Tokyo: Japanese Bootstraps

A few modest suggestions to improve Japan’s relations with the rest of the world

“BOYS, BE AMBITIOUS!” Why don’t Americans talk this way anymore? In 1876 William S. Clark left the presidency of the Massachusetts Agricultural College and sailed to Hokkaido, the island that was then the raw northern frontier of Japan. He felled trees, started the Sapporo Agricultural College in the clearing, and told his young Japanese students to go out and tame the wild land. Half the public monuments in Hokkaido now include tableaux of Clark pointing toward the horizon and giving his boys the famous three words of advice.

These days America’s representatives in Japan sound less sure of themselves. They wheedle and beg for changes in contract-bidding practices, bank-capitalization requirements, and regulations governing retail stores. If only William Clark were available for service on U.S. negotiating teams, he could listen to the Japanese side’s sincere assurances that it was trying hard to open Japanese society to the world, and say, “Gentlemen, be ambitious!” He might offer them this plan.

• Get rid of katakana. Japanese is written with Chinese characters and a phonetic alphabet called hiragana. It has an extra alphabet, katakana, for words that have come from foreign languages into Japanese. The use of katakana is not like the English practice of italicizing words that are still foreign, like perestroika and Schadenfreude. It is as if we printed any word that had ever belonged to any language but English — data, pneumonia, cavalier, sushi—in an alphabet different from ours. The many Japanese people named Fukushima write their names with the two Chinese characters that mean “prosperity" and “island.” When Japanese papers write about the former U.S. trade negotiator Glenn Fukushima, they go out of their way to spell his name in katakana so that no one could possibly mistake him for a real Japanese.

As evidence that their country really is becoming international-minded, Japanese diplomats often point out that more and more families eat pan, or bread, at breakfast time, rather than pickles and rice. The word pan was adopted from the Portuguese at about the time Columbus sailed for America. It would be a more convincing sign of openness to spell pan and other adopted words, from hotto doggu to nekutai, in hiragana rather than in ugly katakana script. The Koreans can get along with one phonetic alphabet, their logical and systematic hangul. Can such a task be beyond the Japanese?

•Get rid of juku. The Koreans were ambitious here, too. Fifteen years ago their President Park Chung Hee decided that the “cram schools,” where students prepared for university-entrance exams, had become a social menace. They preyed on students’ fear of the exams and on the parents’ knowledge that children who got bad scores on the exams, and therefore went to bad colleges, would always have bad jobs. As cram schools became more expensive, they made the examinations largely a test of the parents’ wealth. Park outlawed them at a stroke. (Unfortunately, last year they were legalized again.)

In Japan juku illustrate exactly what Park was worried about. So many students attend that few end up with a real edge on the others. The net effect is to penalize those who don’t go (many girls, most students from working-class families) and grind down the ones who spend three or four hours each dav in juku, after seven or eight hours in school. Shutting down the juku would cost half the resident foreigners in Tokyo their jobs as English teachers, but some sacrifices are always necessary for the greater good. Those teachers could go back to their homelands and improve schools there, which need it more. The Japanese juku teachers could teach Japanese overseas. Which leads us to:

• Bring back the draft. Japanese parents moan that their children have no discipline. The children complain that they’re trapped in a predictable life plan that runs from grade school through juku to university and on to life in a “salaryman” family. Foreigners are denied the opportunity to see the Japanese character at its best, since their main exposure is to package-tour hordes of Japanese.

The way to eliminate all these complaints at once is to draft able-bodied Japanese students when they finish high school, for two years of compulsory service overseas. They would work not for the Japanese military but for the United Nations—in peace-keeping forces in the Middle East or Central America, in refugee camps and hospitals in Cambodia or Bangladesh, in oldage homes and technical schools, or wherever they could do some good.

The young people would come back rested after their high school ordeal, and they would be much better prepared both linguistically and culturally to help Japan deal with the rest of the world. Japan could use the money it doesn’t spend on the military to pay living allowances to the draftees.

To get the plan rolling, Japan could transfer its thousands upon thousands of riot police, who now loiter in big gray buses all across the country, to the UN peace-keeping command. (No other developed country has so few riots or so many surplus riot police.) Japan’s new relationship with the UN could be part of a package deal: in exchange for giving money and talent Japan would get a permanent seat on the UN Security Council, and Japanese would become the sixth official UN language. The UN headquarters should also be moved from New York to Tokyo. This would give Americans a friendlier impression of foreigners, bv reducing the number of cars with diplomatic license plates that are parked illegally; would improve America’s image overseas, by giving fewer dignitaries a close look at Manhattan; and would bolster the lobby inside Japan for lower prices and more reasonable living conditions.

If conscripted service seems contrary to the spirit of a new, individualistic Japan, market incentives could do the job. Big Japanese companies, and the Ministries of Finance and Foreign Affairs, where the best students want to work, could announce a new hiring plan. Right now the only factor they really care about is what university an applicant attended. Under the new plan they would hire on the basis of university and the two years of service, overseas or in nursing homes in Japan. Someone from the right university who had not put in his years of service could still get a job, but he would be at a permanent seniority disadvantage.

• Change the consumption tax to an export tax. This is so obvious that it barely qualifies for the “Be ambitious!" list. Japan already has extremely high retail prices, but when the government wanted to raise money last year, it slapped on an across-the-board consumption tax. Japan has relatively low export prices, and the government says that its greatest desire is to slow down the export surge. To point out the problem is to see the solution. By switching from a consumption tax to an export tax Japan could stop making its own consumers subsidize consumers overseas.

• Turn air bases in Japan into airports. American Japan don’t really defend against invasion. If that is their purpose, why aren’t any of them in Hokkaido, the part of Japan that the Soviet Union is theoretically most likely to attack? The U.S. Army and Air Force troops are in Japan mainly to symbolize a military alliance, which would remain even if the soldiers were pulled out—especially from the bases jammed into metropolitan Tokyo. Japan should let the U.S. Navy keep its port facilities at Yokosuka but should politely close the other Tokyo-area bases, at Zama and Yokota. When the American soldiers left, civilian airlines would come in. Narita Airport, inconvenient and overcrowded, is a significant bottleneck in Japan’s contact with the world. The Ministry of Transport should let any carrier operate flights out of the new Zama and Yokota terminals as long as the fares are lower than those now charged from Narita.

• Learn from Spain. The Spanish empire’s greatest days came only after Ferdinand and Isabella solved the bickering between Aragon and Castille by marriage, bringing the quarrel inside the family. Most of Europe’s roval families have intermarried, if only to broaden the gene pool. Japan’s imperial family has always been seen as a proxy for the whole nation’s interests. If Japan really wants to marry its fate to the rest of the world’s, the current Crown Prince might take the proxy role literally and look overseas for his bride. Various royal families, from Southeast Asia to Scandinavia, offer attractive candidates for the role. Among America’s royalty, Caroline Kennedy is already taken, but there is still Brooke Shields, to whom the Crown Prince was once introduced, or the ideal future Empress, the lovely Cher.

After they heard the new Clark plan, the Japanese could retire for contemplation. They might think about America’s abundance of drugs, guns, lawyers, and bond traders, and its shortage of nurses and engineers. “Foreign friends, be ambitious!” they would say.

—James Fallows