Turning Un-Japanese

Donald Richie has been living in Japan for half a century. The American writer, translator and film scholar has spent most of that time explaining Japan to the English-speaking world. But lately he's found himself, somewhat disconcertingly, in an entirely new role--as an interpreter of Japan to the Japanese. The Tokyo university students who attend his lectures on the great postwar filmmaker Yasujiro Ozu

no longer understand the world portrayed in the 1953 classic "Tokyo Story." They don't know anything about the family system because the family system doesn't exist anymore," says Richie. "So I have to reconstruct it for them." They can still understand the traditional, intricately polite version of Japanese used in the movies, but that language sounds alien, as if it comes from a "vanished" world, he says.

Vanished. That word crops up often in Japan these days. Before my family and I arrived here in September 2004, we weren't really sure what to expect. My head was filled with lingering images from the Japan-bashing 1980s, and Japan was still widely cast in the West as unique and alien. I wondered whether we could expect a land clinging to its differences: its lifetime employment, its company songs, its shocking lack of lawyers and criminals. Guidebooks still warned about the finely gradated social hierarchies expressed in perfectly calibrated bows. Japan was said to be hungrily assimilating world culture, yet still stubbornly traditional.

What I have found, instead, is another prosperous and modern Western country with some interesting quirks--an Asian nation that would not feel out of place if it were suddenly dropped inside the borders of Europe. "When my other expat friends and I get together, we often find ourselves talking about the really weird things that you see," says one European friend who's lived in Tokyo for more than a decade. "But that's because the weird things are getting fewer and weirder."

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Our most striking surprise was that the image of Japan as a profoundly inward place no longer applies. My stepbrother, Michael, vividly recalls the year he spent in Kyoto in the late 1960s, when an American schoolchild could still be scrutinized as an exotic rarity. Our experience could not have been more different: we moved into our new house and soon found ourselves preparing for our first bizarre Japanese holiday: Halloween. No question, we live in a cosmopolitan part of Tokyo. But we were still shocked by the hundreds of trick-or-treaters, the enthusiasm, the imagination behind the costumes. The vast majority of those who took part in this festival, with its ancient Celtic roots, were Japanese. It was our first insight into the vast capacity of the Japanese to assimilate foreign habits--and to welcome foreigners.

To someone who has lived for long periods in America and Western Europe, there is nothing particularly challenging about Japan, not anymore. All the familiar landmarks of urban life are there: the same suicidal bike messengers, the same seasonal store sales, the same credit cards. To be sure, the language is tough. But in recent years, all signs in the subway and many in the streets have been printed in English as well as in Japanese, so navigating Tokyo is no longer a bewildering slog through a maze of kanji characters. There are three well-edited newspapers and countless Web publications in English, and the Japanese have used technology to further demystify themselves to foreigners. Almost every business in Tokyo offers customized maps that you can print out from their Web sites.

Our next surprise discovery was the rainbow of increasingly integrated immigrants, foreigners and ethnic Japanese from places like Peru and Brazil. There's the Indian cashier in my local supermarket, always ready to help out when the hapless foreign customer's Japanese comes up short. There's the Filipino storeowner (and naturalized Japanese citizen) whose shop fits so neatly into its street in western Tokyo that it can be easily missed. There are the countless Chinese and Koreans--usually invisible behind restaurant counters or kitchen doors, sometimes illegal--who keep Tokyo's service economy purring along.

Innumerable American businessmen (many of whom acquired their fluent Japanese in their former lives as Mormon missionaries) are now sniffing out opportunities in neglected corners of the economy. Foreign VIPs, from Nissan CEO Carlos Ghosn to Sony chairman and CEO Howard Stringer and pro-baseball manager Bobby Valentine, have raised the profile of foreigners in Japan. Certainly, immigrants still make up a mere 1 percent of the Japanese population--tiny in comparison with the rest of the world. But their impact is clear. In 2003, one out of 20 marriages in Japan had a non-Japanese spouse; in Tokyo the number was one in 10.

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The foreigners pose a huge threat to the status quo in a society --whose claim to "homogeneity" has always been a big component of its uniqueness. But they are needed. As its population ages and declines, Japan requires immigrants to fill widening holes in its work force. And in the financial downturns of the 1990s, foreign investors often had to pick up the slack. They are here to stay now. Not so long ago, Tokyo's business world was a club open to Japanese only. Today, in many cases, foreigners actually own the club. "If you had told me 10 years ago that Goldman Sachs would be owning hundreds of golf courses, I would have said you're crazy," says Roy Tsuchiyama, an American businessman of Japanese origin.

The increasingly powerful outsiders help embolden the strong minority--perhaps even the silent majority--of Japanese willing to challenge the status quo. To be sure, many of the familiar collective traditions in schools or corporations, or the powerful "iron triangle" alliance among politicians, bureaucrats and businessmen, still hold sway. But they are under siege. Granted, my job as a reporter predisposes me to seek out people doing new or unusual things. Still, I'm struck by how easy it is to find, for example, young people who have rejected their nation's proud work ethic to join the growing class of some 2 million Japanese NEETs ("not in education, employment or training"). This class of dropouts is new in Japan but has an exact parallel in the West, from the hippies through modern-day slackers.

The same can be said for Japan's emerging class of entrepreneurs, from salarymen who have chucked safe corporate careers to strike out on their own, to born impresarios like Shin Adachi, 23, whom I met one day in a "hacker's den," where a dozen twentysomething Tokyoites were quietly making fortunes by creating software for videogames and mobile phones. Shin, 23, started working part time at 15 for a cell-phone company and watched it go public. "That's given me an idea of how I might do my own IPO one day," he told me. "I believe that my father is very happy that I've chosen a career as a hacker."

All these groups are fueling what Jeff Kingston, professor at Tokyo's Temple University, calls "Japan's Quiet Transformation" (the title of his new book). Driven by the economic slump of the 1990s, the transformation is raising efficiency by undermining social codes that emphasized unwritten rules and circumspect vagueness. In his classic 1950s movie "Ikiru" ("To Live"), Akira Kurosawa told the story of a man whose doctors refused to reveal to him his diagnosis, cancer. Such misguided discretion was common back then. Compare that with the Tokyo hospital treating my 2-year-old nephew for cancer, where doctors bend over backward to provide us with every detail of his treatment--a policy they call "infomudo consento."

The more worldly Japan becomes, the less unique it is. In surveys by the Hakuhoda Institute of Life and Living, a Tokyo market-research company, the number of Japanese who said they would have "no hang-ups" working with foreigners rose from 40 percent in 1992 to 56 percent in 2004. Over the same period, the number of people who reported observing traditional Japanese rituals and holidays fell significantly: for example, the number who favor "traditional New Year's cuisine" fell from 86 percent to 74 percent. Meanwhile, more and more Japanese are celebrating Christmas. Why? "Westernization," says institute director Hidehiko Sekizawa. "An easy answer, but true."

Small wonder that many Japanese are obsessing over the erosion of Japaneseness. Critics of Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi say his market reforms are introducing "un-Japanese" extremes of wealth and poverty into society. The forces of globalization are blamed for everything from teens' blond-dyed hair to bad manners on the subway. In a recent op-ed for the daily Asahi Shimbun, an anonymous member of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party argued that globalization and market reforms are seriously weakening family bonds and erasing "the unique characters of small but diverse local communities."

This sort of complaint is nothing new, of course. Countless writers and politicians have been bemoaning Japan's loss of self ever since the 19th-century Meiji Restoration, when Japan began to open up. But never before have the guardians of Japanese culture faced a tide of change as fast and wide as this one. Take that deeply Japanese institution, sumo wrestling. The number of young Japanese athletes opting to enter the sport is steadily dwindling, as most choose to play baseball or football instead. That has forced the deeply conservative world of sumo to open itself to Estonians, Czechs, Russians and Bulgarians--many of whom are now succeeding at the highest level of the sport. (A Mongol is currently the unrivaled champion.) Sumo association officials have groused about the rising foreign influence, and it's easy to understand where they're coming from. Yet, as the Japanese population declines, the continued existence of sumo could well depend on the willingness of outsiders to put on a few dozen extra kilos and work in a wrestling thong.

That's a common sight in contemporary Japan: the foreign enthusiast who carries forward traditions that no longer hold much appeal for the Japanese. The fate of the sake industry, threatened by the growing popularity of wine and beer at home, may rest with new American and British brewers and export promoters. American Jeanie Fujiya, frequently described as the "blonde in a kimono," is the hostess of a ryokan , a traditional Japanese inn in the picturesque hinterland.

Countless foreign craftsmen and academics have arrived in Japan on missions to save some aspect of Japanese culture from the uninterest of the Japanese, and (to complete the irony) often end up being celebrated by the Japanese for their courage. They are all admirably sincere but sometimes also amusingly oblivious. I recently found the following quote in the newspaper, from a 60-year-old practitioner of traditional woodblock printing: "What I think has been lost--and forever, as it can never return--is the Japaneseness of Japan. Manners, language use, as well as the physical things like the basis of culture. Things have become so un-Japanese." The name of the craftsman: David Stones, from Britain.

And that, in turn, points to a final irony. As Japan--sadly, perhaps, but inescapably--becomes more like the rest of the world, the rest of the world is becoming more like Japan. Sushi bars abound in Moscow. My nephew in Houston consumes as much Japanese pop culture in a day as anyone in Hachijoji. Some of the industrial innovations that once seemed irreducibly Japanese have gone global, as the kaizen system of "continuous improvement" and just-in-time manufacturing now reign from Wal-Mart to the Pearl River Delta. Japanese anime vies with Disney for space on the shelves of Blockbuster video stores in Connecticut.

That said, despite its recent history of stagnation, Japan still demonstrates a great capacity for reinvention. Green tea, on the outs for many years, staged a comeback in Japanese convenience stores when marketers figured out how to package it in handy plastic bottles. Consider animated- film maker Hayao Miyazaki: he won an Oscar for "Spirited Away," set in a vividly imagined world of Shinto gods and legends. Miyazaki found his inspiration, he says, when he visited an open-air museum of traditional architecture in downtown Tokyo--a reimagining of a reconstruction that strikes me as distinctly Japanese. In any case, in its domestic market "Spirited Away" ended up grossing more than "Titanic."

It was 150 years ago that Japan's leaders were confronted by the superior firepower of the "black ships" led by American Commodore Matthew Perry, and made a fateful decision. Japan opened to the West as a way to catch up with its technology, and thus became the first non-Western country to opt for what, nowadays, we would call "globalization." As a Westerner whose experience of Japan has been short but intense, I can't quite escape the feeling that this grand experiment is coming to a point of resolution. For better or worse, we're no longer aliens to one another.

Turning Un-Japanese | News