Make people laugh — that should make the economy better and lead to a bright future for Japan, according to Masao Kimura, board director of the Osaka-based major entertainment firm Yoshimoto Kogyo Co.

“Japan, by any standard, is a rich and safe country,” he said. “But Japanese people just don’t look happy, and I often wonder what they have to complain about. They’re not laughing enough.”

Kimura, 54, is an advocate of “gross happiness product” — an indicator for people’s happiness — to replace the gross domestic product, the current key gauge for economic growth. When the GHP rises, he said, it will eventually boost the economy.

But because people have different perceptions of what happiness is, he said, Japan must remake itself into a society that is more open to diversity.

“Scrap the systems we have today and build new ones,” he said in reference to the straitjacketlike constraints for just about everything in Japan, ranging from government administration to corporate management and education.

Kimura, who earned a reputation for shrewdness after rescuing Yoshimoto’s comedy theater, does not worry about friction when trying to bring about change.

A decade ago, Yoshimoto’s flagship “shin-kigeki” (new comedy) theater was struggling as show attendance declined sharply. Then entered Kimura, who terminated contracts with all regular members — whether big-name comedians or novices — and rehired those willing to work under a new policy and contract.

While some veterans left, many others, especially younger comedians, remained with a renewed spirit, eventually drawing audiences back to the theater.

Kimura emphasized during a recent interview in Tokyo that the best economic system would be one that gives full play to one’s vitality. “I don’t think the qualities of the Japanese are inferior (to those of Americans). But we must first create a system under which people can fully display their individual skills, a system that accepts greater diversity.”

Winning wide acclaim as a man who can turn things around, Kimura is now a frequent lecturer at seminars sponsored by private firms and local governments. But he is often disappointed when he actually meets those seeking his tips for revitalization.

“When I go to local cities and meet people, they say they want to change and revitalize . . . but everybody seems to be hoping to change in the same way,” he said.

The current sense of stagnation will not dissipate unless people stop trying to race toward a uniform goal, according to Kimura.

In reforming the administrative system, for instance, Kimura calls for dividing the nation into regional blocs, each of which is given authority in such areas as taxation, education and economic regulations so that they can compete with each other.

If entrusted with managing the Kansai region, covering Osaka, Kyoto, Hyogo and several other prefectures, Kimura said he would “reduce the corporate tax rate to zero . . . so that many firms would move into the region and generate employment.”

Then, he said, he would tackle education reform, promoting universities with distinctive features, such as “one that can create Japan’s No. 1 carpenter.”

“Not everyone can or must go to the University of Tokyo . . . and we just don’t need all those so-so universities with their near-identical departments,” he said.

A university in Tottori Prefecture, for instance, should take advantage of its sand dunes — the area’s most distinctive geographical feature — and become the top school in the study of deserts, he said.

With its confidence as an economic power greatly eroded over the past decade, Japan seems to have finally awakened to the need to shift from a conformist society to one that respects originality.

So, today’s children may end up living in a different Japan when they are adults, and young people will probably manage to accept the new reality. But what about those in their 40s and 50s who find their job security at stake?

“I truly feel sorry for them,” Kimura said. “They have led much of their corporate lives believing they were playing under one rule, but the rule changed.”

However, his sympathy is tempered by a belief that “they could have noticed the turning of the tide if they had been alert enough.”

And even now, it’s not too late, he said. “With things having come to this point, they should try to take the opportunity to rethink their identity as a private citizen, not a corporate man.”

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