Japan in 1970

TIME has put its archives online for free, including decent-resolution shots of every magazine cover, and OCR’ed versions of every article. From the March 2, 1970 issue comes an in-depth overview of Cold War-era Japan, entitled “Toward the Japanese Century.” The article was written just before the Expo in Osaka (held quite close to where my very first host family lived), at a time when nobody was really sure where Japan was headed besides way up.

On life in Tokyo in the late 60’s:

The price of Japan’s reach for that sizable slice of world trade has been years of national self-denial. “We have sold everything, including the kitchen sink,” laments Economist Kiichi Miyazawa, head of the influential Ministry of International Trade and Industry (MITI). “We have left nothing for ourselves.” There are shortages of roads, railways, parks, hospitals, sewers and schools. “There is much to be done,” says Premier Eisaku Sato, singling out two problems in particular. “The housing shortage is extreme, and pollution is serious.”

…Prosperity has only worsened Tokyo’s housing shortage, its snarled traffic, and the soot that boils in across the brown Sumida River from the blast furnaces of Kawasaki, which has 3,000 industrial plants and a population of 940,000. Two-thirds of Tokyo is still without sewers; residents are served by “honeybucket” men, trucks and a “night-soil fleet” of disposal ships, some as big as 1,000 tons, that make daily dumping trips offshore. “Don’t worry,” a crewman smiles, “the Black Current will take it all toward the U.S.”

When the wind blows in from Tokyo Bay, the downtown area is enveloped in the aroma from “Dream Island,” an ironically named landfill project that grows by 7,800 tons of waste a day. The city is trying to reduce its overhanging pall of smog by persuading homeowners and industrialists to switch from coal to fuel oil (at a cost of increased carbon monoxide). But a 15th century samurai’s poem boasting that the city “commands a view of soaring Fuji” is now a wry joke.

Thank God they cleaned that up. Hopefully China will do the same.

On the student radical movement:

Westerners accustomed to the atmosphere of improvisation at U.S. or French demonstrations are apt to find the Japanese protest scene quite different. Clashes between helmeted students and shield-carrying riot cops seem as stylized—and puzzling—as a No play. Moreover, the rioters, often led by members of the radical Zengakuren (a student federation), are usually higher on doctrine than drugs (pot has yet to spread far in Japan). Before long, however, Japanese dissent may be taking on a Western character.

Thousands of students and hippie-style dropouts are being drawn to a Viet Nam protest movement called Be-heiren, which often draws 5,000 “folksong guerrillas” to monthly protest meetings in Tokyo’s swinging Shinjuku area. When the cops come, the kids give them flowers and songs instead of staves and curses.

On social custom (this has to be one of the best brief explanations I’ve ever read):

Except for small children and old people, the Japanese lives constantly in a state of near-total control or near-total release. A man may be a perfectly decorous office worker at 4:55 p.m., but by 5:05, after one drink at the bar around the corner, he may be a giggling buffoon. Extremely rigid codes define proper behavior in virtually every social situation, but there are no codes at all to cover many modern contingencies. That is why so much body-checking and elbowing go on in a Tokyo subway or department store. As Author-Translator Edward Seidensticker puts it in his recent Japan: “They are extremely ceremonious toward those whom they know, and highly unceremonious toward others. Few urban Japanese bother to say ‘Excuse me’ after stepping on a person’s toes or knocking a book out of his hand—provided the person is a stranger. If he is known, it is very common to apologize for offenses that have not been committed.”

On security:

One U.S. diplomat in Asia suggests that Japan may be the first nation to score a breakthrough—a superpower without superweapons. Almost certainly, however, a nuclear-armed China will eventually persuade Japan to exorcise its post-Hiroshima trauma and begin building its own nukes. Unlike Peking, Tokyo has a head start toward a delivery system; two weeks ago, the Japanese became the fourth member of the exclusive space club (others: the U.S., the Soviet Union and France) by putting a 20-lb satellite into orbit from a launch pad on Kyushu Island.

Ibuki kind of doesn’t get the bullying issue

As part of the Education Ministry’s attempts to look like it’s doing something about the recent spate of school bullying-related suicides (Yomiuri’s English edition is doing a semi-interesting special on the topic), Minister Bunmei Ibuki has written a letter to every single school in the country urging youngsters to stop bullying their “friends.” Here’s the brief letter in translation:

A Request from the Minister of Education, Sports, Science and Technology

Dear kids, who have a future to look forward to:

It is shameful to bully friends and classmates who are in a weak position.
It is cowardly to bully your friends along with others.
You might be in a position to be bullied. Rather than wonder in the future why you did such a shameful thing, you should immediately stop the bullying that you are carrying out presently.

To you who are suffering from bullying: you certainly are not alone.
Rather than suffer by yourself, get the courage to talk about the fact that you are being bullied to anyone, whether it be your father, mother, grandfather, grandmother, a sibling, a school teacher, or a friend at school or from your neighborhood. You’ll feel better if you talk about it. I’m sure everyone will help you out.

December 27, 2006
Bunmei Ibuki, Minister of Education, Sports, Science and Technology

The bullying issue has been a political football for years, but the recent spate of bullying-related suicides (including letters to the minister threatening suicide, though those letters have not been validated as far as I can tell) made bullying the dominant education-related issue during the fall extraordinary Diet session and crowded out the government’s promotion of its education reform agenda to the point where the government’s handling of the suicides/threats has become an Upper House election issue. As a result, the education ministry has been desperate to look like it is doing something, with efforts including some ’emergency measures’ to prevent bullying and this letter.

Shukan Asahi reported that Ibuki wrote this letter himself. It sounds sincere enough, but this bullying issue is extremely complicated and each case has its own special characteristics. Much like anti-drug and anti-smoking campaigns in the US, this could easily backfire. I can just imagine this letter being used as material to rank on some poor kid.

To that end, the Japanese media never tire of publicizing bullying horror stories, probably because they are always so compelling. For its part, Yomiuri has run a series looking at bullying cases in detail:

An 18-year-old high school student has decided to live life keeping future goals in mind despite becoming a target of bullying that started after the student became disabled due to a traffic accident. (For personal reasons, the student, who was interviewed by The Yomiuri Shimbun recently, asked that the student’s gender not be disclosed.)

Hit by a car two years ago, the student suffered multiple fractures and hovered between life and death. While the student regained consciousness, the student’s upper body was disabled.

After returning to school, some classmates started making fun of the student’s appearance. They hurled insults at the student, saying, “Look in the mirror!” and hid the student’s textbooks and slippers. In desperation, the student cut the student’s wrists with a razor blade in spring this year. Seeing the blood pumping out of the student’s veins, the student realized, “I’m alive now, though I could have died in the accident.”

Regardless of the political leadership’s cluelessness, the even higher than usual level of attention placed on the bullying issue is apparently pushing schools to take the issue more seriously:

The recent spate of bullying cases–some of which led to suicides–has prompted boards of education around the nation to set their own criteria to identify bullying, aside from the definition laid down by the Education, Science and Technology Ministry.

Most of the new criteria allow more cases to be identified as bullying than that of the ministry; for example, if parents or children consult with a school once in connection with a case of intimidation, it should be counted as bullying.

At least 40 boards of education have made such changes, and some criticized the existing definition of bullying as inadequate for a correct understanding of the real situation.

The ministry’s definition says for a case of intimidation to be recognized as bullying, it must involve a “one-sided physical or psychological attack” by “a stronger perpetrator against a weaker victim,” with the latter experiencing “serious pain and suffering.”

Because of the strong wording in the ministry’s definition, such as “attack” and “serious pain and suffering,” many schools have only recognized very serious cases of intimidation as bullying.

Of course, people are kidding themselves if they think that broadening the definition of bullying will stop it. To trot out a well-worn cliche, Japan is a society of endurance and conformity. The comedy shows are all about smacking around the weird guy, and everyone is expected to “try hard.” The only way to manage such a situation is to keep things from getting out of hand and eliminate the dangerous structural problems (hard-hearted teachers who permit violence or egg people on, weak rules against it, etc). The endless television pleas for peace will get nowhere.

America of course has a serious problem with bullying as well. However, one thing that protects the nerds in the US is a very strong clique culture. If you eat lunch with the other nerds, you feel like less of a loser.

I certainly have no answer for the bullying issue, but when I was a high school student in Japan, I noticed that while there were distinctions between the popular girls, the people in the various sports clubs, etc, I didn’t really see much of a place for the unpopular kids to get together. A few of them used illness as an excuse to skip school for months at a time. Perhaps if there were places outside of the school system where the losers could find ways to express themselves they’d be able to have some sort of hope for the future.

Terrorist attacks in Bangkok

This is what I’ll be returning to next week:

A series of bombs exploded Sunday evening December 31, 2006, and Monday morning, January 1, 2007 in several locations in the Bangkok metropolitan area. The explosions killed two persons and caused numerous injuries. The US Embassy has confirmed that no American citizens were injured or killed in the explosions.

The Department of State and the American Embassy in Bangkok urge all American citizens in Bangkok to stay indoors whenever possible, to avoid all public gatherings, and to remain extra vigilant as they travel in and around Bangkok. Please monitor local news channels or CNN for further information.

They hit a police box near the Big C supermarket in Saphan Kwai. That’s where I shop! I think my life from now on will be a straight line from my apartment to the fried rice restaurant, at least for the time being.