The Words of the Bikkal Family

A Westerner in Japan

by Nick Bikkal-Tokyo, Japan

It took 120 before the bubble burst after Meiji brought this nation back to the world 130 years ago. Japan took many turns, some for the better, some for the worst. Below I speak of some. Writing a story on Japan has been very difficult. The problem has always been where to start and how to focus it.

Recently, however, a friend gave me an idea after telling me a story I could not agree with. It had to do with the question of why Japan is changing. Many Japanese say simply that Japan lost World War II thus it was forced to change by having to rebuild. This misses the point on several accounts.

Japan's society today The first is what was the character of society that led Japan to war in the first place. Second, what would be different today if Japan had won the war? Running deep within the veins of Japan today are still denials of some of the war atrocities the Japanese military committed. Whereas no one denies the war was fought there is a strong undercurrent that believes that not only Japan did not commit atrocities, but if they did it was sanctionable. Reports of medical groups such as the infamous Unit 731 have in recent years just started to become public, implicating many who today are in high university positions, among others. Tens if not hundreds of thousands are believed to have been tortured, poisoned, or to have undergone unwilling biological experimentations, and after being experimented on, tortured.

Let me analyze quickly some of the social structure in existence today in Japan. Today's society is a 130-year-old face lift done at the time of the Meiji Restoration. The Shogunate, the existing government before then, ruled the country for over 260 years, since 1600, during the so called Edo Period. Edo is Tokyo's old name. The Shogun had one overwhelming concern: keep power, and do it by weakening the perceived threatening forces. Prior to Edo the country had been divided, and under the Tokugawa government the country was united. This system would ultimately lead to the weakening and end of the Shogunate itself.

Under the Bakufu, the Shogunal government, the next in power were the Daimyo, the regional heads, and then the Samurai (bushi to the Japanese). The strategy was simple. The Shogun created the Sankin Koutai system: have the Daimyo alternate living one other in Edo and one outside Edo, in their domain, their home province. His family, however, was to be held hostage in Edo, it could not go to the hometown with the Daimyo himself. Samurai, on the other hand, had to live here 6 months out of the year and the family had to stay in the home town. This Sankin Koutai strengthened Edo and weakened the Daimyo in his home province. This meant bringing along skilled labor, etc. The Daimyo was also totally responsible for much of the construction of Edo, investing his own resources. This made for competition in Edo among the Daimyo for quality work and subsequent recognition. It also meant strengthening the Shogun at their expense.

The family

One can imagine that a hardening of ways and cynical attitudes developed toward the family. As the central power was built and the feudal lords weakened, the also family broke. Marriage was a social contract. Woman was relegated to second class citizenry, still largely visible in today's society, especially among the elders, as business has capitalized on this idea and often separates families. Men go on long term assignments, often lasting one, two, or more years, while the wife and family stay in the hometown. The most common excuse is that the kids can't leave the school system. This is true as the school system is very closed and inflexible, lacking imagination. The truth is, however, that companies don't encourage the family being together. An example of this separation is the endless hours expected of the "salaryman" in attendance to the boss. The workman waits for the boss to finish his work and then they all go out together, complements of the boss (company) often, for a drink, supper, etc. The salaryman/familyman then goes home late and drunk not seeing their family, only to be on the train headed back to work in the early hours of the morning.

The office place is the man's first loyalty.

Thus, marriage as a social contract rather than a relationship between two individuals developed. Choosing a wife in Japan has been done often in the workplace. Today's couples often have met at work. It helps the boss know who he is dealing with in the future, also. She is often asked to leave the workplace, especially after pregnancy, and often to not return. These bosses also expect to be invited to the wedding. There is hope that since the woman knows the company, and there is loyalty in this society, she would allow for the capricious ways. The women did, but they also did what they wanted in turn. This is changing among the younger people.

Thus in the past one often saw tours of mostly Japanese men, rarely a woman was visible. Entertainment was limited to money and imagination only.

Personal allegiance

Another characteristic of Edo that was brought forth to post Meiji and then post WWII Japan was the allegiance and loyalty to elevating the person in the central position. As during Edo all forces, social and economic, were geared to elevating the person of the Shogun, so in today's society the company, today's feudal domain in miniature, dedicates much of its internal energy to supporting the central figures in the company, often above the national interests and laws. This is seen in the many scandals during the last years in which much was done, illegally if necessary, to support the boss and the company.

People take blame, often without due cause, in place of the boss and the company. Salarymen wear a company pin on their left lapel. It is their pride to say they work for such and such a company. In fact this is their source of identification. The older and more traditional the company, the closer it is to the center of power within the nation, the higher the profile, the greater the pride. Thus it is a dream to work in the government, a bank, or in the heavy industry, etc. This is the culmination of many dreadful years of study in junior high school, high school, university, Juku (cram schools, etc.). It's the ultimate fruits of a railroading system. As we'll see below the ideal combination is Tokyo University and one of the Ministries.


There were several attempts since Western merchants came to Asia some 500 years ago to Christianize Japan. All these were met with ultimate resistance. Japan does have Christian martyrs. They died for their faith. Today there are, oddly enough in the very places where the US dropped their atomic bombs during WWII, Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the oldest Christian communities dating back centuries. The reason Christianity was stopped was less racial or religious than the Shogunate attempt at supremacy. They had a tight control of the news, commerce, etc. Japan, in that sense, has never been a free country. Even today the media has strong ties to the government which is why, until recently, there has been relatively little exposure of crime in government. Lack of transparency, vague laws, and a top management and government who often puts itself above the law makes for ongoing scandals. This is the inheritance of the regionalism of centuries back.

Everyone worked not for the common good but for the boss, the Daimyo. Today it's the company president, etc. This makes for a lot of company loyalty, buddy-buddyism, weak family life, high alcohol consumption, and whatever company success may entail. This means one's own company is everything. Wear the badge with pride, stay late with the boss until he is ready to leave, no or few vacations because of fear to miss out on important matters. IT is the family.

The back side is: family problems: separation is OK, lots of unpaid overtime, boss and company is the source of life, etc. Unsatisfying family ties is the result at home. Crime is rampant because no discipline at home to the youth.

An interesting note is that when discussing social problems and possible solutions rarely do people recognize that the family needs strengthening. It is not part of the reason young people are turning towards crime. It's the TV, or other social factors, not the home. Meiji The Meiji Restoration proved to be a rush to catch up to Western standards in science and technology but not internally. The purpose was for Japan to "prove" itself. Understandably so. It was humiliating for a nation to suffer a defeat at the hands of four ships thousands of miles from home. As the sleeping giant was awoken with the attack on Pearl Harbor a few decades later, these ships awoke a racial supremacy streak that would lead the until now peaceful nation to a succession of wars with Russia, then China, then Korea, and finally all of Asia, the United States, and its other western nations. Japanese sense of invincibility after Meiji was a little false. They beat Russia in their war on a technicality. They politically invaded Korea, trampling on all their rights, freedoms, and then massacring hundreds of thousands of Christians. China was in the midst of civil war. Japan actually bullied itself through out Asia. This false sense of confidence was then turned towards the US. Their morale high because of all their victories, however they were not prepared for the big war.

This racial supremacy created a Japan-centered culture which it has been unable to kick. This government is less interested in world bonds than protecting, even now, its own businesses. The strong MITI (Ministry of International Trade and Industry) is powerful agency which guides all international business. Companies need government approval to do business abroad. They cannot go ahead of each other. Thus they are regulated. They must work and compete together against the world. Thus it's Japan, Inc. against the IBMs, Phillips, etc. It is not companies taking on companies.

So the question bothering Japan today is if all the deregulation in the Big Bang is going to hurt Japan? Are Japanese ready to compete? Big brother government was always there to help and bail them out. From the Convoy system to the accounting system was geared to protect and help Japan, Inc. The government was not there for the people, fair competition, etc. Over priced and over regulated Japan is a witness of this today. Thus, there is little surprise the government and banks, especially, are eager to see the implementation of the Big Bang and it's deregulations. Banks, especially those abusing the liberal elements of the system are the first to fall in the new conservative business arena now set to begin in April 1998.

One strong characteristic has kept Japan from opening up to the world. The Japanese are not risk takers. (At the end of 1997 and the beginning of 1998 we see the Japanese industry suffering not for lack of money but lack of will to take economic risks).


Dootoku, the Japanese education of morals and ethics in schools is the system of creating harmony and maintaining the status quo. There is no concept of standing up for a principle as we have in the West. Blood shedding, especially among one's own, is never a solution. The individual is respected only in context of a larger body. The absoluteness of the individual is a non-concept. Youth are at a loss. They can't make decisions, often, often having no opinions about things. They have no basis on which to make a judgment. Their ambition is to succeed in the prescribed rout to success, thus spending endless hours in school memorizing. The cost, as well as monetary is little social interaction and thus an inability to talk about much other than TV shows, and some sports, especially baseball, which the television amply covers Individual excellence is not a concept since there is no call for it. The call, ultimately, is for ability to be flexible for the sake of the corporation. Many don't walk with their heads high.

They don't have pride in themselves. They don't express their hearts, wearing themselves down. The only socially accepted time to express themselves to their bosses is when they are drunk. This is a reason they drink oftentimes, so that they not be held responsible for their words. This is an added reason that they like to form big groups. Telecommunications are OK for business but not for social needs, gripes, etc. Living in this bubble-like social environment it's not hard to be perceived as selfish vis a vis the world, and uninterested in it. During the Gulf War in 1991 Japan only reluctantly gave $6 billion to the war effort but contributed nothing in the front line. They also got nothing in the reconstruction pie. They have since made friends with other Arab nations not heavily involved in the war.


Another face of this character is protectionist. For a nation as developed economically and advanced technologically as this one it is very protective. The caravan system in place since before the war, and which the soon-to-come Big Bang is trying to address, of the government sheltering a chosen few companies in various industries has made for very unfair opportunities, has restricted individual expression in the work force, and has made for artificially high prices. There is no reason for Tokyo's prices, across the board, to be double Seoul's or even New York's, for example. People accept it as the cost of having no natural resources. This is true.

The reality is that there is no way of bringing prices down, or change without a strong push from abroad, the famed Black Ship syndrome. The name taken from Commodore Perry's four black ships which in 1868 finally pushed, without bloodshed, the Shogun to open its doors to foreign trade. Today this means mostly the United States' government insistence on deregulation, open doors to foreign competitors, etc. Japanese know this and accept it as the only way to change Japan. Thus the respect toward Americans, especially among the younger generation.

The Japan, Inc, mentality has lead to the sad position of Tokyo having little world clout, politically or ideologically. Legitimately they claim a position in world bodies because of the large sums Japan, Inc. gives to the world community in aid and loans, etc. This may reverse soon if the Asian developing economies are in a prolonged recession. Japanese banks have many billions of outstanding dollars in loans to Asian countries. As they are unable to pay, and as the accounting system no longer allows for the hiding of potential losses or unrecoverable debts banks are in a very tight position. Clearly, people have lost confidence in their country's infallible image.

Education tends to focus on harmony and non-adversity. This had the original purpose of keeping the Bafuku in power. This educational staple is still strongly in force with only few signs of letting up. Violence in schools in the last few years has been widely seen. There is a tendency to blame TV violence, freedom, etc. The reality is that the home is often an empty shell where people share living quarters but where there is little communication. A particularly big problem is the question of where does education start? Fathers are the busy salary men unable to come home for their family duties. Mothers don't seem to want the responsibility to discipline their children. Schools see their jobs of educating, not disciplining. During the last few months we have seen a teenage killing almost weekly. This passive society is no more. Violence and rage rules within youth. Understanding society's forces one sees that the youth is abandoned to learn from what society has to offer: violence on TV, violence in the ever growing computer games, and a lack of disciplining.

A few years ago after a 13-year-old committed suicide because of bullying the bully was asked why he did so. He answered that he didn't know it hurt the other young man. Confucianism, Shinto and Buddhism are the three ideologies that are in force to one degree or other in Japan today.

Shinto is the worship of the goddess Amaterasu-Omi kami, a princess of about 1300 years ago. Some now believe she is a Korean princess who came to Japan to establish herself. She would have stood supreme with a Japanese victory. Japanese have always seen themselves loved by God as they had never lost a war before their WWII defeat. They had her to thank.

Buddhism came through China and Korea. Most Japanese are buried in the Buddhist tradition. It is the repository of the connections with their always revered ancestor. Confucianism, from China, is the tradition which keeps the leadership in such high esteem, and often beyond accusation, untouchable. Elders are respected and trusted implicitly. This keeps the Japanese submissive, never questioning authority, dependent on foreign forces for its changes. This also allowed for unchecked wrongdoing. There is a subtle sense of being maligned by the US for social changes undergone since end of W.W.II, thus breaking Japan apart from its old traditions. On the other hand some see it's happening for the better.

Volunteerism, and giving is new to this nation. After the 1995 Kobe earthquake the first real signs of volunteerism appeared when a handful of people went down and helped the hard stricken victims. This is not natural in this society, accustomed to vertical, service. They traditionally only minded their business and never looked to help laterally, or beyond their immediate surroundings. This has given Japan a new, if small, sense of pride in their people. Japanese are gentle within their group, not without. Many Japanese love going abroad, especially to English speaking countries, and if possible, on home stays. One common reason given often is the gentility of the Western families. This is something they claim not to find in Tokyo, a very busy city.


I don't know what the real heart of the MOF is but one can safely bet that they are at best reluctant to let go of the Convoy System which so well has served Japan since the end of the war. What is Amakudari (descent from Heaven) and why is it still around after so many scandals and negative press? Simply, it is where bureaucrats make their big money before final retirement.

The Japanese bureaucracy is 90%+ run by Tokyo University (ToDai) graduates. It's a boy's club. Very elitist, short on moral teaching, high on working together. It's the Harvard University of Japan. They are deeply rooted in the government. It carried, until the economic bubble burst in the later 80s, an aura of trustworthiness. After all they are the intellectual elite. The education system in Japan is gear ultimately to government service. The ultimate path is going to the top schools, and then Tokyo University. They learnt how to take care of "number 1" without often taking care of the others. This is where Amakudari is most relevant. To supplement an already good government pension these bureaucrats often push themselves into the private sector a few years before retirement. They actually demand it in some cases with dire consequences to the companies if they don't comply with their demands. They get it. Not because they are a fine bunch but because Amakudari works on the government retaining information valuable to the respective industries. The only ones to get it are the members of the boy's club, the ToDai graduates. Let's say you are a company which has invested time and money on new inventions, medicines, etc. and want the government to "approve" your product. The government might be choosy as to whom it will support and protect, whose products will be introduced, or if it will give your company a hard time. How well you treat the officials may mean the life of your new product, countless millions of dollars spent notwithstanding. This includes foreign companies. This is corruption at its worst.

It's little wonder why scandals never cease to surface, apathy in Japan runs rampant, and the doors are closed to those outside a little group. Thus the Convoy System has created a group of government protected companies, especially in key industries, which work together, none having more benefits than the next. This was great to build Japan and protect it from foreign competition. Today it not only has lost its purpose but has also held back some major Japanese companies from competing in fields they were well set up to compete in successfully. Many compare Japan after the bubble broke to Edo 120 years ago seeing the same weaknesses and problems. This creates a strong sense of doubt towards Japan. Japan's Future However, Japan's here to stay. An economic force this size is not easily destroyed. Japan has some things going for it such as high technology in the TV industry. They still make quality products. All this, though, may be cut short as banks don't open up their credit departments not only to Japanese companies in need of funds, but also southeast Asia which is in desperate need to boost their economy.

The world is looking at Japan. It must decide its path. The world is watching. Painful changes are in the cards for this nation in the near future. Tradition and Japan-for-Japan thinking has to confront Japan-as-member-of-the-international-community thinking. Which way will Japan go? Japan will have to look at its education as it a source of much stress among youth today ranging from the courses studied, the purpose of education, etc. Among a group of outspoken friends this is what they said Japan's character an culture included: subtlety and sophistication, calligraphy, lacquer (ryushi), cooking ware, respect, poor life style, not open-minded, no identity, no humor, sadistic humor, pro-West, hesitant (cowardly), not risk takers, not opinionated, when laughing cover the mouth, etc. Others added that the quality of an item is measured by its cost, that there is a lack of spirituality, looking inside.

The future

The Big Bang, the economic deregulatory laws that are to take place will be a door of opportunity for changes not only in the economic and financial industries but will also open the doors to social changes. With competition and more internationalism Japan is bound to further break away from its old closed ways and further enter the international community.

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