‘Zettai Kawaranai’. Hey, eyes here, soldier, no need to reach for Google Translate! I got you covered. Zettai Kawaranai, written in Japanese as “絶対変わらない”, means ‘Definitely Never Changing’. Oof, that’s a bit of a stretch to fit into today’s Z, isn’t it PJ? Well, yes, but there’s a point to that which I’ll come to later.
So! The world has decided do the hokey-cokey, turn around and shake it all about in the past year, hasn’t it? Brexit, Trump, David Bowie, Alan Rickman, Carrie Fisher, George Michael…actually, I can’t go on. Thinking back on it gives me that nauseous sinking feeling like an episode of Black Mirror does.
For many people it’s not just the acts of the changes themselves that makes people anxious but the speed at which it is all happening. One can’t help but think that historians will look back at this time as a turning point in history, and it’s looking increasingly likely it won’t be viewed in a positive light.
But do you know who had a fairly quiet year last year? That’s right: Japan. This land of volcanoes and earthquakes and typhoons and killer wasps the size of your thumb (no, really) has been reassuringly boring as of late, and that’s the continuation of one of Japan’s themes as a nation. Change in Japan is so slow it’s positively glacial. The phrase “plus ça change, plus c’est la meme chose” (“the more things change, the more things stay the same”) may be a French saying but it lives out to its fullest in Japan.
Japanese society, as a whole, is a one with a lot of inertia. It’s not that there’s no acknowledgement that things need to change – there absolutely is – but there’s an even louder voice that asks that change to come very, very slowly. This resistance to change permeates all levels of society, from school to workplace, from the household to politics. Certainly it all starts at school. Class sizes in Japan are huge – typically 30 to 40 – meaning less opportunity to speak out for yourself and influence the class as a whole. Students are encouraged to tackle the easy problems presented before them, then work their way towards the more difficult ones.
In the workplace, there’s a fear of taking risks regardless of how high the return is, preferring instead to take the tried-and-tested route. There is a strong sense of hierarchy and bureaucracy in companies where those on the lower rungs of the organization chart have very little influence, the ones up top too much.
Out on the street, Japan still holds an attitude towards women that seems like a holdover from the Sixties, still believing that the women’s place is at the home, cleaning the house and looking after the children. Understanding and attitudes to other countries is naive at best, downright dangerous at worst. This country once renowned for its creativity and innovation is stagnating, falling behind the up and coming tiger economies of Southeast Asia. The ruling political party, Jimintou, has been in power since 1955, with only a couple of blips where the other party, Minshuutou, jumped in (presumably to keep the motor running while Jimintou popped into the gas station for some sandwiches).
This ‘Zettai Kawaranai’ air to Japan mostly stems from Japan’s baby boomers, who now hold the keys to Japan’s top offices and dictate which way Japan goes (if anywhere). All over the world we’re witnessing the older generation stamping all over the growth and hopes of the youth, believing themselves to know better and believing the youth of today to be entitled snowflakes (despite all evidence pointing out that it’s baby boomers who are the most entitled, snowflake-y generation ever). But whereas in places like the U.K. and the USA where there’s a growing resistance to the iron grip of baby boomers, in Japan everyone just goes along with it. There’s a strong sense of obligation to one’s elders, coupled with the fact, that…well, there’s just so many of them. Japan has the oldest demographic in the world, and the elderly – who are more likely to be conservative and resist change – hold a huge amount of power (and money).
As you can probably tell, I hold a lot of strong opinions on this. I could rant on, but you get the point. Overall, I’ve harbored a lot of negative feelings towards Japan’s ‘Zettai Kawaranai’ attitude.
And I still do. But the past year has made me see a new angle on things. Because, whether by accident or by design, the last year has made Japan’s glacial change policy seem like a stroke of genius. And it’s not just because there will never be a Trump or Brexit in Japan: the factors that brought about Trump and Brexit simply don’t exist in Japan.
You see, for a long time, Japan had been accused of failing to properly harness globalization. Immigration levels are rock-bottom compared to many other major world players. English levels are shockingly poor. Japan had been told multiple times to change or spiral into irrelevance.
But you haven’t heard many of those voices as of late. Because since 2016, globalization hasn’t so much fallen out of favour as it has been torpedoed out of sky. An increasing amount of nationalist, isolationist rhetoric has sprung up in its place. And while that is worrying, it has sent those who would champion globalization away to do some soul searching. Has it happened too fast? Too much?
Now these are questions which are well out of my realm of answering – except for Japan. Because nobody except the most hardcore nationalist will declare that globalization has reached that far into Japan. Nobody in Japan could reasonably argue that immigration is too high, or that Japan is losing its sense of cultural identity. While the rest of the world reels from a backlash against (supposed) rampant globalization, Japan’s slow creep towards it throws a whole new light on the country. It’s almost certainly by accident – who could’ve predicted that 2016 would see the global tide turn the way it did? – but it happened regardless, and it puts Japan in an unexpectedly strong position, just by virtue of being stable and, well, a bit boring.
It’s actually quite nice to able to turn on the Japanese news and be bored by it, as opposed to fearing for the fate of the world. While the USA struggles to keep its head over a flood of Trump-related news, I can watch a 30-minute news report about a car crash where nobody was even injured. Seriously. And while the UK and the USA seem to have only space to talk about Brexit and Trump, Japan’s media remains preoccupied with finding new restaurants and renewed hot spring resorts. And I’m not trying to stick my head in the sand about world events – anything but – but there’s a fine balance between trying to stay informed and keeping your sanity. Japan is helping to keep mine.
But change is good. It is healthy, natural even, to change. So while I still live in hope that Japan can change for the better, I can do my part by changing myself where necessary. And it starts right here, on this blog. The A to Z of Japan is going to change. For the better. On February 24th 2017, this blog will undergo a massive overhaul. What will change? Well, that would spoil the surprise! Come back on the 24th and you’ll find out!
I’d like to take this chance to thank all of my readers for your continued support over the years, and I hope you’ll stick with me on my journey through life in Japan. 誠にありがとうございます！