Weighing in on the ‘real Japan’


Murray Sayle, 76, likes to tell how he was delivered by the same doctor as Australian Prime Minister John Howard; how he lived a few streets away from him and went to the same high school, and then the same university.

However, for Sayle, the small mountain village of Aikawa, 100 km from Tokyo in Kanagawa Prefecture, isn’t a long way from home. It is home. He’s spent close to 30 years in “real Japan,” close to “real Japanese,” trying to work out its puzzles.

He’s no newcomer to the world of “intellectual journalism.” He has edited Newsweek Asia, published 67 cover stories for the Spectator, written for the New Yorker, the London Review of Books, the New York Review of Books, and more — in short, “all the publications in the English language that would publish a 10,000-word article.”

Armchair intellectual, he isn’t. He covered most of the Middle Eastern wars; two Indo-Pak wars, the Vietnam War, Northern Ireland, and many more. When working for The Sunday Times in London, he broke the story of Che Guevara in Bolivia. He interviewed the double-agent Kim Philby in Moscow.

He’s written authoritative works questioning the part played by the atomic bomb in ending World War II, the role of the Imperial family and the impact of the sarin nerve-gas attacks. His contributions to books on China and Japan — among them “Hiroshima’s Shadow” — make him a prominent voice on modern Japan. Sayle lets forth on how much of Japan he’s figured out during his long stay here.

How did you come to live in Aikawa?

It was 1966, and I had to get back to London from Vietnam, and I thought I’d go through Tokyo. You never read anything in the newspapers about Japan — all you ever read about was Vietnam. At first sight, I thought Tokyo was an incredible dynamo. I thought something terribly big was happening here and nobody was writing a word about it.

What made you think something so huge was happening?

There was enormous vitality: buildings shooting up all over the place; things I’d never seen before, like the monorail, then the most modern in the world; the bullet train; the enormous industrial area, from Tokyo down to Yokohama. You could be on Mars in this place. It didn’t look like anywhere else. And I couldn’t understand what made it work — you know, who are these people? And by the way, weren’t they supposed to have been destroyed in World War II? There were many mysteries about these people, so I made a note: “Japan: interesting.”

Then it was ’75, and I was living in Hong Kong, editing Asia Newsweek and covering the end of the Vietnam War. I suppose I was thinking of settling down. There are two types of journalists, and there is a gulf forever set between those who go and those who stay at home. Sitting in an office shuffling papers is not for me. So this was a compromise between being out on the job and at home at the same time. I said to Jenny, my wife, “Why don’t we go and live in Japan for six months?” Because the rent was too high in Tokyo, we went to live in the countryside.

The village dynamics and your family’s position in that community became clear through how people responded to your house burning down in 1988. Could you tell me about that?

What we’ve got going for us is not me . . . [it] is Jenny, the English sensei. After the fire, we went back and found two ladies in the smoldering wreckage of the house at two tables, collecting money from a file of people who went by, and from then on it was all astonishment. Who are these people? Where’s this money coming from? They found us an empty house to live in and people came to the door with clothes, pots, pans, even an old typewriter with an English keyboard. What they were saying was, “Don’t go away.”

From this time you became part of the chonaikai (village association). How does that function?

Well, it’s slowly dying, even our chonaikai, because the people are getting older. There are 38 houses in our chonaikai. Each house has to supply someone to go to the meetings, which are about once a month in the house of the kaicho (head of the chonaikai). He gets selected by a Buggins-turn system — no real election. At the meetings no vote is ever taken: That would be divisive. The more you see this functioning, the more you understand how the Japanese avoid ever making hard decisions. What you do is something called nemawashi — that means people go around, hinting and working on an agreement without actually committing themselves. So suddenly somebody introduces a resolution, and everybody then claps because it’s all fixed in advance.

Rather than viewing Aikawa as a microcosm of Japanese society, you seem to view it as a lens through which you can examine the whole of Japanese society.

All this is reflected, as I see it, in the current impasse in Japanese politics. Like how the Japanese can arrive at a decision, or more likely how they can avoid arriving at a decision. Because this system leads to paralysis: They will not make up their collective mind about something until everybody agrees. . . . the inability to force a decision on people who do not agree with it; it’s conservatism. We did it this way yesterday so we’re going to do it this way today. This conservative system is fine when things are going well, but it’s terrible when hard decisions have to be made.

Obviously, the problems associated with the aging population are clear to see in Aikawa.

Oh, absolutely. When Alex [the Sayles’ first child, now 24] went to school, he walked with a han, a group of eight. In Malindi’s han [their second child, now 21], there were about five. In Matthew’s han [their third child, now 17], there are two or three. Down the road we have a village doctor. He delivered most of the babies down here, including ours. Less and less babies meant that he has had to close . . .

Also, the rice-growing here is a form of gardening done by old men with machinery. You never see any young people working the rice fields. . . . They want big jobs in the city with expense accounts. But whereas in the country babies were hands to work, in the cities babies are mouths to feed, minds to educate. The economic basis of childbearing has collapsed. This combined with fewer people marrying means that new household formation has practically ceased in Japan. And new household formation was one of the major motors of the Japanese economy. Western countries are making up their numbers with immigrants. Economically, immigration is essential. . . . But the Japanese don’t want it. They want to keep as much of traditional Japanese society as they can.

Apart from the economic impact of the aging population, how can Japan’s economic problems be seen in Aikawa?

Japanese craftsmanship is still visible in Aikawa: making sake, wood products, silk. This reveals another side of the Japanese personality: doing things properly. But it means the goods have become too expensive, and cheaper stuff is coming in from China. Yesterday I was talking to a man here who owns a clothing store. I am sure he has not sold anything for weeks, because he only stocks Japanese clothes, and everybody goes down to Uniqlo.

The second thing we can see here is this pocket of old Japan being steadily destroyed by the modern world. The conveniences of urban life have now taken over the Japanese countryside. Once upon a time we had to use a village shop, because there were no supermarkets. Now . . . all the little mom-and-pop shops are closing because of competition from the supermarkets. The big sake brewery has closed down.

Do you think Japan will recover from this 10-year recession?

No, this is permanent. What we’re seeing is a long, slow decline. . . . Where’s the pressure for revolutionary change? People say, “We must reform the system as long as it doesn’t hurt me.” And everybody’s saying that. Where are the people saying, “I’m ready for pain, Boss?” There is no return to the high-growth period. There is no possibility. There aren’t going to be any sensational political reforms. Japan is, on the other hand, terribly vulnerable to an external shock.

What sort of external shock?

One is a major economic downturn in the rest of the world, which would choke off their exports, and I think that’s highly likely, and the mass unemployment could trigger a social breakdown. You have a very fundamental problem here. Japanese think work is the point and purpose of their life. When you had these rice farmers living the old traditional Japanese culture, they wanted to lead a respected life in the village, have a nice tomb, someone to sweep their grave. But they didn’t want to have their name up in lights on Broadway, because their identity came in the groups they belonged to. You know those company badges? They say, “I’m a Toyota man.” This goes even further back to the old samurai: “I’m a member of this clan.” Most still derive their personal identity from the group to which they belong.

To deny a Japanese man work is a terribly dangerous thing to do, because you’re making him redundant as a human being. That’s the other side: pride. You ever see anyone begging in Japan? No, because if you’re strong enough to beg, you’re strong enough to work. See, all this dignity of work, belonging to something, belonging to a system, means that unemployment is very dangerous in Japan. Socially. A revolution, well, a breakdown of social order is not impossible.

Do you think Japan will change its Constitution to take on a greater security role?

Maybe 100 years from now . . . Who is threatening Japan? Nobody that I know of. That means that they do not need to change the Constitution. Nor do they want to: The Japanese prefer not to take risks. It is not very risky having a destroyer in the Persian Gulf: As far as I know Saddam Hussein has no navy. The one thing you can say with absolute certainty is that no Japanese wants to get involved in war, especially if there is any chance of losing. So why change the Constitution to allow for it? Especially when all of Japan’s foreign-policy requirements are already met. . . . access to foreign markets — foreign oil, coal, soy beans etc.; control of the sea to get the goods to Japan; and control of the Korean Peninsula, because if you’re going to invade Japan, that’s the way to do it.

In 1945, the Americans said, “Have we got a deal for you. All you have to do is allow us to use your country as a base for prospective wars against China and Russia. In return we will give you access to the biggest market in the world; we will control the seas on your behalf; and we’ll control the Korean Peninsula in your interests.” Everything Japan had been fighting for was given to them, in a somewhat different form. . . .

And take the consensus approach to decision-making that we already discussed, and there is no chance of change getting through. I don’t think they’ll change the Constitution for a very long time.

How do you see the rivalry between Japan and China playing out?

China is replacing Japan in all sorts of external markets. The Japan that I first saw in 1966 had covered all the bases: low-tech to the highest tech . . . Japan no longer has a monopoly position in anything, except ultra-high tech. They have a good name, but China’s got the cheap labor. Have you seen a Japanese [person’s] clothing lately? Made in China. People used to laugh at the idea. All you could make in China was little bamboo bird-cages. Japan no longer has the enormous range, from low to high-tech, because of other Asian competitors, of which China is the most formidable.

How do you think China will develop?

There will be a growth similar to Japan’s, followed by the greatest demographic crisis the world has ever seen. Chairman Mao managed to get the population of China up from 550 million to 1.2 billion by subsidizing people to have babies. In consequence, they’re all coming on the labor market now . . . and they’re all marrying. But they have now introduced the one-child-per-family policy — they had to — but it means that 600 million non-working Chinese are going to have to be supported by 600 million, or fewer, working Chinese. This enormous bulge of Chairman Mao’s babies, 50 years down the line, is going to be old-age pensioners. Who’s going to pay their pensions? That’s going to be a catastrophe worse than Japan. . . . China’s rising fast, but will one day be the same burned-out rocket as Japan, on a far greater scale.

Well, we’ve discussed the future of Japan. What’s your future in Japan?

Well, we’re not sure. We’ve got kids in Australia. We’re thinking of re-establishing a more permanent base in Australia and another base for them here. We’ve been here long enough. To tell you the truth, I think I’ve solved a lot of the mysteries. Enough for half a lifetime anyway!