something more fundamental. “Japan,” he tells Spa!, “evolved from a high-growth economy to a mature one — but companies are still mired in obsolete high-growth thinking.” In a high-growth economy, growth is pursued for its own sake, an end in itself. A mature economy, already prosperous, grows more slowly and affords the leisure to aim towards a higher end — the good life, however defined. Growth for growth’s sake, against the grain of altered social priorities, means, in practice, simply this, a 47-year-old medical equipment salesman explains bitterly: “If my sales don’t go up I’m subject to immediate dismissal. That’s the pressure I’m under. Spending time with my kids is impossible.”

Poverty in the midst of plenty is a recurring theme in Japan. Waseda University researcher Hideoki Fukuoka, in an interview published last month by the Asahi Shimbun, raised a shocking example: The average weight of Japanese newborn infants has been declining since 1980; it is now the lowest in the developed world. Pregnant women are undernourished. If “developed” means anything, its definition should surely include the adequate nourishment of pregnant women. What’s to blame when it doesn’t? Household poverty, sometimes. But Fukuoka emphasizes what seems a kind of voluntary self-starvation — 1,700 calories daily for an average woman in her 20s, when anything less than 1,950 “is the worst form of human stress there is.”

Why do women impose it on themselves? Partly, says Fukuoka, in hopes of recovering a trim figure immediately after birth; partly because a smaller baby is likely to make for an easier delivery. Long-term effects on the child’s health are only approximately predictable but include heightened susceptibility to high blood pressure and diabetes.

Poverty of a different kind was discussed in February by the weekly Shukan Kinyobi: linguistic attrition. Smartphone communication does scant justice to nuance, shades of feeling, complexity of thought. Why search for words when emoticons are handy? Before you know it you’ve shrunk your mental and emotional horizons to what they can convey. Kohei Yano tells Shukan Kinyobi he notices it in the kids he teaches at a juku (cram school) he founded. He wrote a book about it. The smartphone and its message apps, he argues, “turn children into dummies and push their Japanese language to the brink of collapse.”

Konosuke Matsushita (1894-1989) would have deplored all this, had he lived to see it. Best known as the founder of Matsushita Electric Industrial Co. Ltd. (now Panasonic Corp.), Matsushita had a social and corporate philosophy that is disarming in its simplicity. “The mission of a manufacturer,” he said, “is to overcome poverty.”

He might have died thinking, “Mission accomplished.” Japan in 1989 was solidly and broadly middle class — a stupendous achievement for a nation that 44 years earlier had been as near dead as any living nation ever has been. Japan was at its postwar peak. Peaks are notoriously slippery.

Michael Hoffman’s latest books are “In the Land of the Kami: A Journey into the Hearts of Japan” and “Other Worlds.”