When I first arrived in Japan in the 1960s, I was friends with a Western sociologist who was genuinely frustrated. When he went around surveying public opinion, he said that he found Japanese people to be stubbornly reserved and conservative. Apparently, those who responded to his questions about social attitudes voiced a strong aversion to change of any sort. They invariably chose answers that supported the status quo in whatever facet of life he was asking them about.

This near-unanimous reaction may have been an expression of a general Japanese tendency to avoid confrontation. Perhaps the respondents were, in their minds, giving their Western “guest” answers they thought would please him. Certainly, that would be as important to them as voicing their own opinions to a stranger, which is — by and large — just not the done thing.

That is why some people who studied Japanese behavior back then were apt to warn, “Never take ‘yes’ for an answer.”

“These people will never change,” my exasperated sociologist friend said to me on a number of occasions. “They are the most conservative people that I have encountered anywhere.”

It certainly looks that way. Japanese factional politics of 2005, for instance, with its narrow invective, unproductive infighting and constant ad hominem slurs, are a cut-and-paste updating, without the swords, of the political machinations of the Edo Period. And all you have to do is read the letters to the Editor of The Japan Times to get a sense of the very real racial and cultural biases some non-Japanese people confront in their daily lives here. The Japanese are polite to outsiders, but not particularly welcoming.

Innate conservatism

But the fact is that Japanese people’s innate conservatism is not different in kind from the “if-it-ain’t-broke-don’t-fix-it” approach of people anywhere. The only difference is that in Japan, the hidebound views of society present themselves in the form of a paradox: Nothing appears to change, yet most everything does.

A few examples.

In the 1980s I was doing a consultancy job for a major department store. One of their branches was renovating and redesigning its floors, and I was asked to come up with ideas on how to make the space more friendly to the public. I suggested to the committee of, I might add, young and open-minded store executives, that it was important not only to make the store totally accessible to disabled people, but to encourage them to come and participate in the kinds of community activities that were envisaged by the management.

Suddenly a deadly silence descended over the planning table. The young executives exchanged glances which were easy to read. This was a merchandisers’ version of a “gentlemen’s agreement”: “Oh, this foreigner does not understand Japan; Japanese people do not feel comfortable in the presence of disabled people; but of course we have nothing against such people personally.”

“I know what you’re thinking,” I said, gazing around the table. “But Japan is changing. The Japanese may have discriminated against these people in the past, but in the future they will show compassion and understanding for them, and make public amends.”

Again, silence and polite incredulity.

But, fortunately, they adopted a policy that opened the doors, both physically and figuratively, to disabled people, and the new store flourished.

The point is that Japan, while certainly not barrier free, is a much more friendly place to people with disabilities than it has ever been. There was little public discussion of this issue, and people seemed as apathetic as ever . . . and yet, there was change.

The same can be said for the environment. There was a time when Japanese politicians openly said things like, “The Japanese should have the guts to eat polluted rice!” Dumping of rubbish in national parks, fouling the cities’ air — notably Tokyo’s — with carcinogens, ignoring all guidelines on effluent pollution in rivers and lakes: these were just a few of the common practices in the Japan that I saw years ago. Recycling was virtually nonexistent, and this at a time when Europeans and Australians were boasting to neighbors about how expertly they separated their rubbish. Not so long ago was still Year One in eco-conscious Japan.

Doggedly conventional

Since the Containers and Packaging Recycling Law went into effect in April 1997, however, Japanese consumers and businesses have been recycling with a vengeance. Japanese car-makers lead the world in the development and production of hybrid vehicles. The air in the big cities is at least as good as it gets in developed Europe. The moral is: Before Japanese people accept an idea, it remains below their horizon; but when they take it up, it becomes dominant. The cohesion of this society ensures that such wisdom does, in the end, become doggedly conventional.

If non-Japanese people living here now complain about snubs and biases, they might care to reflect on the Japan of the pre-internationalized ’80s, when marriages to foreigners were extremely rare (the rate has effectively doubled every decade since the ’60s) and it was assumed that all foreigners here were either Koreans to be kept in their place or Americans to be admired and pampered.

In those days, even the ability to speak Japanese wasn’t necessarily much help in communicating, either. I recall, for instance, a 30-minute conversation in Japanese that I had with a Japanese lady in 1969 about life and customs in this country. At the end she looked up at me and concluded, “My, you have a big nose.”

My friend the sociologist would, I think, be pleased to see Japan today. Nothing seems to change. Many people tell you what they think you want to hear. We non-Japanese may still be “guests” who are praised for using chopsticks in one breath and provoked by real provincialism and prejudice in the next.

But this country is changing and progressing under our very noses, whatever their size.

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