Archive | August 2012

All In This Together? – In praise of Japanese community spirit

Click here for the article in Metropolis

An influential piece of research last year would no doubt have warmed the cockles of those on the left of the political spectrum—and the Japanese. The Spirit Level: Why More Equal Societies Almost Always Do Better claimed that people tend to be healthier and happier living in more equal societies, namely, Japan and the Nordic nations. In these countries, the rich-poor gap is significantly narrower than in most developed nations. In Japan, for example, Nikkei company CEOs take home an average wage of 16 times the average worker. In the UK, the figure is 88, and in the US, 319. As a consequence, the UK and the US see more kids dropping out of school, more violent crime, more people in prison, more babies dying, more mental illness, less social mobility and less trust. Japan, on the other hand, is represented as a haven of good health and social development.

The findings are a damning appraisal of the Anglo-American model. Nonetheless, the UK—and to a greater extent, the US—have been adamant down the years in their defense of the model, on the grounds that “Higher incentive leads to greater entrepreneurial drive,” and therefore, “There is no Steve Jobs in Japan.” The science makes sense; there are clear advantages to inequality. But willfully encouraging it on such a scale is a different matter. It’s a heinous attempt at morality. Especially when studies such as the above show how income inequality does not spur us on, rather it divides, alienates, and damages us.

The Occupy Movement that sprung up last year was indicative of such alienation. Thousands took to the streets as governments threw notions of accountability and fairness out the window to bail out financial markets. President Barack Obama acknowledged in his recent State of the Union address that some sort of correction was in order, when he called for greater fairness and equality in the US economic system. The UK government has likewise tried its best to reassure its public with the catchphrase: “We’re all in this together.” But divisions run deep in the UK. The US might be more unequal today, but the UK has a deeper history of class division. Even if disgraced UK bankers were to go ahead and cut their indulgent bonuses, few there would ever believe a statement like “We’re all in this together.”

I must confess to my British fixation with class. When I look at passengers on the London Underground, I can easily tell a working-class man from a middle-class one simply by looking at his hair or how he walks down the aisle. Particularly in times of hardship, UK citizens seem to know where they belong, and, when it comes down to it, whom they would defend. On the Tokyo Metro, by contrast, I see only masses of impeccably dressed middle-class urbanites and a thick, black canvas of salarymen. I used to think it was all for show, owing to the uncanny Japanese ability to keep up appearances, but I’m now convinced there is a deep-seated egalitarianism here.

In Japan, statements in public such as “We’re all in this together” are commonplace, and there is much greater cause to believe them. Not only do Japanese CEOs pay themselves more modestly, some of them, such as the former JAL CEO Haruka Nishimatsu, commute by bus, eat in the company cafeteria and engage with their workers. Notions of duty and responsibility are upheld not just by the workers, but also by the CEO and the management, and therefore have far more credence in Japan than in the US and UK.

There is an age-old propensity for unity over confrontation here. It’s by no means a perfect model. The Japanese suffer from long working hours and meager time off, and you could say they are more docile, but, the absence of a vitriolic “class consciousness” in Japan is perhaps the greatest reward of all. If the findings of the The Spirit Level are not evidence enough, then picture the apocalyptic scenes in the UK streets last summer, where bands of hopelessly disillusioned so-called “under classes,” for no other reason than because they could, tore apart their communities, setting buildings on fire, looting shops, and fighting police.

Such an occurrence would be unthinkable in Japan. Yes, Japan has its social problems. There is a balance to be struck somewhere between the two models, but there is no doubting that the US and UK would stand to benefit massively by adopting the great humility and community spirit that exists over here in Japan. I, for one, will be singing the praises of Japan—all the way home to Blighty.

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The Blue Man Group

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Diaries Of A Sushi Addict

It’s only raw fish on a ball of rice! How is it that the Japanese were the only ones to come up with it. While everyone else was slaving away over their camp fires, the Japanese were all about slicing it up and serving it raw, untampered, au naturale. And what a bloody marvelous job they did too.

I first tried sushi some three years ago as a newcomer to Japan, without knowing too much about it, but nonetheless very much eager to savour the local food. Sure enough, the sushi was nice, but I perhaps enjoyed the novelty of the experience more than anything else, and I certainly wasn’t blown away by the taste. I ventured back to the sushi-ya a handful of times before I flew back home to England and subsisted for a year and a half on a diet devoid of sushi. It was during this time that the cravings began.

During a routine shop in Tesco, I stumbled across what looked like sushi. I took it home, sat down excitedly on my sofa and readied myself to relive the joy of sushi once more. I put it in my mouth and spat it out within a second. The rice was hard like gravel. The fish was as fresh as a fossil. I nearly broke my teeth trying to eat it. I vowed never to eat non-Japanese sushi again.

So now as a resident of Tokyo, you can imagine the sort of life I’m leading. I’m one step away from injecting it directly into my bloodstream. My favourites are binchou maguro, engawa and kanisarada. They’re so light and soft, like gentle snowflakes melting into my mouth. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, then get down your local sushi-ya and bloody find out (unless of course, you’re in England).

“We Never Know The Worth Of Water Until The Well Is Dry”

(August 2011) I have been humbled by the resilience of the Japanese in response to the misery that has ravaged their shores this year. They have shared around their burdens and reminded the world of the virtues of self-sacrifice for the common good. Volunteers have travelled north to lend a welcome hand, cleaning up the […]