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10/25/13

Enough already: Can Japan settle for less? | The Japan Times

Enough already: Can Japan settle for less?

In a cartoon that ran in the Asahi Shimbun in June, diners sit at a lunch counter, chopsticks in one hand, smartphone in the other, their attention as they eat focused more on their screens than on their meals. This annoys the sole customer in the place without a phone, who at last bursts out, What bad manners people have nowadays! No, he is told, its not a question of manners but of poverty. People can afford only the blandest and least appetizing fare. To make up for it, they call up gourmet meals to their screens and pretend thats what theyre eating. Cyber-indulgence trumps real privation mind over matter in modern dress.

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10/25/13

Enough already: Can Japan settle for less? | The Japan Times

Astonishing that, in the 21st century, in the midst of a technological revolution that is perhaps mankinds greatest stride forward since the agricultural revolution 12,000-odd years ago, in the worlds third-largest economy with its educated and industrious workforce, were still talking about poverty not as a lingering but fading remnant of a formerly intractable problem, but as a condition thats spreading and deepening. Of course, theres poverty and poverty. Theres the World Bank definition of extreme poverty: living on the equivalent of $1.25 or less a day, as roughly a billion people worldwide do. Then theres the unofficial and purely informal Japanese poverty line of 3 million in annual income, which works out to about $80 a day. Its all in the mind. Youre as poor as you feel. And Japan is feeling way too sorry for itself, the monthly Sapio contends. Its November issue discusses a newly popular buzzword pua-j. Maybe it deserves to be called a philosophy. Pua is the English poor; j suggests sufficiency . In short: Poverty as Japan understands it is not real poverty and does not rule out happiness. It may even be conducive to it. The coiner of the phrase is theologian Hiromi Shimada, whose article opens Sapios package. A modest income, Shimada argues, is not only sufficient, its therapeutic. It cures us of the worst of the modern neuroses insatiability. Corporate insatiability is one thing, human insatiability another. A corporation exists to generate profits. More profits for itself, higher dividends for its shareholders. Ethical questions aside, thats its nature. People are different. But a corporate employee tends to absorb the limitless growth motif and apply it personally, craving more income this year than last, a sleeker car, a bigger house, more dinners at posher restaurants, and so on and so on, endlessly. Thats willful and unthinking sacrifice of a natural human right, to Shimada (though he doesnt put it quite this way) the right to establish personal limits and live contentedly within them. Flee the rat race, he urges. The best sort of company to work for, he says, is not a major corporation but a small, old, slightly down-at-heel concern that is stable but not feverishly competitive, somewhat restricted in terms of what it can pay you but, to make up for it, friendly and not infinitely demanding of your time. Time not spent on the job is time available for personal interests and family speaking of which: A common complaint is that its impossible to marry and raise a family on 3 million a year. The demographic consequences are plain to see fewer marriages, fewer children, more and more elderly being supported and cared for by fewer and fewer working-age adults. Its nonsense, says Shimada, if some questionable assumptions are challenged to wit, that home and car ownership is indispensable, and that children who dont attend expensive private schools are doomed to academic mediocrity and second-rate employment. (Once
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10/25/13

Enough already: Can Japan settle for less? | The Japan Times

youve opted out of the rat race, what need is there anyway for academic distinction, as defined by distinguished schools, to list on your CV?) Backing him up, in a separate article, is financial planner Yoko Hanawa. She cites a 2010 survey showing 70 percent of single women holding out for a prospective husband earning 6 million a year. The absolute minimum for 63 percent of respondents would be 4 million. The trouble with that is that there are 4 million single women aged 25-34 as against only 1.6 million single men earning 4 million a year or more. Something has to give. Youd think something would have, long ago. The drudgery, anxiety, stress and long, long hours the system imposes on wage-earners seem tailor-made for a backlash. But the frantic growth ethos of the postwar period extended far beyond the necessity of rebuilding a shattered country. During the bubble years of the 1980s and early 90s, the nation had its fling with conspicuous consumption but soon grew tired of it. Pua-j had its precursor 20 years ago. It was called seihin, roughly translatable as contented poverty. A 1992 best-seller of that title told a work-weary and luxury-sated population what it wanted to hear: Its not necessary; take a break; there are better ways to a better life. The bubble burst around then, so the break, such as it was, was inflicted rather than taken, and few people enjoyed it. Naturally, you might say but look at Spain, for instance. Theres something about the Latin temperament, Sapio finds a live-for-today optimism that triumphs over adversity with good humor and devil-may-care enjoyment of the pleasures the day brings: house parties, long drawn-out meals with family and friends, just enough wine to make you forget (up to a point) the 25 percent unemployment rate (50 percent among young people). Its a quality the Japanese, much less beset, seem to lack which may bode ill in the long run for pua-j. So much the better, sniffs the eminent management consultant Kenichi Ohmae in the closing article of Sapios feature. If Japan goes the pua-j route, how, he demands, will it compete with the ASEAN countries in manufacturing? With India in IT? With the U.S. in research and development? Pua-j, he asserts, kills ambition and is a sure recipe for national Yubariization. Yubari, a small city in Hokkaido, has two claims to fame. One of them, melons, is irrelevant here. Ohmae means the second: bankruptcy.

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