Tales from the Dark Side
To Change or Not to Change

Wave of the Future: Hokusai's Wave being digitized
"Boiled Frog" image
Dogs, Demons...& a Boiled Frog?
During the past few years, it has become fashionable to speak of Japan’s “three revolutions.” The first occurred after 1854, when Commodore Perry arrived with his “black ships” and forced the opening of Japan. ... After the nation’s defeat in World War II, a second revolution took place, under the guidance of General Douglas MacArthur and the U.S. Occupation. ...
Japan after the Meiji Restoration
Japanese Imperial Flag with the word "REVOLUTION" and a fist breaking a chain
General MacArthur (SCAP) with Emperor Hirohito
Japanese Imperial Flag with the word "REVOLUTION" and a fist breaking a chain
It’s now time, many believe, for a third revolution, which will differ from the previous two in one important way: pressure from foreign powers sparked both of the earlier revolutions; they did not spring from among the Japanese themselves. This time around, however, there is no foreign pressure. Nobody outside Japan is concerned about the fate of its mountains and rivers; nobody will arrive in a warship and demand that Japan produce better movies, rescue bankrupt pension funds, educate its children to be creative, or house its families in livable homes. The revolution will have to come from within. (D&D, 359-60)
You can hear the drumbeat of coming revolution in the rising level of anger in public opinion, fueled to a great extent by the sheer embarrassment of falling behind. There is considerable chagrin as the gaps between Japan and the United States, Europe, and newly wealthy Asian states widen. The thrust of the educational system is to make people highly competitive, and the hierarchical social structure gets people into the habit of ranking ethnic groups and nations as “higher” and “lower.” Naturally, they would like to stand at the top of the pyramid, and this leads to obsessive comparisons between Japan and other countries. ... Yet while the groundwork exists, there is no assurance that the revolution will come. Against the dissatisfaction felt by the public is arrayed a complex system of bureaucratic control, infinitely more subtle than anything ever achieved in Russia or China in their Communist heydays. ... The mind’s screen goes blank, because the scenario whereby the Japan Gymnastics Association, the Central Association for Prevention of Labor Disabilities, and the Japan Health and Sports Federation will voluntarily disband and give up their lucrative permit business is simply unimaginable. What, then, can be done about the tens of thousands of other agencies and special government corporations — all working in secrecy and against whose fiat there is no recourse? (D&D, 362-4)
Chinese characters for "reform" (kaikaku)Chinese characters for "deregulation" (kisei kanwa)There has been much talk in recent years of Kaikaku, “reform,” and while the bureaucracy has made a few timid steps toward reform, especially in finance and trade, Kaikaku is hampered by one major flaw: it aims, by and large, to shore up the status quo. Bureaucrats find ways, in classic Dogs and Demons fashion, to make small, nonessential changes, rather than tackle serious structural problems both in the industries they control and in their own systems of management. The phrase Kisei Kanwa, used for “deregulation,” is highly symbolic, for it means “relaxation of the rules.” It does not imply a discarding of the rules. (D&D, 365)
Japanese Imperial Flag with the word "REVOLUTION" and a fist breaking a chain
Koizumi Jun'ichiro establishing brueaucratic reforms
Bureaucratic Reforms of 2001
On the whole, [the pre-reform] setup functioned effectively from the period of postwar reconstruction up through the era of rapid economic growth. Of course, the partnership fostered problems as well, particularly an unhealthy relationship between government bureaucrats and the industries they were supposed to regulate. But at a time when the country was suffering from a critical shortage of public infrastructure, what was good for industry was, in the main, good for the nation.
        The system’s shortcomings became more apparent, however, as Japan transitioned to a mature economy, and especially after the collapse of the 1980s bubble. One problem was that the cabinet, and the prime minister in particular, lacked the power to make top-down decisions in situations where speed was of the essence (for example, during trade negotiations) or to guide and coordinate cross-jurisdictional policies, such as environmental and consumer protection.
Chart showing Bureaucratic Reforms of 2001
This set the stage for a series of reforms designed to strengthen the political leadership of the prime minister and his cabinet. Of particular significance was the administrative reform initiative launched by Prime Minister Hashimoto Ryūtarō in 1996. The key elements of the plan were the consolidation of government ministries and agencies, measures to support the policymaking capabilities and powers of the cabinet, and streamlining of the administrative apparatus. The reforms went into effect in 2001.
        Meanwhile, in the wake of successive corruption scandals involving senior civil servants, the Diet passed the National Public Service Ethics Act in 1999. Subsequent years witnessed further changes, including the introduction of a merit-based personnel evaluation system. The reforms culminated in 2014, when the National Public Service Act and other statutes were amended to create the Cabinet Bureau of Personnel Affairs and place senior civil service officials under unified management. The two-decade drive to redefine the relationship between the nation’s top political leaders and its administrators was essentially complete. (nippon.com)
Janus facing front and back
Epimetheus & Prometheus
William Sheldon, famed for his studies in anthropometry, drew a distinction between two fundamental types of human psychology, inspired by the mythical Greek brothers Epimetheus and Prometheus. Epimetheus always faced the past, while Prometheus, who brought fire to mankind, looked to the future. An Epimethean values precedent; a Promethean will steal fire from the gods if necessary in order to advance humanity’s progress. ...
Painting of Prometheus and Epimetheus
So far, the psychology of reform has been almost exclusively Epimethean: forced by public opinion, bureaucrats make minimal, often purely symbolic changes, while exerting most of their energies to protect the status quo. Reforms look backward, toward shoring up established systems, not forward to a new world. In general, Japan has settled comfortably into an Epimethean mind-set, and this is central not only to reform but to the overall question of how Japan failed to become a modern country. Modernity, if nothing else, surely means a love of the new. However, as we have seen repeatedly in this book, if new technology was not aimed at export manufacture — like cameras or cars — it never took root. ...
Chart showing Japanese demographics for aging population
At the moment, the trend is toward an increasingly Epimethean bent. Change will get harder, not easier, as the population ages. At the very moment when Japan needs adventurous people to drastically revise its way of doing things, the population has already become the world’s oldest, with school registrations on a strong downward curve. Older people. by nature, tend to be more conservative than younger ones, and as they tip the balance of the population, it will be harder to make changes.
Japanese youth representing "conformity" through school uniforms
Meanwhile, youths, whom one would ordinarily expect to be full of energy and initiation, have been taught in school to be obedient and never to question the way things are. Young people are thinking about shirts printed with bunnies and kitties — with platform shoes to match, and some really amazing makeup and hairdos — rather than about heavy issues like the environment. (D&D, 366-8)
Japanese youths (representing individualism)
Japanese Imperial Flag with the word "REVOLUTION" and a fist breaking a chain
"boiled frog" cartoon
Boiled Frog Syndrome
How on earth did Japan get itself into such trouble? Iida Hideo, a finance lawyer, describes what he calls the Boiled Frog syndrome: “If you drop a frog into a pot of boiling water, he will jump out immediately and be saved. If you put him in warm water, he feels comfortable and does not notice when you slowly raise the temperature.” Before the frog knows what is happening, it’s cooked.
       The Boiled Frog syndrome is what comes of failing to change as the world changes. Techniques such as tobashi [“creative accounting”] keep the water lukewarm, hiding disastrous mistakes. The policy of shoring up insolvent firms and wasteful government agencies at public expense creates no incentive for those in charge to rethink their mistakes. Meanwhile, the government croons the public to sleep with reassuring lullabies about Japan’s unique form of government by bureaucracy, and its superiority over the degenerate West, exemplified by Sakakibara Eisuke’s book Japanese-Style Capitalism as a Civilization. ... Radical change will come only when conditions have grown completely intolerable, and in Japan’s case that day may never come. To put Japan’s financial troubles into context, we must remember that it remains one of the wealthiest countries in the world; the bankrupt banks and deflated stock market are not going to deprive most people of their television sets, refrigerators, and cars. From this point of view, Japan remains a reasonably comfortable place to live. (D&D, 370-1)
"To change...or not to change"
"boiled frog" icon
Chuto Hanpa: "Halfway Done is Best"
Chuto Hanpa
Halfway Done
Chuto Hanpa: "I'm not done...but I'm gonna have a nap"
The best word to describe Japan’s modern plight is Chuto Hanpa, which means “neither this nor that” — in other words, mediocrity. (D&D, 371)
It’s a story of strengths inherited from the industries of the 1970s balanced against severe weaknesses in the industries of the new millennium.
Nintendo vs. XBox vs. Sony Playstation
Technology in Japan is good, but not nearly as good as was once thought; it’s “neither here nor there” — that is, Chuto Hanpa. Because of this mix of qualities, Japan will not crash. There is more than enough industrial power to support the population at roughly present standards. On the other hand, given its deep systemic weakness in finance and technology, Japan is not going to boom. The long-term prognosis is for more Chuto Hanpa, with GNP growth slow, unemployment edging upward, and the debt burden mounting year by year. (D&D, 374-5)
At the turn of the century, hopes for the future remain balanced between revolution and stagnation. Stagnation is most likely in the absence of a major shock to the system, such as a wholesale economic crash. But revolution could happen. The world is full of surprises — who would have imagined in 1985 that by 1990 the whole of Eastern Europe would have shaken off Communism? ...
Chart showing "Real GDP" trend
Chart showing Real GDP per working adult
Sadly for Japan, a crash is highly unlikely. The chances are that for the next decade or two there will never come a moment when the nation stares disaster right in the face. The water will remain lukewarm, and the public will sleep comfortably in a soup of Chuto Hanpa while the country slowly degenerates. When it comes time to carve the epitaph for “Japanese-style capitalism as a civilization,” the legend on the tombstone will read “Boiled Frog.” (D&D, 378-9)
"boiled frog" tombstone
Japanese Imperial Flag with the word "REVOLUTION" and a fist breaking a chain
photo of a bowl with the words "wabi-sabi is a beauty of things imperfect, impermanent, and incomplete"
Tradition & Modernity
The Search for Japan’s “Real” Identity
Ikebana (flower arranging)In asking ourselves at the deepest level what happened to Japan, it helps, oddly enough, to look again at ikebana flower arrangement. One day in the fall of 1999, I broached a question to the flower master Kawase Toshiro. It was something that had long been troubling me: What is the real difference between old-style ikebana and the monstrosities that pass under that name these days? One can regret the use of wire and vinyl cutouts, the way flowers and leaves are stapled and folded together, the way manuals diagram arrangements in terms of exact angles at such-and-such degree — but all of these things, however distorted, do have roots in the tradition. What is the crucial difference? Kawase’s answer was that modern flowers lack jitsu — that is, “reality.” Traditional flowers had a purpose, whether it was religious or ritual; people in those days had a mystical respect for the wonders of nature and used their arrangements as a way of seeking and responding to the creative breath of the cosmos. Nowadays, all this is lost. There is no purpose except decoration for its own sake, no inquiring after the nature of plants and flowers themselves. Instead, the flowers are just “material,” not much different from any other material such as vinyl and wire, used any which way to serve the whimsical needs of the arrangers. In short, there is no jitsu, no spiritual purpose, nothing that connects with the inherent forces of nature — just empty design.
Wave of the Future: Hokusai's Wave being digitized
Kawase’s comment was a profound one, for lack of jitsu carries over into every field in Japan today, and can be said to be at the very root of the country’s present cultural malaise. The construction frenzy (building without purpose), architecture (design without context), education (facts without independent thought), new cities (destroying the old), the stock market (paying no dividends), real estate (making no returns), universities (irrelevant to education), internationalization (keeping out the world), bureaucracy (spending without regard to real needs), finance (“virtual yen”), cinema (aimed mostly at children, not at adults), company balance sheets (“cosmetic accounting”), the Environmental Agency (unconcerned with the environment), medicine (copycat drugs improperly tested), information (fuzzy facts, secrets, and lies), airports (bad for people, good for radishes) — there is no other way to put it. It is this that leads me to call Japan a case of failed modernization. ...
Chinese character for "reality" (jitsu)
The cultural troubles are long-term and chronic. There is a way out, of course, and it’s the way of jitsu — getting back in touch with reality. The reality that Japan needs to get back to, however, is not necessarily reality as it is seen in the West but Japan’s own moral and cultural roots. ... The manualized flower arrangements are a denial of everything that flower masters taught for centuries; the bombastic architecture a slap in the face to a long tradition of restraint and aesthetic sensitivity; the smiling baby faces an absurd end to the sophisticated adult culture that gave us Noh drama, Basho’s haiku, sand gardens, and so much more. Most tragic of all, the construction frenzy that is a core part of today’s distorted system is destroying the very land itself, the land that the Japanese have always considered to be sacred.
Yugen represented by the sacred forest from Princess Mononoke
The result of Japan’s war with jitsu has been to tear apart and ravage most of what Japan holds most dear in its own culture, and this lies at the root of the nation’s modern cultural malaise: people are sick at heart because Japan has strayed so far from its true self. The challenge for the Japanese in the past two centuries was how to come out of isolation and assert themselves in the world, and in this they succeeded brilliantly, to the extent that Japan is now one of the world’s most powerful nations. Success came, however, at tremendous internal cost. The challenge of this century will be how to find a way home. (D&D, 382-5)

What's the right balance between "tradition" and "modernity"?

Picture of a pagoda with Mt. Fuji in the background