As Japan entered the Meiji era, it knew it had to modernize or face dangers of possible colonial invasion.
Today, Japan also knows that it needs to change to adapt to an overwhelmingly competitive global market or sink. Any Japanese businessman will tell you, doing business abroad is tougher than ever.
Japanese products initially were easy to spread around the world because they were cool, catchy and cheap. Later, they became known for their high quality.
Today, when it comes to cars, China has the market on cheap and affordable. Japan’s been beaten on TVs by Samsung, and with the iPhone, people aren’t even exclusively plugged in to their Sony and Panasonics anymore. Many larger Japanese electronics companies have even had to merge with foreign or other Japanese ones to survive.
To make things worse, when it comes to negotiations, Japanese businessmen simply don’t speak the language – literally. Whereas many of Japan’s Asian counterparts are educated in programs that include courses taught entirely in English, try calling a Japanese company and finding English-speaking personnel. Even if you do, you might still have to switch to Japanese after your request is followed by an extremely awkward silence, then “once more again please?” at the other end of the line.
Some time ago, I was hired to teach business English courses at a school that had clients from almost every imaginable major corporation in Japan. I got quite a few students who were taking the job interview course, but weren’t looking for jobs at the time. They feared that their company was downsizing and that they’d be next to go. Many were looking to get jobs not at Japanese companies, but subsidiaries of foreign firms located in Japan.
It was strange, because when I asked most of them which style of management they preferred, Japanese or Western, they overwhelmingly chose Japanese with its all-encompassing cradle to grave corporate welfare system. But when I asked them which type of company they foresaw themselves having a future with, almost all chose foreign global companies.
Having experienced this gloomy atmosphere, it doesn’t take a degree in business or economics from Keio or Waseda (as many of my students had) to realize that free trade is just around the bend.
Still – there are the farmers. You have to feel bad for them.
It's a shrinking, aging, dying industry that produces some of the best and highest quality product in the world. But today, there are barely only 3 million farming families left in Japan. In fact, 60% of all farmers hold other part-time jobs. They’re likely to be over 65 as well as have children, even grandchildren who’ve settled down in the city.
But a tribute to the Japanese farmer: Their product is not cheap, but I stand by my word, it's the best and a product of very hard work.
I personally go to supermarkets and use as much kanji power as I have to find products grown in the right prefectures at the right time. Today I bought a whole bunch of Nagoya-grown Shinano Gold apples. Hours later they were gone ... ate them all. No regrets. Tochigi and Fukuoka-grown Amaou strawberries are another example. They’re big, they’re sweet, they’re juicy. Six of them will set you back almost 700 yen.
My parents who come to Japan a couple times a year are different. My father’s a bargain hunter. I do my shopping at Belc. He goes to Costco. God forbid I should spend 3,000 yen on fruit and vegetables after he’s stuffed the freezer with bags of cheap frozen stuff for a fraction of the price. I would hear about it forever, and there is no lecturing him about food quality.
Yet, in some ways he’s right. Times are bad and wallets are tight. I’m noticing more and more security cameras at stores. I was in Seiyu today and saw two police officers measuring shelves and taking pictures. The shelves looked full, but evidently it was a crime scene. Apparently, someone had hit the sushi deli, made off with a few cans of tuna and grabbed some Oolong tea as well.
In recent years, up to almost 50,000 senior citizens per year, four times as many as in the 1990s, have been arrested in Japan for crimes other than traffic offenses. The crimes (which also include murder, embezzlement and extortion) are often attributed to “the harsh economy,” “isolation from the family” and a growing gap between the rich and poor.
If the economy is so bad that it's driving cute old senbei-eating "obasan" to stab people to death, and middle-aged "ojisan" to throw bikes from overhead rail passes on to train tracks, imagine how tight the wallets of people ranging from the underemployed, unemployed to tightly budgeted pensioners are.
As this happens, one thing is clear. Even if Japanese agriculture produces some of the best product in the world, an increasing number of people can’t afford it. The farmers, aging themselves, know this, and probably know that a generation raised on Poki and Cup Noodle simply aren’t going to go for the “quality fresh” pitch.
The reality is, the industry has been rapidly shrinking for years. Farming is labor-intensive work that people don’t want to do. Building shopping malls and housing developments will get you way more money than harvesting rice from land.
In the end, Japan faces a dilemma: clean up the economy, but throw farmers by the wayside while having almost no food or energy self-sustenance, or have supermarkets full of the best produce in the world, but few customers who can afford it.
Farming may be turning from an industry to an art, and the farmers who harvest the field may very well be Japan’s last samurai. No doubt, they’ll put up a good fight, but one wonders if their fate has already been decided?© Japan Today