The BBC in October published a glowing encomium to Japanese cleanliness. “How,” it asks, “does Japan stay so clean?”
It’s deeply ingrained, the report explains. Shinto purifies the body, Buddhism cleanses the mind, the tea ceremony sweeps the last speck of dust from the rustic tea hut. Heir to all this is the modern classroom, which children end every school day by cleaning, to the bemused admiration of non-Japanese worldwide.
So clean a country ought to be happier. The U.N.’s World Happiness Report ranks Japan 58th this year, suggesting something deeply wrong somewhere. Tadashi Yanai, Japan’s richest man and founder and president of Fast Retailing, famous especially for its clothing chain Uniqlo, looks bleakly into the future. “Japan is going extinct,” he told Nikkei Business magazine last month.
Where the BBC sees school cleanliness, Spa magazine this month sees “school hell.” The moral filth hit the fan in early October, implicating four Kobe elementary school teachers in alleged harassment of younger colleagues. A less euphemistic age than ours would have called it torture. It went on apparently for a year and a half, finally coming to light when one victim’s family complained to the local school board. Allegations include throttling, beating, insults, forced feedings of spicy curry and alcohol, forced obscene behavior and so on. One wonders how the victims bore it so long in silence. One wonders what the children are thinking now that the silence is broken. How would this look to an 8-, 9- or 10-year-old?
Yanai’s fear of extinction is based partly on the nation’s rapid aging, partly on the national psychology as he sees it — an excessively timid psychology, clinging even today to group identity and such remnants of a kinder, gentler, less adult past as lifetime employment, seniority-based promotions and a protective but stifling government bureaucracy, which he has recommended slashing in half.
Shukan Gendai magazine this month takes issue with that, asking, “Is Japan really so bad?” Do the rugged self-reliance and pursuit of unlimited growth that Yanai embraces necessarily make for a better world? Lifetime employment, the magazine argues, eased a lot of anxiety; you saw your future clearly and drew in your competitive claws a bit — softening, perhaps, the compulsive malice whose latest symbol, the Kobe teachers, is by no means its only one.
The Kobe school — Higashisuma Elementary — is no different from schools generally, Spa finds. Teaching’s a prickly profession, veteran teachers say. Resentment seethes. Japan’s teachers are notoriously overworked, burdened with administrative chores in addition to teaching. Thirty percent of elementary school teachers — and 60 percent of junior high school teachers — work 60 hours or more a week, education ministry figures show. That’s “borderline karōshi,” said Shukan Toyo Keizai magazine in September. Karōshi means death from overwork. Overwork that doesn’t kill you can still kill something in you, something human — humanity itself, maybe.
Higashisuma’s principal treated what was going on as innocent fun — hard play after hard work. His failure to intervene may have invited escalation. Still, even in schools under sterner supervision, tension crackles beneath the pedagogical surface — as it does beneath the corporate surface, if the spread lately of pawahara (power harassment) is indicative.
Shukan Gendai, charging Yanai with extolling growth for growth’s sake, proposes an alternative — restrained desire, disciplined appetites, growth not as an end in itself but as a means to more livable, more human lives. Mass aging will curb growth anyway, barring mass immigration — but that solution, if it is one, raises a question not yet adequately dealt with, the magazine fears: How many foreign nationals can Japan admit, and on what terms, without “depriving Japanese of a place in our own country?” Better, says Shukan Gendai, keep the numbers down and let society evolve away from self-centered self-reliance toward a less ambitious, more socially oriented “mutual aid” mindset.
“Extinct,” Yanai says of Japan’s possible fate. It’s a risk the planet runs too. “How dare you?” demanded Greta Thunberg of world leaders at the U.N. in September. The 16-year-old Swedish climate activist was furious. “All you can talk about,” she said, “is money and fairy tales about eternal economic growth.”
That’s all there is to talk about, U.S. President Donald Trump in effect replied to her last week, formally launching his country’s withdrawal from the greenhouse-gas-limiting Paris agreement.
The next day, as though in reply to him, a global team of 11,258 scientists in 153 countries declared a climate emergency of appalling proportions, foreseeing “untold human suffering,” barring vast changes not at present on the horizon. The scientists’ report, published in the journal Bioscience, echoes Thunberg’s disgust. “Despite 40 years of global climate negotiations, with few exceptions, we have generally conducted business as usual and have largely failed to address this predicament,” the report said.
Thunberg’s activism began in August 2018 with lonely sit-ins in front of the Swedish parliament. Her placard read, “School strike for climate.” She cut a forlorn figure. Did she foresee then the global movement she now leads? It’s called Fridays for Future and it mobilizes millions. “The movement’s momentum has even reached Japan,” Metropolis magazine observed acidly this past August. Fridays for Future Tokyo held its first rally in February — “its 20 or so student protesters outnumbered by reporters.” Organizers persisted and the numbers rose — to thousands at best, compared to tens of thousands elsewhere in the world.
“I wanted to change people’s awareness like Greta, but I couldn’t,” organizer Sayaka Miyazaki, a 22-year-old Rikkyo University student, lamented to the Asahi Shimbun in September.
She may yet. Greta didn’t become Greta overnight.
“In World Cup football tournaments in Brazil (2014) and Russia (2018), (Japan’s) national team’s fans amazed the world by staying behind to pick up rubbish from the stadium,” continues the BBC report. “The players also left their dressing room in immaculate condition. ‘What an example for all teams!’ tweeted FIFA’s general coordinator, Priscilla Janssens.”
A Hiroshima prefectural official is quoted as saying: “We Japanese are very sensitive about our reputation in others’ eyes. We don’t want others to think we are bad people who don’t have enough education or upbringing to clean things up.”
There’s a lot of cleaning up to do. It has barely begun.
Big in Japan is a weekly column that focuses on issues being discussed by domestic media organizations. Michael Hoffman’s latest book is an essay collection titled “Fuji, Sinai, Olympos.”