First of two parts

In 1965, on my second visit to the Soviet Union — the first was the year before — a Russian I met on a park bench said to me, “Come back and see us in five years. Everything will have changed. You won’t recognize us.”

I went back again in 1970, and the only difference I noticed was that the park bench had been painted. Wherever I traveled, everything else seemed the same.

The Soviets cherished the belief that everything in their country was in dynamic flux. It wasn’t important that change was actually effected, but that it was seen to be effected. Whether anything in the USSR really changed, or not, was a moot point — and one that could rarely be brought up in public.

As for Japan, I would say that the opposite of what that Soviet citizen said to me on a park bench was true. So I wouldn’t be surprised today, in 2008, if my Japanese friends said, “Come back in five years. Everything will be the same.”

And yet, there is a social revolution going on in Japan. Its signs, like those of impending earthquakes, remain underground and seismically difficult to detect. But I feel the rumbling. Things are going to shake up in this country.

This is the “quiet revolution”; and in Counterpoint this week and next I will explain why I think it is afoot.

* * * * *

Over the past decade or so, Japanese people have become gradually more aware of the needs and values of others. Traditionally, their circles of concern have been small and limited, in their generosity, to “their own.” When people outside their family or group circle are in need, although they may be sympathetic, they are generally not moved to assist. They have been wary of those in other countries who take what they see as too deep an interest in the affairs of others, suspecting hidden agendas.

In this context, the Great Hanshin Earthquake of January 1995, which claimed more than 6,000 victims killed, brought something new to the surface. Young people from around the country went to Kobe and the surrounding stricken districts, volunteering their time and efforts to help strangers in need.

Similarly, although disabled people were traditionally shunned and avoided in Japan as if their condition were a cause for shame, these days they are treated with considerably more empathy. NHK, the national television broadcaster, devotes a good deal of screen time, particularly on its education channel, to their needs and wishes.

Also, it is well known that Japanese people put a premium on “fitting in” with group thinking — a conformity in outward behavior that is often mistaken for a lack of individuality. However, while public decorum is still highly valued, in the past decade Japanese people have become much more tolerant of those, particularly the young, who don’t fit in and don’t particularly want to fit in.

National economic travails

This tendency goes back at least to the 1960s, when a radical youth esprit, fired up by anti-establishment demonstrations and student unrest, dominated headlines in Japan. But then, the collapse of the student movement in the early ’70s, and national economic travails such as the “oil shock” of 1973, pushed back the lines of that attack and all but stamped out the new, youthful ethos that inspired it. But a decade of activism did show that change was possible when wider elements of society dared to agree with the goals of the young.

Once again today the youth of Japan are dominating the cultural agenda. We have the Internet and the mobile phone to thank for this.

The Internet has made it possible for everyone to be a critic. The old days when Japan’s literary establishment (known as the Bundan) wielded immense power in deciding what was publishable and what was commendable are gone with the wind. Nowadays, it is kuchikomi (word of mouth) that sells books and songs and cinema tickets; and nowhere is that word more mouthy than on the Net and the mobile phones of the nation.

It is not only in Japan, of course, that the power of the conventional press has been diminished. But the change in this country has been more marked than in the West. Perhaps this is because the power of newspapers here was, in the past, so much greater than in the West, as Japanese culture was a newspaper culture par excellence. Most of the great writers of fiction wrote for daily newspapers, whose pages were also open to famous scholars’ efforts to disseminate knowledge, often on rather esoteric subjects.

Now the press is far less significant in terms of shaping the tastes of the nation than ever before in Japan’s 150-year-old modern history. A good review in, say, the Asahi Shimbun won’t sell thousands of copies of a book, as it used to; and a bad one won’t deter readers from buying a book, or seeing a play. Instead, the Internet and mobile phones have transformed criticism into a populist genre.

A revolution in values in Japan has begun to shake the patriarchal state as well. The rejection by the electorate, in 2007, of the administration of Shinzo Abe — with its bloated emphasis on nationalistic rhetoric and vacuous symbols of a “beautiful” Japan — demonstrates not only that Japanese people are primarily concerned with bread-and-butter issues such as pensions and the price of gasoline, but also that they are seeking a national ethos more truly and effectively aligned with the challenges of the 21st century than a fistful of cherry blossoms and a flag waving in a breeze to cliched background music.

This century, with its ease of universal modes of communication, has opened up Japan whether the standard media, the politicians or the bureaucrats like it or not. It was satellite television and fax machines that helped change the old USSR into the new Russia, and it is the new media that are doing the same for Japan.

Next week I will explore other areas in which fundamental change is coming and why, try as they may, no one in Japan’s old guard that still clings to power can stop it.

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