Reimagining Japan: The Quest for a Future that Works

What is the future of Japan? Can the country get back on its feet? It’s a question that the world and the people of Japan are asking themselves. McKinsey & Company have edited a book that aims to answer this question.

Reimagining Japan is a collection of eighty essays that aim to shed light on how Japan can rebuild itself in the wake of the Great Tohoku Earthquake. The contributors come from a variety of backgrounds – from CEOs to journalists, to academics – also include a fair amount of both Japanese and foreign writers. Roughly half of the contributors come from the business sector, and 14 of the 80 come from McKinsey itself.

Though the topics explored range in subject, there are a few recurring themes that run through the collection. Outlined in the introduction, they include the need for openness (the unwillingness of young Japanese to venture outside of their country, and of companies to take their ideas global), diversity (Japan has a relatively homogenous population), innovation (Japan’s need to move away from labor-intensive industries) and leadership (strong company and government officials who can act boldly and expediently). Though sometimes the reemergence of these themes can be tiring, and even seems like a bit of a broken record, often the authors provide enough of their own unique insight to keep it interesting.

There are also a few authors who break hard with the general consensus. Just when you think you have certainly heard enough about the  “change-resistant” personality of the population, John Dower shakes it up with several historical examples that belie this characterization of the Japanese. Forced to reconcile these conflicting assessments, it’s a rewarding experience to recognize the truth in both and thus gain a deeper understanding of the problems facing Japan.

I noted this kind of mental progress several times through the reading of these articles; how is it that Japan ranks 4th in Innovation in the World Economic Forum’s Global Competitiveness Index, yet one of the most consistent charges against the Japanese is that they fail to innovate? It’s actually hard to put the book down once you get into the discussion.

Chapter 3, Restructuring Japan Inc., was particularly interesting and well-edited, with each consecutive chapter offering a challenge to the one before. Macroeconomic policies, such as decisive quantitative easing vs. restructuring, were debated as each policy expert laid out his case. The article “Reforming Japan, Nordic Style”, I found particularly interesting; author Richard Katz points out the egalitarian ethic and homogenous, well-educated society that Japan has in common with the Nordic countries, and proposes that Japan should consider how these countries have been able to foster growth and improve efficiency through their policy of government provided employment security rather than individual job security.

Interestingly, the Japanese writers were the most critical of their own society, the quickest to bemoan the complacency and resistance to change. Yasuchika Hasegawa, president and CEO of Takeda pharmaceuticals said, “…until this country hits bottom, our people will never get serious about change”. Tadashi Yanai, chairman and CEO of Fast Retailing, which owns UNIQLO, had even harsher words: “Japans biggest problems are conservatism and cowardice”. Foreign contributers, on the other hand, it seemed couldn’t help but temper their criticisms of Japanese politics or economical policy with praise of all the things we foreigners have love affairs with the Japanese over.

After a few days of reading these essays back to back, dissecting Japan’s dysfunctions and prescribing elaborate solutions, I felt overwhelmed by the work ahead of my adopted country. Japan has been lagging not only economically, but also losing global influence, its once formidable share of the tech market, and having recently lost its status as the “linchpin” of American strategy in Asia to South Korea, even its political prominence.  Several authors, noting the shifting power structure in Asia that has accompanied the rise of China, and more than half of the authors inn “Redefining Japan’s Foreign Relations” chapter argues the need for a pan-Asian alliance–one which Japan must lead.

However, the aforementioned broken record comes in handy here: it does the powerful task of affirming the consensus among experts on Japanese culture. Our problems aren’t so varied, and at the end of the day we really aren’t in disagreement about them. In many cases, we aren’t even in disagreement about the corresponding solutions. And indeed, many solutions were offered, particularly by the writers who dealt with political and economic problems.

However, while many also mentioned social issues, (a great number encouraging the use of women in the work force), few offered any solutions to those problems. Here, the heavy reliance on business-sector contributors is seen. Sure, nearly half the population is underutilized, and that could be a great source of labor for a country that faces an aging population, but how does this happen when an increasing number of Japanese women say they would like to get married and stay at home?

And how do we deal with an aging population if women say they only want one child because doing all the work by themselves is too 大変 (taihen/difficult)? As Kaori Sasaki says in her contribution “Putting Families First”, “changing the law can only do so much; our value system needs to change, too”. I had lengthy discussions with my roommate, Shigeaki Baba, about the theories and policies here, and he said, they are missing the biggest problem- there are a lot of ways in which Japanese society sucks. For a country that prides itself on efficiency, the current family set-up seems disastrously inefficient; one member puts in enough work hours for two, and sacrifices time that could be spent with his children; and the other is deprived the individual necessity comes with a fulfilling career. Of course, this model works for some families, but I think that for many Japanese people, both men and women, this set-up greatly contributes to their unhappiness. Maybe people don’t want to get married, pursue careers, or have kids, because in Japanese society these are difficult things to manage even one at a time. I would have liked to have seen more authors elaborating on that.

Overall, this is a highly thought-provoking and inspiring collection of works and recommended reading for anyone interested in Japan. This certainly sparked great discussion among my friends and roommate. I think if you care about Japan, this is an important collection to read, and hopefully add too as well.

Jake’s comment:

The book would have benefitted by having an essay by Kathy Matsui, who at this year’s TokyoTedX, gave a scathing review of Japan’s sexist polices and demonstrates how incorporating women into the workplace could save Japan’s economy and help solve the declining birth-rate. Personally, I also felt that there should have been some focus on the endemic problems of organized crime in Japan’s politics and business. The culture of corruption, collusion, and corporate malfeasance is a huge stumbling block in re-imagining Japan. I hope that the book is read by more than just the foreign population and that some wise souls in the government of Japan pay attention. Unlikely, but one can hope.

The book is also available in Japan from Amazon as well. 
http://www.amazon.co.jp/REIMAGINING-JAPAN-Quest-Future-Works/dp/142154086X/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1310403257&sr=8-1

Film: Cold Fish (冷たい熱帯魚)

reviewed by Amy Seaman

If  you’ve read Tokyo Vice, you’re already familiar with the story of Sekine Gen and Hiroko Kazama, the husband and wife pet-shop owners that killed at least four people in the nineties, poisoning them and dismembering their bodies in a very gruesome but effective fashion and the strange twists and turns the police investigation took along the way to their arrests. (Both have been sentenced to death).  The cult  film director, Sion Sono, made a movie based on the case, in which he changes the venue from a pet shop to a tropical fish shop, but is more or less faithful to the actual events until the final third of the movie. Jake Adelstein, my editor, caught the film while it was still playing in Tokyo and later did an interview with the DVD producers for the UK release.  The protagonist of the film who become an accomplice, Shamoto-san, is based on a real person, who was not convicted for murder but was arrested on those charges.He was later convicted for helping in dismembering and burying the bodies illegally.

Patrick Galloway, at the Asian entertainment blog, Asia Shock, has a very good review of the DVD release  movie and notes in his writing: I received a review copy of the Cold Fish double disk from Third Window Films and particularly appreciated one of the special features, a half-hour discussion of the actual case upon which the film is based. This comes courtesy of Jake Adelstein, journalist and author of the book Tokyo Vice. Adelstein relates the details of the case in great detail, revealing how accurate the film is to real events (although the plot goes in a completely different direction in the third act). Adelstein also offers insights into the way murder is investigated (and often not) in Japan. Apparently 80,000 people a year go missing in Japan, and only 4% of suicides are investigated. So it seems that a lot more people are being murdered in Japan than is reflected in official records.

Jake says that the portrayal of Sekine Gen, called Murata in the film, is eerily accurate.

Jake said, ” I had the pleasure of meeting Sekine twice before his arrest and watching him interact with customers several times and the performance is dead-on. I was awed by the movie until the point on the bridge where the plot bridged off from the real events and knowing the real story as well as I do, I’m probably not able to give the film an objective review.”  However, Mr. Galloway does and if you’d like to know more please check out the review of Cold fish here.  My take on the film is that if you’re interested in the psychology of serial killers, how ordinary people can be coerced into playing a role in murder, and have a very strong stomach–it’s a film worth seeing, but not before dinner.

*Jake Adelstein contributed to this review.

Cold Fish (冷たい熱帯魚)is a recent movie based on the Saitama Dog Lover Serial Killings.

Review: People Who Eat Darkness: The Fate of Lucie Blackman

Jake has done an honest and intriguing review of journalist Richard Lloyd Parry’s People Who Eat Darkness: The Fate of Lucie Blackman over at Literary Review. Partial transcript below.

When the disappearance of Lucie Blackman made the news, I was covering it as a reporter for the Yomiuri Shimbun, Japan’s largest newspaper. By necessity rather than by choice, I was already familiar with the darker side of the country: I had spent 1999 to 2000 as a police reporter assigned to the 4th District, home of Japan’s largest adult entertainment area, Kabukicho. Despite being from different papers, Richard Lloyd Parry and I worked the story together, exchanging information, contacts and tips. There was a chance that Lucie might still be alive, being held captive somewhere. The hope that reporting on it might make a difference superseded any journalistic rivalry. Now Parry has written a compelling book about the depravity of man, the difficult pursuit of justice, and how we deal with the wrongful deaths of those whom we loved.

Lucie, a young English woman, came to Japan to have fun and make money as a hostess in order to pay off her debts. She never went home. Her alleged killer, Joji Obara, is a clever man and a graduate of the law department of an elite Japanese university. I write ‘alleged’ because, despite all the circumstantial evidence that he was responsible for her death, the Japanese courts have only convicted him of dismembering her corpse. The charges were of rape resulting in death, but they have not yet been proven to the satisfaction of the judiciary. Obara knows that without a full confession, the Japanese police are handicapped, and prosecutors loathe such a case. He also knew enough of the law to prey on foreign hostesses. Hostessing is not allowed on foreign visas. If foreign hostesses go to the police as victims of sexual assault, they themselves are arrested and often deported, and no charges are generally brought against their assailants. (For years, human traffickers in Japan exploited this same fact.)

Every year, roughly 80,000 people go missing in Japan. The police don’t investigate each disappearance, or even a significant fraction of them. Perhaps if Tim Blackman, Lucie’s father, hadn’t raised hell, the case would never have been seriously investigated. But once the Tokyo Police realised that this was not just another missing persons case, they pursued it with vigour and determination. While the police are generally treated fairly in the book, Parry implies that they were uninterested in the case, and this is not so.

Read the rest at Literary Review.

Ryu ga Gotoku for Twitter

Release of the much-awaited next instalment in the Yakuza series, Yakuza: Of the End (龍が如く Of the End) may have been postponed because of the Tohoku earthquake, but impatient fans can show their support with the free iPhone app, Ryu ga Gotoku for Twitter.

Perhaps the main feature of Ryu ga Gotoku for Twitter is the six theme options, and by theme I mean large, distracting background image. Choose from Kiryu Kazuma, Akiyama Shun, Majima Goro, Ruji Goda, the game logo or a back drop of Kamuro-cho–complete with zombies! Another unique feature of the app is the button that leads to a screen exclusively for following the official 龍が如く Twitter account, whee!

Available for download in any store regardless of region, I believe
Sexy splash screen

It’s business as usual besides that. As a TweetDeck user it took a bit of time to get used to the app, but it comes with a number of features that would make life easier than said software does. Things like threaded DMs, easy access to lists, and a proper “save as draft” system (sometimes I have to wonder where my saved posts in TweetDeck disappear to..). Downsides would include a lack of geotagging (if you’re into that sort of thing) and the fact that you must load your timeline, @ replies and DMs separately.

The app is on any iTunes store, from what I can see, but is only available in Japanese.

Some screenshots:

Would have liked a zombie yakuza theme!
In case you can't figure out how to follow them yourself..
Check out the convo in other people's @replies
Basic reply and retweet functions
My favourite feature--see who is following you (No surprise that AP isn't!)

Fuzoku Friday: The Great Happiness Space

The Great Happiness Space

Not a new film but a unique one to be sure, The Great Happiness Space: Tale of an Osaka Love Thief is a 2006 documentary by UK director Jake Clennell that delves into the very visible yet mysterious world of the host club. The Wikipedia entry on host clubs gives a fairly good summary of the business we see in the movie–women paying exorbitant amounts of money to have guys fawn over them–but a trip into The Great Happiness Space puts the industry’s underbelly on display for all to see.

Using popular Shinsaibashi host club Cafe Rakkyo as its setting, the documentary takes viewers on a slow, twisted tour through the world of owner Issei–a mega-popular “charisma host”–and his fellow employees as they guzzle pitchers of beer and hustle women into buying over-priced bottles of champagne in order to win their affections. We soon learn those affections are less the typical lighting cigarettes and wiping glasses type, and more a combination of playing the older brother/boyfriend role and, embarrassingly, wrestling with drunken girls in the hallway.

Continue reading Fuzoku Friday: The Great Happiness Space