Staff writer

Japan enters the 21st century conflicted. After “an economic miracle,” realizing a national goal of catching up with, and surpassing, the West and emerging as one of the world’s economic powerhouses, the Japanese have every reason to look to the future with confidence. Yet a decade of stagnation has exposed every nerve end and magnified every failure. National leaders speak of the need for fundamental change, and make gestures in that direction. Resistance is strong, though. Calls for change are met with redoubled support for traditional solutions, while each action generates a conservative reaction.

If no clear picture emerges, it is because the Japanese themselves are confused. A recent study of public opinion by the Dentsu Institute for Human Studies reveals a profoundly ambivalent nation. At a critical point in their history, the Japanese have a high regard for many of the “defining values” of their society, even though they seem resigned to modifying and even abandoning them.

One thing that does emerge from the poll data is a deep pessimism about the future. Although 36.6 percent of Japanese believe that “my country will be a better country 10 years from now” (an increase from 29.3 percent three years ago), that is by far the grimmest outlook in Asia.

The second-worst nation is Thailand, but there, more than three-quarters of respondents (77.3 percent) think the future will be better. In Jakarta, 92.3 percent can be called optimists; in Seoul, 91.4 percent; in Singapore, 90.8 percent, while in China, 87.9 percent anticipate a brighter tomorrow. Only Berliners (37.5 percent) shared Japan’s dour outlook.

The reasons for Japanese pessimism are readily apparent. When asked what aspects of their country excel in comparison to others, only “safety” topped 50 percent. Despite having the world’s second-largest economy, only 17.8 percent of Japanese respondents said they could be proud of their economic power. Sadly, only 1.8 percent said “international leadership”; still less, 1.7 percent, said “international political power.” Only 29.4 percent applauded the “quality of the people” (topping China, France and Sweden).

Remarkably for a country that has long prided itself on its ie-based, or family-centered, system of social support, only 9 percent cited the social system. That figure bested China (8.5 percent) and South Korea (3.3 percent), however. As the analysts from the Dentsu Institute of Human Studies poignantly note: “Japan’s loss of confidence stands out.”

Standing on the threshold of the information era, Japan seems frozen. Although the number of Japanese online is growing (those saying they had no access dropped from 69.2 percent in 1997 to 61.9 percent in 1998), it is still the worst among the developed nations surveyed. Even South Korean respondents said they had more access to the Internet (only 61.7 percent said they had no access at all.)

Low hopes for high tech

The wireless boom is changing Japan’s online population, but the Dentsu survey shows that access alone is not the answer. Across the board, Japanese have low expectations of the benefits to be reaped from new technology.

In every nation, more than 50 percent of respondents said that they saw access to information from around the world as a benefit of information technology. But only in Japan was that the only benefit, as seen by more than half the respondents. Less than half (46.3 percent) thought it would make work more efficient; slightly less (45 percent) thought it would stimulate the economy; less than a quarter (22 percent) said it would make life more convenient through online shopping; one-fifth (20.3 percent) felt it would create more business opportunities.

Dentsu analysts argue that the Japanese “seem to be uncertain as to how and for what ends they should utilize the fruits of information technology to renovate and organize the social system.” Information technology is just a tool, however. More ominous for the country’s future in an era of globalization, the results show resistance to the idea of internationalization. For example. 76.9 percent of Japanese say they can hardly speak English at all, topped in Asia only in Jakarta (83 percent).

Less than half of Japanese (48.6 percent) said they had no interest in information from abroad; only residents of Mumbai, in India, showed a similar lack of interest (50.8 percent) in the world beyond their borders.

Japanese “exclusiveness” manifests itself in other ways. Only one-third of respondents said that welcomed international marriages; again, only in India were positive feelings lower (31.8 percent). Among other nations, only in South Korea did less than half of respondents (41.3 percent) say they welcomed it. (At the same time, only in South Korea and India did more respondents flatly oppose international marriages than do Japanese.)

A final reason for Japan’s pessimism concerns politics. A decade of economic stagnation should signal the need for change. That requires a political class ready to take up the challenge and the Japanese people have little hope of that. A total of 78.9 percent of Japanese feel that politics does not reflect the people’s will. No other nation has that high a level of disaffection. Only in South Korea does the level of dissatisfaction approach that of Japan, but even there it is almost one-quarter less, 60.4 percent. In Germany, 71 percent of respondents pronounced themselves unhappy with the state of politics, although that may have changed since the election of Prime Minister Gerhard Schroeder.

Nonetheless, the Japanese are not looking for a change in leadership. They show a continuing preference (55.4 percent) for a coordinator-type leader, who listens to different opinions and irons out differences.

The bright side

The image revealed by the survey results is dark, but there are grounds for hope. The Japanese show a growing preference for a society that favors “equal opportunity” over “equal outcome.” The former is preferred by 51.8 percent of respondents (if “somewhat” is included), and 30.6 percent are undecided. Only 17.2 percent think that Japan should be an egalitarian society in the future. Those numbers are encouraging, as is the trend: Both the number of people preferring an “equal outcome” and the number of undecideds has been dropping over the survey period. (This assumes, of course, that moving away from a broadly egalitarian society is considered progress; traditionalists will bemoan the loss of a defining feature of postwar Japan.)

Growing numbers of Japanese seem interested in starting their own businesses. While those who don’t want to do so outnumber those who do by almost two to one, more than half of men between the ages of 18-39 showed interest in it.

There is increasing support in Japan for corporate accountability (47.9 percent, up from 33.1 percent in 1996) and disclosure (45.3 percent, up from 35.2 percent in ’96), although the Dentsu analysts point out that it is not clear who the accountability is to. Anglo–American capitalist models would suggest accountability to shareholders, but the Japanese could demand a broader social responsibility, which would be more in keeping with traditional Japanese business models.

The new entrepreneurism is paralleled by a loss of support for many of the distinctive features of Japanese-style management. A mere 6.3 percent of respondents agreed that Japanese companies should retain seniority-based promotion systems. Slightly more than a quarter (26.3 percent) supported lifetime employment; 26.6 percent favored long-term over short-term profit. Only 8.4 percent thought company loyalty should be preserved.

The Dentsu analysts see these results as the hard edge of a promising trend; a less ambitious assessment is equally persuasive.

In no country except Japan did less than 50 percent of respondents agree that “the pursuit of profit” is important for corporations. Even in China, home of the socialist market economy, 62.9 percent of respondents said that profits were important; in Japan, the corresponding figure was 41.8 percent. Instead, Japanese put their priorities on the provision of quality goods and services (71.7 percent) and satisfying employees through wages and fringe benefits (65.2 percent).

Similarly, there is little sense that the Japanese are ready to abandon the paternalism that has been such a prominent feature of their society. Although the Japanese don’t believe that the political system reflects their will, 41.7 percent still expect politicians to lead social development. Nongovernmental organizations were second (31 percent), business leaders third (25.9 percent) and bureaucrats tailed behind (9.8 percent).

Consistent with that result, more Japanese support a society that protect safety and economic stability through regulations (41.9 percent) than through private initiative (33.9 percent). While the gap between the two is narrowing, there has been an increase in support for both positions as the number of “undecideds” falls.

That encapsulates the mood in Japan at the dawn of a new millennium. Growing numbers of Japanese are frustrated with the state of the nation, but many are reluctant to abandon time-tested formulas. That reticence is understandable, but the cost of indecision is growing. The real wild card is what will happen as the country becomes increasingly polarized over its priorities and preferences.

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