Conservation: Letter From Tokyo

THE COMPETITION between Japan and the United States has been obsessively on my mind since I got here a month ago, partly because it’s such a central theme in Japanese political and cultural life. The Japanese are big on ranking things and deciding which is Number One—practically every day I hear that a certain department store or professor or manufacturing firm is Number One, while a competitor is Number Six or Number Two. Americans have the Fortune 500 and the college-football Top Ten, but the Japanese insistence on picking one leader in every field seems more sincere and intense. As I’ve often been told, this is a society accustomed to viewing others as superiors or inferiors but rarely as equals.

For a long time after the Second World War the United States was obviously Number One. The standard imagery was America as Big Brother, Japan as Little Brother, learning and scrambling to catch up. The people I have spoken with, mainly businessmen and bureaucrats (a term of great respect in Japan), disagree about whether Japan should actually be considered Number One in economic power yet. Smugly and with ill-concealed arrogance, some tell me that Japan has nothing to worry about, all its economic problems are solved, and America will keep sliding down the charts because of its moral breakdown, laziness, and inability to make things that work. Other Japanese seem more apprehensive about the various impediments still in their country’s path—an aging population, total reliance on imported resources, mounting irritation from the rest of the world, and so forth. One young banker told me poignantly that he thought the past five years had been the best Japan would enjoy in his lifetime, since it was about to face much greater resistance from America and cutthroat competition from Korea. I believe he was sincere, but perhaps he and the other cautious-sounding Japanese I have met are merely shrewder than the braggarts, in not revealing their confidence to an outsider. In any case, the question itself—Who is Number One?—is on more people’s minds in Japan than in the United States.

I spend half my time in awe of Japan’s production system, and despairing that Westerners can ever keep up, and the other half chuckling about the parochialism and self-induced limitations of the place. The fundamental problem we’ve had in competing against the Japanese is obvious after only a few days here: the Japanese all work much harder than we do.

In saying that, I don’t really mean attention to detail or pride in one’s work— although those traits are very strong in Japan and probably account for much of its success. I also don’t mean that Japanese workers are unusually efficient, in the common-sense meaning of the term. (I haven’t yet toured any Japanese factories, where the true miracles of productivity have been achieved.) After seeing offices and department stores and other aspects of the service sector—which accounts for the majority of jobs, even in Japan—it’s hard for me to believe that the Japanese do things better than anyone else. Large stores are super-stocked with attendants, usually young women in uniform, who stand in place for hours and sometimes do nothing more efficient than wave customers onto the escalators. (In general, the waste of women’s skills may be the hidden weakness of the Japanese economy.) Railroad and subway cars have conductors hanging out every door. Automation has barely made a dent in the office world—in part because the Japanese writing system, based on Chinese characters called kanji, has long encouraged people to write things out by hand, rather than struggling with Rube Goldberg-ish Japanese-language typewriters. (A kanjibased word processor has recently begun to have an impact.) Veterans of Japanese office politics say that corporate life features endless meetings, long, ponderous discussions, and redundant doses of the famous morale-building group activities. Obviously, this approach has worked for many Japanese firms, but it is hardly efficient in terms of output per man-hour.

Rather, what has impressed me most about Japan is that the entire culture seems to discourage consumption and leisure and to enforce a dour, self-sacrificing, hard life. This is the second biggest market economy in the world, as measured by GNP (Japan has half as many people as the United States does), and I’m sure Japan will sometime soon surpass us in per capita manufacturing output, if it has not already done so. But the conditions of daily life here often make it seem more like the twentiethrichest country.

THERE ARE, TWO central, almost overwhelming (and of course connected) living problems: housing and crowding.

The small size and high price of housing exceeds even my apprehensive expectations. I’m not an expert on Manhattan, but judging by friends’ apartments in New York, things are more expensive here—perhaps twice as much across the board—and the typical home is much smaller and more cramped. With enough money, some people can live in spacious surroundings even in Manhattan, but Tokyo is so crowded that no amount of money can buy you much elbow room. And there is no Long Island or Vermont or Chesapeake Bay nearby for weekend getaways. The only exceptions to the cramped-housing rule seem to be the staff quarters provided by a few embassies and foreign banks—and, of course, the Emperor’s palace, which with its gardens takes up a part of downtown Tokyo roughly equivalent to Central Park’s share of Manhattan. (By the way, it isn’t 1986 in Japan, it’s Showa 61, because it’s the sixty-first year of the reign of the current Emperor, Hirohito. Hirohito was enthroned on December 25, 1926, and the last week of that year became Showa 1. On January 1, 1927, Showa 2 began.)

My family considers itself lucky to have found a cheery new two-bedroom apartment for 400,000 yen a month, or about $2,400 at current rates. One Japanese friend saw our apartment and said it was four or five times bigger than the one where he lives with his wife and infant son. I’m sure he was exaggerating, but not by much. The government, I’ve been told, has set 100 square meters of floor space—the size of our apartment— as its goal for housing a four-person family, like ours. Right now the average dwelling is only two thirds that size. (A recent TV special on housing pointed out that the French don’t consider an area a “room” unless it is at least nine square meters; the Japanese start counting at three.) As best I’ve been able to judge by visiting friends and shopping for an apartment, the standard dwelling in Tokyo is smaller and darker than practically any housing I have seen in the United States, including some of the places where Haitian immigrants live when they first come to Miami.

We also count ourselves lucky because my commute to central Tokyo, from the suburb of Mejiro, is just under an hour each way. We looked at one place that was an hour and forty-five minutes out of town, still well within the metropolis. By the time the train reached that stop it was already full of commuters coming from points farther out along the line.

In addition to the sheer time such commuting demands, at rush hour it means a kind of crowding that is, well, bestial. Before coming to Japan, I’d heard of the “pushers” who pack people into subway cars at the more crowded stations. I’ve been subject to their ministrations a few times, and I now go far out of my way—taking alternate routes, or traveling very early or very late—to avoid repetitions. Only once or twice in my pre-Tokyo life had I felt the claustrophobic panic that comes from having strange bodies pressed tightly against yours on all sides and being moved along by crowd momentum rather than your own feet. At rush hour in the subways that degree of crowding is unavoidable, normal. On the subway line I usually take into town, a filled-to-capacity car means that most of the passengers can’t hold onto a strap, because they can’t even raise their arms. When the train slows down suddenly or takes a curve hard, a mass of people jolts through the center aisle. The only reason they don’t fall is that there are too many bodies in the way. (I had also thought that, at sixtwo, I’d be able to use size as a weapon in the subway. Against Japanese aged forty-five years or older I can, but the average Japanese height has increased sharply, stepwise by generation, and I am usually not the tallest person in the subway car.)

I don’t mean to whine; my point is that the Japanese accept all this as normal life, even as they tirelessly turn out high-quality, cheap goods for consumers everywhere else in the world. Many Americans have sourly joked that the Japanese, without an army, have accomplished exactly what they set out to do during the Second World War—develop a Co-Prosperity Sphere. But there is another way of looking at it. By working so hard and enjoying the results so little, they have voluntarily done to themselves what colonial powers have long tried to force or trick other countries into doing. They work hard so that others may live well. Even considered strictly as consumers, the Japanese are not enjoying the full fruits of their labors. Radios, computers, VCRs, cameras, and other made-in-Japan products that I’ve priced all cost more in Tokyo than at discount outlets in New York. My Japanese friends assure me that this is the result of heavy excise taxes and perhaps exchange-rate fluctuations, not anything so vulgar as dumping.

Many Japanese think they’ve got nothing to complain about. Compared with wartime and the ten years that followed, when families didn’t have enough food and children walked around wearing paper shoes, everything is luxurious now. “Twenty-five years ago our per capita income was one tenth of America’s,” I was told by one of Japan’s economic-planning czars. “When you’ve got ten times as much money as you used to, you feel rich.” And some of those who do feel they’ve accepted a hard bargain say that there is no choice. The country is so small and crowded that it’s never going to feature ranch houses on two acres of land. Fitting 120 million people into an area the size of Montana would be difficult in any circumstances, but it is even worse because most big cities are crammed into the narrow coastal plain. In addition, a quirk of post-Occupation life makes the housing problem even more formidable than it might otherwise be. Believing land ownership to be a bedrock of democracy, Douglas MacArthur enacted sweeping land-reform plans that accentuated the already chaotic pattern of landholding. (This one of the MacArthur innovations stuck, like the anti-war plank of the constitution. Several others did not, including his edicts that Tokyo’s streets be given names and that Japan go on Daylight Saving Time. As a point of principle and national pride, Japan went back on year-round standard time. In Tokyo in the early summer the sun sets at about 7 P.M. and sunrise is at 4 A.M.) Now something like 53 percent of those in greater Tokyo own some parcel of land. Of course, the amount each of them owns is minuscule, and because land prices keep going up astronomically—they have doubled in downtown Tokyo in the past two years—the conventional wisdom is that you should never sell. In the priciest parts of Tokyo, a tsubo of land now goes for about $1 million. A tsubo is the size of two straw tatami mats, for a total of 3.3 square meters. This spring the government released its annual list of people who paid the most in income taxes the previous year, a weird exception to the usual secretiveness of Japanese life. Number One was a man who had traded several lots in Tokyo, and most of the other leaders had also made their money in land.

Because the land itself is prohibitively expensive, Japanese residential construction is typically flimsy and cheap, like the made-in-Japan products of yesteryear. When dwellings get to be more than ten years old, they rapidly lose value, and the Japanese knock them down and build again. This practice, I am told, discourages serious investment in better housing. The city’s land remains in literally millions of hands, and about one eighth of the land in this vast city is still farmed. Property taxes are generally quite low, and land used for crops is barely taxed at all. Therefore speculators prefer to sit on their land this way. I recently asked an American professor whether he’d found anything in Tokyo that cost less than its counterpart in the United States. He said that there was one thing—onions—and that the explanation was that quirks in the tax code encourage people not to develop their land (but instead, for example, to set up tax-avoidance farms) until the price of land increases dramatically. For all these reasons it’s hard to put together big blocks of land to build new housing. The only apparent solution is for people to live farther and farther out, and to spend more time on those trains—which are extremely clean, efficient, and fast, but inflict that brutal crowding at rush hour.

THE SHORTAGE OF land affects consumption in an indirect way, too. Food and rent are very expensive, but once you’ve taken care of them there’s not much else to spend your money on.

A second house is out of the question unless you’re really rich; the same holds for lawn care, extensive remodeling, lavish redecorating projects, and the other space-intensive activities that chew up much of the American household budget. The Japanese are crazy about golf, but there are very few real fairways, so they line up for practice time in large netted enclosures, where eighty to a hundred people can drive balls all at once. Their hobbies are necessarily small, self-contained, and—compared, say, with boating—cheap. Many Japanese households are fitted out with stereos, kitchen appliances, and other electric and electronic gear, but there simply isn’t room for the large-scale leisure activities on which Americans spend so much time and money. Not far from our apartment is Gakushuin University, essentially Japan’s version of Princeton (children from the imperial family go there), which sits on a compact but beautiful and wooded campus. One Saturday afternoon we walked there with our children and thought we had stumbled onto the opening ceremonies for the Olympic Games. Within a space equal perhaps to three football fields, fully uniformed and feverishly enthusiastic students were playing baseball, soccer, volleyball, American football, rugby, tennis, and kendo (dueling with wooden stakes), while orchestra practice, weight lifting, a judo meet, archery, and track and field were under way and the mountain-climbing team scaled a dormitory wall. On a hill overlooking a carp pond, in the most “secluded” part of the campus, a girl practiced arias in full voice.

The Japanese have also “accepted” a hard life because the employers and the government have maneuvered them into it. The employers’ association, which serves as coach and policy coordinator for big firms during wage negotiations, has arranged for wages to go up much more slowly than corporate profits. Contrary to the general American impression, the Japanese economy as a whole is not a powerhouse of productivity. Local rice growers cannot hope to compete with large operations in California, Arkansas, or Thailand. Tiny Japanese farms survive at all only because of heavy protective tariffs. The retail sector is antiquated and far less productive than America’s. (After the first oil shock, in the early 1970s, the government essentially outlawed the construction of new shopping centers, as an indirect way to save gasoline. The measures have never been repealed, and they shelter millions of mom-and-pop stores.) Manufacturing productivity, of course, keeps booming ahead, but the overall productivity rate rises much more slowly, and so does the agreed-upon “target” for annual wage increases. Therefore, workers at Mitsubishi or Matsushita or Toyota, where sales and productivity have been soaring, receive only modest annual raises. This leaves the companies with more money to invest in the next round of R&D or automation, and the Japanese public with less money to spend.

Last April, a few weeks before the six other big industrial powers came to Tokyo for the economic summit, the Japanese government released the latest reports in a long series of them suggesting that the Japanese people change their ways. If the Japanese spent more on things for themselves—especially houses, but also roads, parks, sewers, and the other items that make up a “social infrastructure”—then their companies wouldn’t depend so heavily on exports for survival, and the “trade frictions" that dominate the headlines here might go away.

Taken at face value, some of the new reports amounted to a call for another major social turnaround, like those the Japanese executed after the arrival of Commodore Matthew Perry, in 1853, and in rebuilding after the war. They accomplished those earlier reversals because they were so attentive to topdown orders (after the atomic bombs were dropped, the Emperor said that it was time to cooperate with the Americans, and so nearly all Japanese did), and some government bureaucrats have told me that the same thing will happen now: the great Japanese monolith, which can be quick to act once it reaches its cherished state of consensus, will begin moving toward shorter work weeks, longer vacations, and a generally easier life. “This is Japan,” a prominent banker told me. “Until the last moment we hold onto the old idea, and then all at once we change.”

However, the politically convenient timing of the reports, plus the long record of similar recommendations that led nowhere, has made most foreigners skeptical. For instance, the Maekawa Commission, a group of advisers to Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone, produced the most far-reaching of the reports, which called for radical social and economic changes leading toward less saving, more leisure, and a greater willingness to let the rest of the world do the work. (From the American point of view such recommendations sound bizarre— the government asking people to slack off? This is one small indication of the gulf between East and West.) At the press conference at which the recommendations were unveiled, foreign reporters pressed for specifics: which industries would Japan allow to die, so as to let more imports into its markets? The only examples that the commission’s chairman, a former Bank of Japan director named Haruo Maekawa, would give were shipbuilding and coal-mining—both of which are near death already. Apart from Nakasone himself, who has to fend off unhappy foreign leaders, almost no one in the Liberal Democratic Party (the conservativeinclined permanent ruling force in Japan, like the Democratic Party in Lyndon Johnson’s Texas or Richard Daley’s Chicago) has any self-interested reason to open up the Japanese economy, since change of any sort would disrupt a market some Japanese firm now controls. To his credit, Maekawa has waged a personal publicity campaign in support of more imports and less self-sacrifice. The strongest argument for change is that all of Japan’s “friends” around the world are getting tired of losing their jobs and markets to Japan. This may be a testament to its industrial diligence but not to its prudence and foresight. In a big trade war everyone would suffer, but Japan would suffer most (because it needs some export earnings to pay for imported food and fuel).

Thus economic logic, as well as Western concepts of self-interest, make it seem obvious that the Japanese should slow down. But it will be no easy trick, since the workhouse—I almost said sweatshop—atmosphere seems to reflect fundamental aspects of the culture. You can always start a fight among Japanese by asking whether their work habits actually do arise from intrinsic cultural characteristics, and not from government policies, corporate coercion, or other traceable causes. One literary critic lectured me on the Japanese classics of the pre-Meiji era (early nineteenth century and before), which typically featured wastrels and pleasureseeking gadabouts, he said—almost like Elizabethan comedies. With that background, how could Japan be culturally a nation of drones? According to this man, the dutiful Japanese workaholic was deliberately invented during the Meiji era, when Japan was desperate to catch up with the higher-tech West. Since then the country has never stopped. But other people have told me that the Japanese work ethic is more deeply rooted in the pre-Meiji past. They say that from its calligraphy to its love of tidy packaging, the culture has always taken pleasure in a job well done.

WHETHER THE work ethic is of a thousand years’ standing or only a hundred, it seems obvious that the Japanese will have trouble changing, regardless of how many reports they read. With Moonie-like consistency of phrasing, nearly everyone I’ve met has reminded me, “We are a small island nation with no natural resources.” The Japanese live in constant fear of being starved out or left to freeze—even as they believe that their economic successes confirm their basic superiority over the rest of the world. The “Nixon shocks,” long forgotten in America, live on in the Japanese memory about as vividly as Pearl Harbor does on our side, as a reminder of how vulnerable they will always be. (When food prices were soaring wildly in the early 1970s, Richard Nixon suddenly embargoed all exports of soybeans, to take pressure off the domestic market. Soybeans are a staple food in Japan, and the psychological effect was nearly as dramatic as when OPEC jacked up the price of oil. A few days later Nixon relented, but the Japanese have never forgotten.)

From school age on, long hours and drudge work are drummed into everyone as the basic stuff of life. On Sundays, as my wife and I take our sons to see the sights, we run into throngs of Japanese schoolchildren, all in their black or dark blue uniforms, coming home from sessions at “cram schools” or other organized activities. Six days a week they go to regular school; on the seventh (and many afternoons of the other days) they go to cram school, to prepare for the “exam hell” that is required to pass from each school level to the next. Such regimented schooling, I am told, is a post-Meiji innovation, which attained its full fury only in the past fifteen years; still, it’s now accepted as a fact of life. About ten years ago a Common Market official infuriated the Japanese by writing, in a supposedly confidential report, that they were “economic animals,”who were willing to “work like fiends and live in rabbit hutches.” The Japanese are unbelievably sensitive about this reputation— about once a day I hear a bitter comment like “Well, it’s time to go back to my hutch”—but also, I think, proud of it. Americans work to make money and to win respect, but to some extent our culture says that you work hard so eventually you won’t have to work. You struggle for a degree so that you can get out of the factory, you scrimp and save so that you can retire early. I’m sure the Japanese don’t love to sweat any more than the rest of us, but the basic calculation seems different here. They work because that is their duty to a tight-knit, homogeneous society. They work . . .so as to keep on working.

I don’t want to get carried away. Nearly everything about the culture is intriguing. For example, why do grown men spend their hour on the subway each day reading porno comic books? Why is it considered vulgar and/or Western to eat in public—except at baseball games or on long-distance trains, where people gobble boxed lunches, called bentos, nonstop? Why is physical contact, such as shaking hands, thought so indelicate and unsanitary—except on subways, where someone else’s hair may be stuffed in your mouth? What’s more, much of the culture is unalloyedly charming. We’ve become addicted to the public baths, for instance, where you go at the end of the day, get parboiled in big deep tubs, and leave feeling marvelous. Many people have been kind and generous. There is a delicacy and precision evident in all the details of daily life. Things work, because people care about doing their jobs. The food is great. Still, there’s no escaping the fact that the cultural premises here are not just “different” from ours, as they might be in Brazil or Finland, but, as I will argue in a future article, repellent to some of our most basic values.

—James Fallows