“New normal” is an old phrase, traceable to science fiction author Robert Heinlein’s 1966 novel, “The Moon is a Harsh Mistress.” It’s 2075; the moon is a penal colony; the inmates revolt and look forward to a better future, when “life can get back to normal, a new normal … free of the Authority, free of guards … free of passports and searches and arbitrary arrests.”
The crisis-ridden 21st century has given the expression new life and a lurid cast. The Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the United States; the 2008 Lehman Shock; the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake and subsequent nuclear meltdowns; worldwide weather events of unprecedented violence; and, now, the COVID-19 pandemic, all spawned warnings of a “new normal,” more sinister by far than the old, in which anything can happen and much that does is ghastly — hitherto unthinkable, now commonplace.
A book published in June by investment company CEO Masakazu Mito bears the title, “The New Normal: Can You Live in a World in Which the Salaryman is Extinct?”
We’re going to have to, it seems. COVID-19 didn’t kill the distinctive Japanese type known as the “salaryman.” It’s been an endangered species for years. Globalism stunned it, information technology outpaced it, career women challenged its masculine exclusivity — even before artificial intelligence threatened it with terminal redundancy. Then came COVID-19, with its frontal assault on the office culture. “Social distancing,” “remote work,” “officelessness” — can salarymen breathe this air?
They cannot, Mito argues. Only entrepreneurs can, he fears. That’s good and bad — good insofar as the vigorous entrepreneurial spirit is; bad because, after all, the salaryman had his virtues as well, whose extinction would be society’s loss.
No figure typifies postwar Japan better than the salaryman. He was born prewar — fathered, as it happens, by one of the nation’s most remarkable entrepreneurs. Konosuke Matsushita (1894-1989) founded Matsushita Electric in 1918. We know it today as Panasonic Corp.
He was a round peg in a square hole, a visionary among realists — a realist himself, however, one of whose visions, the salaryman, was realism personified to subsequent generations. When the 1929 depression hit and unemployment soared, Matsushita, spurning conventional wisdom (as journalist Mark Weston tells us in “Giants of Japan: The Lives of Japan’s Most Influential Men and Women”), laid no one off. Lifetime employment was his unspoken commitment; company loyalty, the anticipated payoff.
Matsushita didn’t stop there. Next came garnishes like the company song, the daily morning assembly — eccentricities then and quaint now, but in their time a “new normal.” It molded the salaryman ethos.
“When I joined Matsushita in 1937, I hated the daily ritual of morning assembly,” Weston quotes Toshihiko Yamashita as recalling in later years as Matsushita Electric’s president, “everyone reciting the company creed and singing the company song.”
The “creed” consisted of seven “principles”: “Service to the public”; “teamwork for the common cause”; “courtesy and humility”; and so on — platitudes that smack embarrassingly of a return to nursery school; and yet, Yamashita continues, “by daily repetition of these laudable ideas… you gradually take them to heart.”
You had to. “Company officials do their best to reinforce employee identification with the company,” wrote scholar Ezra Vogel in his 1979 classic “Japan as Number One.” “They provide elaborate annual ceremonies for inducting the new employees. … For spiritual and disciplinary training, the employee may go on retreats, visit temples or endure special hardships. … To strengthen the bonds of solidarity, the new employee may be housed in company dorms … even if it means being separated from his spouse or parents.”
Patronizing? Stifling? Some found it so, but for the rest of the 20th century, lifetime employment in the protective environment provided by major Japanese corporations was what college graduates most aspired to — an aspiration far from dead even now. A “lost generation” now in its 40s and 50s, victims of the hiring freeze of the 1990s and 2000s, have ample reason to envy the prosperous stability their fathers and grandfathers took for granted.
Such stability is gone. Society has moved on, the economy has moved on, technological change demands faster responses than traditional corporate consensus-based decision-making can muster. Men want private lives and family lives; women want out of the kitchen and nursery. And now, COVID-19. Company spirit masked is company spirit smothered.
Mito draws our attention to an emerging phrase: bunsan shakai (the dispersed society) — the dissolution, in effect, of “the bonds of solidarity.” If revolution suggests speed as opposed to evolutionary slowness, COVID-19 is a revolution. What it has given us — masks, telework, online socializing, takeout-only “ghost restaurants” — is summed up by two old words newly coupled: “social distance.” Japan had less of it than other developed societies. It’s catching up fast. Not fast enough, if rising infection rates are indicative.
Will we ever relate to each other again as we did pre-COVID-19? If dispersion brings out the latent entrepreneur in us, so much the better, says Mito. The economy will be the richer for it, and so may we all be, in ways not merely economic. It could make us stronger and more self-reliant. It could also, he adds ominously, turn us inward to a degree not necessarily conducive to emotional well-being.
Humans, he points out, are communicating animals. As infants we crave “skinship.” We grow into words and sentences, simple at first, increasingly complex and nuanced as we mature. Children deprived of communication are prone to development problems, he says, and, as adults, no pleasure is complete — and no sorrow unrelieved — without telling someone about it.
New communication devices in the 20th and 21st centuries have driven us from one “new normal” to another, making face-to-face communication less and less necessary, more and more irksome. Before COVID-19, it was already possible to live without ever leaving the house. During COVID-19, we are encouraged to — in some places, required to. After COVID-19, what then?
We’ll know eventually — not soon, barring unforeseen sudden good news on the medical front. The longer COVID-19 endures, the farther its new normals are likely to take us from old ones.
Big in Japan is a weekly column that focuses on issues being discussed by domestic media organizations. Michael Hoffman’s latest book, now on sale, is “Cipangu, Golden Cipangu: Essays in Japanese History.”
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