TOKYO–What Changes?

MAY 2007 — The eternal question about Tokyo and Japan is, “What has changed?”
The Imperial Palace still dominates the heart of Tokyo, and I ran around it, just as I did when I spent so much time in Japan in 1989. I always think of the palace as a symbol—at the heart of the Japanese system lies much mystery, just as the palace itself is heavily guarded and usually impenetrable.

So much of the fabric of life for both the resident and the visitor is shaped by the subway and train system, which is the most advanced of any I’ve seen in the world. I didn’t take a single taxi, and I moved all around Tokyo. The trains stop at precisely the scheduled moment at precisely the right spot where people have lined up in anticipation. (I witnessed only one rush hour scene in which people pushed their way on. The normal deference to others suddenly changed, and real brute physical force was employed. No one complained.)

I find it amusing that Japanese pedestrians of all ages and walks of life still wait at intersections when the light is against them but no traffic is coming. If the signal says “Don’t Walk,” they don’t cross. They are a very disciplined people. It’s not that the police force them to obey; it’s a social control mechanism. In years past when I’ve charged across the street against the light, I could read the body language of Japanese disapproving of me. This trip, I obeyed. Maybe I’m being Japan-ized.

On the subways, they have “courtesy seats” reserved for old folks or disabled people. Little signs tell other people seated nearby to turn their cell phones off, presumably because the radio signals might trigger someone’s pacemaker. People do not talk on their cell phones on either the subways or trains. It’s another social dictum. Everybody is scanning their emails, but no one is talking. You never hear a phone ring even though everybody has a phone in their pocket or purse.

Because I spent a lot of time on subways and in trains, I spent a lot of time looking at Japanese people, up close and personal. Their clothing is very expensive and stylish, particularly in the trendy Roppongi Hills area where I stayed. The vast majority of businessmen wore dark suits. I felt such overwhelming social pressure that I didn’t even bother to get out my tan khaki suit; I didn’t want to be conspicuously out of step.
But I thought I could detect that, overall, the Japanese are relaxing a bit in terms of how they wear their hair and in the range of clothing styles that you see. The straightjacket of conformity has eased somewhat. I think it is a reflection of increased wealth and increased confidence in who they are as a people.

Who are they as a people? That’s a delicate question. If you study the faces, it’s clear that some have high cheek bones and narrower eyes, giving away their origins in Manchuria or China, while others are rounder people with rounder eyes, suggesting Southeast Asian origins. They also have many different kinds of hair, some curlier than other. Skin colors vary considerably. So the idea that they are a homogenous people is just bunk. Different waves of migration to Japan many centuries ago from different directions created a mixed race. The national ideology is that they are a homogenous people, and perhaps they are culturally and linguistically. But not racially.

One of the most amazing things about their physical appearance is the bad dentistry. They have just awful teeth. Even a beautiful, well-dressed woman can open her mouth and reveal the need for thousands of dollars worth of braces and cosmetic dentistry. Cindy Kano, who works at Fortune and organized much of my schedule, says the Japanese don’t wear braces as children because they are worried about being singled out for being different and therefore bullied. She says that slowly younger Japanese are turning to braces. Certainly the Japanese now have the wealth to fix their teeth. It’s a huge business opportunity, I would say.

One clear sign of change: The Japanese don’t work on Saturdays as they once did. Prosperity is giving them much more leisure time.

The shopping is all very high-end, particularly in the new areas of Tokyolike Roppongi Hills and the new Midtown complex, which is anchored by a Ritz Carlton Hotel. You’ll find all the Armani, Zara and YSL you could possibly want, plus other shops I’ve never heard of. Novespazio, anyone?

One of the ways you can see the technological progress that the Japanese are making is in their toilets. Every single toilet I saw, whether in a hotel or in a little restaurant or bar, had a heated seat with a panel of controls that allows you to give yourself a little douche. An arm shoots out and sprays whatever part of your anatomy needs spraying, with water whose temperature you can control. And the driers that dry your hands after washing are very newfangled. You insert your hands into these devices, and air blows at you from two directions, greatly speeding up drying time. Paper towels are rarely used. All in all, the bathrooms are a bit intimidating. I often had to spend more than a moment trying to figure out how to flush.

I also felt stupid when it came time to throwing away a bottle or can or just plain garbage. The vast majority of trash receptacles are divided into three or four categories for purposes of recycling. If there wasn’t a sign in English saying “Plastic” or “Glass,” I had to peer inside to see what I was supposed to throw away.

So, all in all, the Japanese have built a very sophisticated, intricately organized society. The notion that they “lost a decade” and are somehow dying a slow death as their population ages is poppycock. It’s tragic that the American media has withdrawn most of their reporters from Tokyo, because I continue to believe that it’s a place that really matters. If nothing else, the Japanese are going to be competing against U.S. companies ever more strongly. They are not going to disappear. I know I’ve been giving this lecture for decades, but it bears repeating: We either come to understand who the Japanese are and how we should engage with them, or we will continue to be marginalized in this part of the world, and we will continue to see our own standard of living eroded. Thus endeth the sermon.

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