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The Japanese Malaise

Dogs and Demons: Tales from the Dark Side of Japan

by Alex Kerr
Hill and Wang, 432 pp., $27.00

Politics is roads, and roads are politics.”

—Former Prime Minister Takeshita Noboru


Many things came to mind as I strolled through Shibuya, in western Tokyo, on a balmy afternoon in the cherry blossom season this year. But the economic crisis was not one of them. Dense crowds of mostly young people rushed about in a frenzy of consumption. Coffee shops were full of teenagers chattering on their candy-colored cell phones. The designer boutiques, record stores, video and DVD stores, short-time “love hotels,” cinemas, pinball (pachinko) parlors, discotheques, and a wide variety of eateries and bars all seemed to be doing good business. The fashion for hair dyes mottled the usual sea of black hair milling around the railway station with patches of yellow, red, and purple. The average age of these crowds cannot have been much over twenty-two, and the screeching advertising jingles, featuring dimpled teenage television stars and loony cartoon characters, projected on giant screens on multistory shopping emporia, were clearly aimed at them.

Hardship, then, is not for the young. Many live with their parents and have enough cash to buy whatever it is the cartoon characters and teenage stars urge them to. Some of the youngest girls—fourteen, fifteen, sixteen years old—come in from the suburbs, dressed in school-regulation sailor suits, for anonymous assignations with middle-aged men to make enough money in an hour or two to buy the more expensive fashion items. Their cell phone numbers are procured through Internet chat rooms. The going rate is about $300 an hour. Shibuya, as the center of teen culture, is a favorite spot for these transactions. (Older and cheaper prostitutes elsewhere in Tokyo are usually no longer Japanese, but Chinese, Thai, Filipina, or even Russian, another phenomenon of bubble and post-bubble Japan.)

Recession has had the worst effect on men in their fifties and older, bankrupted by bad loans, laid off by their companies, or squeezed beyond endurance by loan sharks who threaten to send the hard boys in. The immediate problem usually is not impoverishment, but the humiliation of losing one’s job, one’s place in society, one’s standing. To be idle, without a title, a namecard, or any official affiliation, is a shameful thing in a country where men have no substance without an occupation. Some of the unemployed are rejected by their families. Others slink off by themselves. You see such men, still dressed in their suits and ties, camping out in the subways under cardboard boxes; you see them reading their newspapers all day in public libraries; you see them in the blue tent cities put up in the parks of Ueno, and other parts of the more plebeian eastern districts. The official jobless rate for 2000 was 4.7 percent, and the estimated number of homeless in Tokyo is about 15,000. Not devastating statistics compared to many other countries, but alarming enough for a place that prided itself not long ago on almost full employment.

Then there is the story I heard about the Chuo line, one of the main railway arteries from the western suburbs into Tokyo on which millions of corporate “salarymen” commute. At least once a day the train service that normally runs like clockwork comes to a sudden halt. An “accident on the track” is the official announcement. The commuters don’t even bother to look up from their newspapers or comic books, for they know what’s going on: yet another man in suit and tie couldn’t take it any longer and jumped.

The Japanese malaise is not a matter of soup kitchens and widespread economic ruin, not yet, probably not for a long while, and perhaps never. Most people still have jobs, and those who don’t generally have enough savings to fall back on. The malaise goes deeper than economics; it is social, political, perhaps even cultural. What has begun to crumble is a whole set of political and economic arrangements put in place during the 1950s. The foundations of postwar Japan—and thus the political authority of its governing institutions—were built on a kind of compact made with the Japanese people. This deal has now come to an end.

Actually, there were two deals. The first one, concluded under Prime Minister Shigeru Yoshida, was called the “San Francisco System,” after the San Francisco Conference convened in 1951. Japan would regain its sovereignty after signing a peace treaty with the Allied Powers (but not yet China and the Soviet Union). Japan’s right to self-defense was negated, however, by a new pacifist constitution, drawn up by American jurists after the war. Since Japan was constitutionally banned from waging war, or even maintaining its own armed forces, the government signed a Security Treaty with the US, also in 1951, which put responsibility for Japanese defense in American hands.

The conservative mainstream saw this as an opportunity to get on with business. But right-wing nationalists viewed the deal as a national humiliation, and their resentments have been aired ever since by riff-raff at extremist rallies, and, on occasion, by politicians on the far right of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP). The deal was also opposed by many left-wing pacifists, especially after Japan was drawn into American conflicts on the Asian continent. As the cold war raged, purges of socialists, Communists, and even some liberals alienated the Japanese left. When the Security Treaty was up for renewal in 1960, in a revised form, students, backed by left-wing intellectuals, trade unions, and many ordinary citizens, protested in such large numbers, and with such enthusiasm, that President Eisenhower’s planned visit to Tokyo had to be called off at the last minute—this, despite the fact that the Japanese government had thoughtfully recruited yakuza mobsters for the US president’s protection.

Still, the deal survived. Prime Minister Nobusuke Kishi, the wartime armaments minister, detained until 1948 as a war criminal, managed to push the treaty through parliament late one night, after the police had been called in to keep socialist MPs from blocking it. This kind of thing, as well as the purges, made the postwar democratic system dangerously brittle. Kishi had to resign.

The second deal, made by Kishi’s successor, Hayato Ikeda, in December 1960, was an attempt to restore the damaged legitimacy of the postwar system. It was called the “doubling individual income plan.” The official text of the plan promised “doubling of the gross national product, attainment of full employment through expansion in employment opportunities, and raising the living standard of our people.”1

The Ikeda plan managed to save the Yoshida deal by, as it were, buying off the opposition. High-speed economic progress would, it was hoped, take people’s minds off politics and the troubled wartime past. A conservative coalition, formed in 1955 as the Liberal Democratic Party, governed in a system that was rigged to give it a permanent majority, while leaving just enough room for smaller parties to have a share in the public trough. Under this dispensation, the Americans would keep their bases, the left would be marginalized, the LDP would govern forever, and industry would grow and grow under the paternalist guardianship of technocratic bureaucrats, many of whom had managed the war economy in the 1930s and early 1940s.

In spite of Ikeda’s slogan, the point was less to enrich, let alone “empower,” private citizens than to promote economic nationalism. The LDP state was not very democratic; bureaucrats, industrialists, and politicians managed most of their business in secret. But in exchange for their acquiescence, the people were promised peace, harmony, steady jobs, and warm pride in the nation’s economic prowess. The LDP state would serve as a cocoon for cosseted farmers, owners of small businesses, and above all employees of large companies. Competition, especially from abroad, was officially treated as a threat to social harmony and would be contained. The great army of blue-suited salarymen would feel safe and snug in lifetime employment, as long as they did as they were told, obeyed their bosses, and worked long hours. Yukio Mishima lamented the death of the Japanese warrior spirit, but his was a lonely voice in the new age of the Japanese Economic Animal.2

Rather like Chinese Communist rule after Mao, the LDP state drew its legitimacy from the promise of constant economic growth. But the elimination of serious opposition, and the exclusion from politics of all but material aims, again as in post-Mao China, turned the one-party state into a huge, nationwide pork barrel. The main source of pork was construction, or what was described in the Ikeda plan as “comprehensive multi-purpose development of the land.”3 The LDP state is also known as the construction state (doken kokka). Concrete is one of the chief currencies that paid for the postwar Japanese order. Without it, LDP politicians couldn’t afford their campaigns, millions of jobs would be lost, and bureaucrats would lose a vital source of revenue; without it, the LDP state would collapse.


Everywhere you go in Japan, there are highways, railways, roads, tunnels, dams, and bridges, some of them without any discernable purpose. River banks are filled with concrete, and so are mountains and hills. Sixty percent of the Japanese coastline is encased in concrete. Every major river in Japan has been diverted or is dammed up. Almost every small town has its own civic center or conference hall or municipal museum, dwarfing everything in the vicinity. Some are barely used. Museums are filled with knickknacks, or contain nothing much at all. But like the dams, the roads, and the bridges, they are all part of an intricate system of state subsidies, kickbacks, and political payoffs. Alex Kerr, from whose book Dogs and Demons this information is culled, explains:

Public works have mushroomed in Japan because they are so profitable to the people in charge. Bid-rigging and handouts are standard practices that feed hundreds of millions of dollars to the major political parties. A good percentage (traditionally about 1–3 percent of the budget of each public project) goes to the politicians who arrange it. In 1993, when Kanemaru Shin, a leader of the Construction Ministry supporters in the National Diet, was arrested during a series of bribery scandals, investigators found that he had garnered nearly $50 million in contributions from construction firms.

Kanemaru was a crook, but also a very successful LDP politician. The point is you couldn’t be one without being the other.

The Construction Ministry, like most public institutions, has an anthem, quoted in Kerr’s book, with a priceless line that goes: “Asphalt blanketing the mountains and valleys…a splendid Utopia.” As for the people who have to live in this concrete utopia, Kerr quotes a prefectoral governor’s justification for a new, and apparently utterly useless, railway line cutting through the paddy fields. It was needed, the governor said, “to develop the social infrastructure so that people can feel they have become rich” (Kerr’s italics). New is modern; modern is rich. And since the money kicked back and forth between bureaucrats, businessmen, and politicians keeps the Ikeda plan afloat, the Construction State has become an all-devouring monster, a Godzilla of development.

  1. 1

    Quoted in David J. Lu’s Japan: A Documentary History (M.E. Sharpe, 1997), p. 527.

  2. 2

    Not my phrase, but one commonly used in the Japanese press.

  3. 3

    Lu, Japan: A Documentary History, p. 528.

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