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10-08-2015, 23:21

A Society in Transition

During the occupation, Allied planners set out to change social characteristics that they believed had contributed to Japanese aggressiveness before and during World War II. The new educational system removed all references to filial piety, patriotism, and loyalty to the emperor and emphasized the individualistic values of Western civilization. The new constitution and a revised civil code attempted to achieve true sexual equality by removing remaining legal restrictions on women’s rights to obtain a divorce, hold a job, or change their domicile. Women were guaranteed the right to vote and were encouraged to enter politics. Such efforts to remake Japanese behavior through legislation were only partly successful. Since the end of World War II, Japan has unquestionably become a more individualistic and egalitarian society. Freedom of choice in marriage and occupation is taken for granted, and social mobility, though not so extensive as in the United States, has increased considerably. Although Allied occupation policy established the legal framework for these developments, primary credit must be assigned to the evolution of the Japanese themselves into an urbanized and technologically advanced industrial society. At the same time, many of the distinctive characteristics of traditional Japanese society have persisted, in somewhat altered form. The emphasis on loyalty to the group and community relationships, for example, known in Japanese as amae, is reflected in the strength of corporate loyalties in contemporary Japan. Even though competition among enterprises in a given industry is often quite vigorous, social cohesiveness among both management and labor personnel is exceptionally strong within each individual corporation, although, as we have seen, that attitude has eroded somewhat in recent years. One possible product of this attitude may be the relatively egalitarian nature of Japanese society in terms of income. A chief executive officer in Japan receives, on average, seventeen times the salary of the average worker, compared with eighty-five times in the United States. The disparity between wealth and poverty is also generally less in Japan than in most European countries and certainly less than in the United States. Emphasis on the work ethic also remains strong. The tradition of hard work is implanted at a young age within the educational system. The Japanese school year runs for 240 days, compared to 180 days in the United States, and work assignments outside class tend to be more extensive (according to one source, a Japanese student averages about five hours of homework per day). Competition for acceptance into universities is intense, and many young Japanese take cram courses to prepare for the “examination hell” that lies ahead. The results are impressive: the literacy rate in Japanese schools is almost 100 percent, and Japanese schoolchildren consistently earn higher scores on achievement tests than children in other advanced countries. At the same time, this devotion to success has often been accompanied by bullying by teachers and what Americans might consider an oppressive sense of conformity (see the box on p. 299). Some young Japanese find suicide the only escape from the pressures emanating from society, school, and family. Parental pride often becomes a factor, with “education mothers” pressuring their children to work hard and succeed for the honor of the family. Ironically, once the student is accepted into college, the amount of work assigned tends to decrease because graduates of the best universities are virtually guaranteed lucrative employment offers. Nevertheless, the early training instills an attitude of deference to group interests that persists throughout life. Some outside observers, however, believe such attitudes can have a detrimental effect on individual initiative. The tension between the Japanese way and the foreign approach is especially noticeable in Japanese baseball, where major league teams frequently hire U.S. players. One American noted the case of Tatsunori Hara, one of the best Japanese players in the league. “He had so many different people telling him what to do,” remarked Warren Cromartie, a teammate, “it’s a wonder he could still swing the bat. They turned him into a robot, instead of just letting him play naturally and expressing his natural talent.” To his Japanese coach, however, conformity brought teamwork, and teamwork in Japan is the road to success.1 By all accounts, independent thinking is on the increase in Japan, and some schools are beginning to emphasize creativity over rote learning. In some cases, it leads to antisocial behavior, such as crime or membership in a teen gang. Usually, it is expressed in more indirectways, such as the recent fashion among young people of dyeing their hair brown (known in Japanese as “tea hair”). Because the practice is banned in many schools and generally frowned upon by the older generation (one police chief dumped a pitcher of beer on a student with brown hair whom he noticed in a bar), many young Japanese dye their hair as a gesture of independence and a means of gaining acceptance among their peers. When seeking employment or getting married, however, they return their hair to its natural color. One of the more tenacious legacies of the past in Japanese society is sexual inequality. Although women are now legally protected against discrimination in employment, very few have reached senior levels in business, education, or politics, and in the words of one Western scholar, they remain “acutely disadvantaged”—though ironically, in a recent survey of business executives in Japan, a majority declared that women were smarter than men. Women now make up nearly 50 percent of the workforce, but most are in retail or service occupations, and their average salary is only about half that of men. There is a feminist movement in Japan, but it has none of the vigor and mass support of its counterpart in the United States. Most women in Japan consider being a homemaker the ideal position; a poll taken during the 1980s found that only 15 percent of Japanese women wanted a full-time job.2 In the home, a Japanese woman has considerable responsibility. She is expected to be a “good wife and wise mother” and has the primary responsibility for managing the family finances and raising the children. Japanese husbands carry little of the workload around the house, spending an average of nine minutes a day on housework, compared to twenty-six minutes for American husbands. At the same time, Japanese divorce rates are well below those of the United States. Japan’s welfare system also differs profoundly from its Western counterparts. Applicants are required to seek assistance first from their own families, and the physically able are ineligible for government aid. As a result, less than 1 percent of the population receives welfare benefits, compared with more than 10 percent who receive some form of assistance in the United States. Outside observers interpret the difference as the product of several factors, including low levels of drug addiction and illegitimacy, as well as the importance in Japan of the work ethic and family responsibility. Traditionally, it was the responsibility of the eldest child in a Japanese family to care for aging parents, but that system, too, is beginning to break down because of limited housing space and the growing tendency of working- age women to seek jobs in the marketplace. The proportion of Japanese older than sixty-five years of age who live with their children has dropped from 80 percent in 1970 to about 50 percent today. At the same time, public and private pension plans are under increasing financial pressure, partly because of a low birthrate and a graying population. Japan today has the highest proportion of people older than sixty-five—17 percent of the country’s total population of 130 million—of any industrialized country in the world. Whether the unique character of modern Japan will endure is unclear. Confidence in the Japanese “economic miracle” has been shaken because of the recent downturn, and there are indications of a growing tendency toward hedonism and individualism among Japanese youth. Older Japanese frequently complain that the younger generation lacks their sense of loyalty and willingness to sacrifice. Some have also discerned signs that the concept of loyalty to one’s employer may be beginning to erode among Japanese youth. Some observers have predicted that with increasing affluence, Japan will become more like the industrialized societies in the West. Nevertheless, Japan is unlikely to evolve into a photocopy of the United States. Not only is Japan a much more homogeneous society, but its small size and dearth of natural resources encourage a strong work ethic and a sense of togetherness that have dissipated in American society.