This is the eighth of a 10-part series on contemporary Japan.

Japanese people are known for their openness to the abrasive opinions of foreigners. There are not many countries that would welcome or allow, as Japan does, foreign commentators, some of them as basely misinformed as they are highly opinionated, to deride their populace for one trait or another on national television. Whether it be by virtue of deep-seated tolerance or giddy masochism — or both — the Japanese are wondrously open to outside judgment.

In the 1980s, I had the good fortune of being able to appear regularly on a radio program that was broadcast across the country. The host was an affable and incisive critic who made me feel very much at home. There was a single instance, however, when his hackles visibly rose and he said on the air, “I’m afraid that you are very wrong about that, Mr. Pulvers.” No other statement of mine about the nature of life in Japan had hit his nationalistic nerve as had this one.

To me it had been a relatively innocuous comment, but to my generally magnanimous host they were “fightin’ words.” I had said that I believed that the “churyu ishiki,” the “middle-class consciousness,” was largely a myth in Japan. That by propagating this term the media were merely pulling the wool over the eyes of ordinary citizens, convincing them that they were genuinely sharing in the unprecedented affluence that many in the country were seemingly enjoying.

The term “middle-class consciousness” has since gone into disuse. Its implication was that Japanese values were primarily homogeneous, that the vast majority of the people of this country shared equally in the bounty of lucre that had come Japan’s way, that there was nothing like a class system extant in Japan. According to this superficially luculent premise, virtually all Japanese lived in similar types of housing, ate the same rice, pickles and buckwheat noodles as everyone else, despised conspicuous inequities and shunned pomp.

The West bought this image of Japan, for it suited the Western preconception of Japanese as conformists of the first order. In reality it was an extension of the old stereotype, reinforced by prewar Japanese militarists, portraying Japanese as dronelike, single-minded battlers. The political culture of this country since the mid-1950s, alike in its reactionary spirit — if not in the repressive means it would have at its disposal — to that which existed before the war, had encouraged all to believe in the “middle-class consciousness” in order to assuage the doubts of the populace about their real share of the bounty and thereby mollify their demands.

You would not have known by watching the serious, issue-oriented talk shows that proliferated in the 1980s that there were any problems whatsoever in this society. Child abuse, sexual harassment, substandard hygiene in public institutions such as hospitals and schools, domestic violence, profound teenage depression, dissatisfaction with uncompromising learning by rote, wretched housing conditions in many parts of the country, deliberate neglect of the problems of old age, a shabby approach to welfare . . . these and other similar concerns were by and large “discovered” by most Japanese people in the 1990s. As I was told by one expert on a television talk show, problems like these are “your problems . . . we in Japan don’t experience them because we are all part of a middle class with middle-class values of equality and morality.”

It is true that the leading elements in this society, from the Imperial family to the politicians and their shady kingmakers, have made it a point to follow and display the precepts of inconspicuous consumption. The ruling principle here is a reticent modesty that avoids, at all costs, making the rich appear greedy or the greedy appear self-partial. If we refuse to aggrandize our benefit in this burgeoning national wealth, they tell their loyal citizenry, then you must be content with the share that you get. Any complaint about your not getting your due from the country, says the wicked psychology of this ruling principle, will be branded as tawdry selfishness and damnable avarice.

So the Japanese citizens of the 1980s accepted it hook, line and sinker: that they were reaping the benefits of the new shared affluence by being able to purchase name-brand goods at the exorbitant prices that alone proved their worth; able to travel overseas, paying more for their airline ticket or hotel room or gourmet meal than people from other countries did; and that, in short, they were really just like every other Japanese, all jolly together in the same jaunty, newly reconditioned boat “Made in Japan.” This final ability particularly pleased many Japanese, for nothing hits the old funny bone in this country like the tickler of imagined sameness.

It has been said that Japan requires a thoroughgoing crisis to jolt it onto the track of change. This was certainly true of the two great periods of national transformation, in the last decades of the 19th century and in the decade following World War II.

The present jolt came with the cracking of the myth of middle-class self-satisfaction in the early ’90s. The recession that followed, still very much dominating the psychology of the entire society, has only reinforced the truth of the realization that there are stubborn and gaping inequalities in this country that were exacerbated, not ameliorated, by the profligate neglect of the 1980s. That neglect, of people’s real welfare, of their aspirations for Japan to become democratic in the deeds of social betterment, was hidden beneath the veneer of the “middle-class consciousness.” The cracking of that veneer revealed large clumps of rot underneath.

The positive element in all this is that the Japanese people are no longer eager to close their eyes to what has been uncovered in the last 10 years. The majority recognizes that all people in Japan do not enjoy a similar lifestyle. The people are gradually beginning to demand redress from their leaders, even to elect leaders from outside the dominant political culture.

This, I believe, more than any other single thing, is what is behind the political turmoil that the country is now experiencing. When the real middle class of Japan reforms, it is not going to support leaders who have lived off the fat of the land for all too long at its expense.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.