Chaos prevailed at some of the coming-of-age ceremonies held across the nation on Jan. 8. Youngsters who had joined the ranks of adults behaved like rogues, swilling sake from king-size bottles, throwing firecrackers at a mayor, or shouting “go home” to a governor. These and other acts of gross incivility, reported vividly in newspapers and on television, shocked many people.

The youths’ utter disregard for social etiquette is appalling indeed. The question is why they behaved the way they did. Adults are partly responsible. It is not just youngsters who ignore etiquette. It seems that adults’ sense of ethics has also become paralyzed.

In my view, the reason for this lies in the speculative binge of the high-flying late 1980s, the period of the “bubble economy.” In 1987, the year when the bubble began to form, Japan eclipsed the United States in per capita GDP and become the world’s richest nation. The Japanese had finally achieved their long-cherished goal of catching up with America and other economic powers. The nation was engulfed by a sense of fulfillment.

But Japan became complacent about success and failed to set a new, noneconomic goal. So it lost its sense of purpose as well as a sense of direction. That is why the postbubble 1990s turned out to be a “lost decade.” What’s more, people lost traditional virtues like diligence, sincerity and devotion. Greed, or money worship, replaced those virtues. People lost their sense of shame. I once called the late 1980s a “period of ethical paralysis.”

It is not just the adults born in 1980-81 who are suffering from ethical paralysis. Politicians, bureaucrats and executives have also lost their moral compass since the bubble. That is why various bribery and breach-of-trust scandals occurred in the 1990s. The KSD scandal indicates that corruption is endemic to the Liberal Democratic Party. It seems LDP politicians haven’t learned any lessons from past scandals.

A noted professor and literary critic, speaking favorably of the bubble, argued in effect that the “loss of the classical sense of justice” was welcome. The sense of justice, however, is neither classic nor contemporary. It is a universal value that remains unchanged through eternity. In the 1990s, many Japanese, driven by greed or dead to shame, lost this universal sense of justice.

Irresponsible remarks by economists are partly to blame for the erosion of a sense of justice among Japanese. Falling back on Adam Smith’s theory that the best way to maximize the well-being of a state or society is to leave everyone free to pursue his interest in his own way, they praised the market as the final judge and criticized altruism and pursuit of the public interest. Such remarks, however unintentional, contributed to the paralysis of the sense of justice.

Fairness took a back seat to economic efficiency, which was extolled as if it was the supreme value. Equality was decried as if it was an evil that would sap society’s vitality. Craftsmanship, a traditional strength of Japanese industry, was despised. “Gone are the days when people must work hard to make money,” crowed an economic commentator. “These are times when brains, not brawn, are used to make money. People who don’t speculate are hermits.”

Curing this ethical paralysis will not be easy. But Japan’s economy, to say nothing of Japanese society, will not be able to restore real health unless a strong sense of ethics is re-established.

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.