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Corporate zombies need ‘rich brains’

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Japan has lost something. That’s a stark but uncontroversial statement. Few whose memory goes back a generation or more will disagree. Controversy arises when the talk turns to what was lost; when, how and why it was lost; whether the nation is the better or worse for having lost it; and, if the former, what to do about recovering or replacing it.

The sense of loss takes one of two forms: nostalgia or ultraconservatism. They overlap. The difference between them is of degree rather than kind. For our purposes, let’s characterize nostalgia as focusing on the 1980s, and ultraconservatism on the first 40 years of the 20th century. Yamatodamashii (Japanese spirit) is the unifying thread. The “corporate warriors” of the ’80s and the military warriors of the earlier period were said to embody it. The term is suggestive enough to be comprehensible and vague enough to stand for, without precisely defining, the quality that Japan today seems bereft of and searching for.

Symbolic of the ultraconservatism of the government led by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is its interest in reviving, for purposes of “moral education,” the Imperial Rescript on Education, a moral guide promulgated in 1890 and, enjoining, among other things, the spirit of self-sacrifice for the sake of the Emperor and nation. Addressed to school children, its most contentious passage is an injunction, “should emergency arise,” to “offer yourselves courageously to the state; and thus guard and maintain the prosperity of Our Imperial Throne coeval with heaven and Earth.” It’s an ethic that survives most conspicuously today in North Korea: “Let us safeguard with our lives the central committee of the party headed by the great comrade Kim Jong Un.”

An article of faith among conservatives is that the nation counts for more than the individual. In its extreme form, the nation is everything, the individual nothing. The corporate warriors of the 1980s also subordinated the individual — not to the nation but to “my company.” The weekly Shukan Gendai looks to them for inspiration. Their drive, motivation and self-sacrifice — carried seldom to the point of death but often to the point of curtailing, if not annihilating, any semblance of personal or family life — sparked and fueled an astonishing economic resurrection. They are a salutary example, the magazine suggests, for today’s less fiercely dedicated salarymen.

Imagine complaining about being forced to work 100 hours a month overtime! Thirty years ago that was nothing. More accurately, it was joy, it was fulfillment. “Work and our companies were everything to us,” reminisces one veteran. “We loved our work. We wanted to work more.” That’s corporate yamatodamashii. It arose from a sense of mission, that of reconstructing a defeated, broken country. It can’t last forever. Prosperity deadens the hunger for prosperity. In the global marketplace, hungrier nations will prosper at Japan’s expense. Government efforts to limit working hours are misguided, Shukan Gendai hears from Jonan Shinyo Kinko Bank president Tsuyoshi Yoshihara. A better labor reform, in his view, would be “to make work a pleasure again.”

How to do that? Entrepreneurship is one route. The monthly magazine Big Tomorrow profiles several successful business creators whose only asset, to begin with, was an idea. What is an idea? Where do ideas come from? You can rack your brain for hours, days, years, in vain; then, suddenly, out of nowhere, a glimmer! A flash! Can you seize it? Interpret it? Put it to work?

Yuji Iketani could. He was (still is) working in an auto parts factory when he heard of a boom in leafy vegetables. They are “healing.” “Healing” things are booming. Iketani’s brain lit up. Leafy vegetables! He could grow them, sell them on Yahoo Auction and launch a second career — as in fact he’s done. You can sell anything on Yahoo Auction: moss, ants, fallen leaves. Iketani does that, too. And potato chips. When typhoons last summer devastated the Hokkaido potato crop, Iketani foresaw what in fact occurred: a dearth of potato chips. He bought and bought — then, at the right time, sold and sold.

Healing. These are stressful times. A little healing would do us all good — an insight that Takako Sakashita parlayed into a string of nail salons for men. It was a bold move. Men and nail art are no obvious match. But seeing what others miss is the very nub of the matter. Men have so few places, Sakashita noticed, “away from it all” — a man’s “it all” seems to follow him everywhere. Not, however, into the nail salon. A nail artist is a kind of therapist. You put yourself in her hands, so to speak, and let your mind drift to spaces it had forgotten existed.

Tsubasa Tanaka was in finance, didn’t like it and was groping for Plan B. What would he like? His experience was so limited. Then it flashed: Why not set up an agency to give clients a bit of hands-on working experience — an afternoon here, a day or a week there, at companies, coffee shops, detective agencies, shrines (what’s it like, being a Shinto priest?). To make a long story short, he’s no longer in finance. He’s “made work a pleasure again.”

Entrepreneurship is only a small part of Big Tomorrow’s overall theme, which is: the brain. There are, it finds, “rich brains” and “poor brains,” roughly corresponding to rich people and poor people. In brief, explains neurologist Toshinori Kato, the rich and successful are people who control their brains. With the poor and unsuccessful, it’s the opposite: their brains control them.

Experience, resilience, defiance of conventional wisdom, a capacity to learn from failure rather than be crushed by it — such are the riches of rich brains, nurturers of rich people rich enough to further nurture their brains. Is this the sort of thing moral education will teach when, under government guidelines, it becomes an official school subject beginning in 2018? One thinks of the patriotic slogans mouthed by 4-year-olds at Moritomo Gakuen nursery school, whose pedagogy was lauded by Abe and his wife, and fears not. The more likely prospect is a resurgence of yamatodamashii.

Morality must strike a delicate balance between selfishness and selflessness. Yamatodamashii has a tendency to see decadence in the former and sublimity in the latter. The 1930s and ’40s showed where that can lead. The state fills the vacuum left by the absconding self. And what is the result — rich brains, or poor brains?

Michael Hoffman is the author of “In the Land of the Kami: A Journey into the Hearts of Japan” and “Other Worlds.”