Learning Japan.

     My first close encounter with Japan and Japanese culture took place in the summer of 1989. At that time I spent 2 months in California participating, as a Fulbright Scholar, in a Culture Enrichment Program preceding my studies in the USA. My primary goal there was to improve English and get to know America, but, since about 80% of program participants were Japanese students, I was also deeply immersed into Japanese culture. In fact, I roomed with 2 Japanese guys. Interacting with them on a daily basis was a significant source of knowledge about Japan. Many observations I made prompted my curiosity about this country and its culture. As I recall it today, I was collecting various facts about Japan, but most of them I could not understand. Only now, after staying in Japan for 8 months I try to put those seemingly unrelated facts together and paint some bigger picture.

     The other night, that summer in California, I was filling out some documents for my sponsor in the USA, when my Japanese roommate pointed questions about my nationality and my citizenship and asked what was the difference between these two. We started a related discussion. I tried to explain to him that a nationality and a citizenship are two different things. He could not get it though. His luck of understanding irritated me a little bit. I did not know at that time, however, about thousands of residents, living in Japan for 40-50 years or even born in Japan, and still being called “gaijin” or stranger.

     Some other day I was showing to a group of friends pictures of my then 3-years-old daughter when one of them, a very attractive Japanese university student said that she wanted to have children, but did not want a husband. This statement was not only difficult to understand, but also somewhat shocking for me who just arrived to the USA from ultracatholic Poland. And, what is most important, not the statement itself was as shocking to me as the commitment emanating from it.

     Equally difficult for me to comprehend was also an excitement of my roommate who bought for himself biking goggles or maybe sunglasses for about $90. While he complemented not only the sunglasses' fashion but also the good price, In no way I could understand his excitement. And I could not stop comparing the $90 price tag with my 1989 monthly salary of $17 as a college teacher back in Poland.

     The most puzzling, however, and provocative at the same time was a statement my roommate made the other night: “We Japanese are very proud”. What the hell, I thought, we Polish, they Americans, or, let us say, they Sanmarinians (citizens of the tiny Republic of San Marino), and all others are also very proud. So what? And once again, not the statement itself, but a strong emphasis on “We Japanese”, shocked me so much.

     The most important, however, was that all of those Japanese students, with some of whom I still keep in touch today, were extremely nice and friendly. By the end of the summer, I decided to visit Japan and study Japanese language some day.

     After leaving California, I settled down for almost 6 years in Boston. I met there many Japanese students, engineers and scientists. My interest in Japan steadily grew up. About two years ago, on my way back to the USA from China, I stopped in Japan for about a week. Everything was so wonderful. I was very impressed, especially by omnipresent high-tech. One year later I arrived to Japan as an STA Fellow.

     After living for 8 months on Japanese soil, we, myself, my wife, and our daughter, are deeply in love with Japan. To many, it may sound surprising, but I found, here in Japan, Poland of my childhood, Poland of the late sixties: safe neighborhoods, men wearing dark suits for work everyday, women staying at home and taking care of children, a strong sense of community, people trusting each other and kind to each other, no inflation, stable prices and jobs, etc.

     One could say these are sentiment-driven observations. Yes, I completely agree. Poland has changed since my childhood. First, in the seventies Poland opened to the West and later, in the eighties abolished a communist system. Even if, as a result of those changes, safety, stability, and other things I mentioned above disappeared, the gains were much more important. Poland and its residents finally got a chance to develop.

     Japan got its chances after World War II. For Japan, being defeated (yes, its the right word, although many Japanese would not say it) and occupied for many years by the USA (nominally by the Allied Powers) was the biggest win in modern history. Although an exemplary hard work of Japanese people is a primary source of the present economic power of Japan, the foundations for the development were built by the Allied Powers. Japan got a modern, democratic constitution, approved by Japanese authorities, drafted however by Gen. MacArthur’s office. Pre-war and World War II political and military leaders were banned from public life, and militaristic and nationalist organizations abolished. This opened a field for new forces, pacifistic and economy oriented, to arise. Later, in 1947 and 1948, these new forces were saved by the Allied Powers from the Japan Communist Party lead destructive labor movement offensive. Total demilitarization (Article 9 of Constitution), although later (illegally ?) compromised by establishing the Self Defense Forces (1950, 1954), and the American military umbrella essentially saved Japan from costly “arms race” during the Cold War. Japan was also spared, in great part, from paying extensive war reparation. The picture would not be complete without mentioning new progressive social legislation introduced in the early postwar years, of which one of the most important piece was securing equal rights (including right to vote and to be elected) for women.

     Why am I writing about those, now almost ancient, years? One reason, I want to point out that some other countries where not so lucky after the World War II. Being one of the winners of the War, Poland ended up under the wings of a wrong member of the Allied Powers and turned out a historical looser. Poland was completely materially destroyed during the World War II, still after the War a social and political distractions continued under the Soviet Union-supported Stalinist government. Similar was destiny of other East European countries including Russia itself.

     There are, however, other reasons for reminding those postwar facts. In recent years Japan has became a major economic power. It is one of the brightest spots on a cultural map of the world. Japanese engineering has hardly any competition in the world and Japanese science is also very close to the top. Japan aspires to be a global political player. I am afraid, however, that all of these can be jeopardized if major reforms are not carried out soon. And unlike after the War, this time the reforms have to be done by Japanese people themselves. And by people I do not mean central government politicians, top bureaucrats, or corporate executives. The ordinary citizens have to more strongly exercise their rights to vote and the rights to choose, more strongly and openly, express their thoughts and their preferences. Several times I have been told that certain thing has to be like this or like that, because Japanese people like it this or that way. And I disagree with such opinions. Most of the people in Japan have never tried non-Japanese rice, so no wonder they only “like” taste of Japanese grains ... and pay premium for a highly inefficient rice distribution bureaucracy. (The rice law was changed several months after complition of this essay. The rice market is open now, to some extent, but prices still have to come down.) Most of the people never took (or were politely suggested not to) longer than 7-day vacation, so no wonder they think that the company would went bankrupt if they vacationed for, let us say, two weeks. Many women prefer to stay home with, or without, children, but do they have much of choice?

     The last few decades in Japan have been not only years of prosperity and stability, but also, in many aspects, years of stagnation. Decentralization of administration and economic deconcentration initiated and reinforced by the Allied Powers later reverted. And although the industrial and banking giants proved in the past crucial for a fast Japanese development and world expansion they became or are becoming unable to move mammoths and are doomed to die out unless they brake into smaller mobile units. Many of branches of the Japanese economy are monopolized either by a letter of law or by price fixing or similar schemes. Thus, no wonder that my phone call to the USA costs only slightly more than a conversation with my coworkers at RIKEN, some 500 meters from my apartment. But do not expect the NTT to break up, become more efficient, lower their prices solely by their wish to do so. Japanese giants as well as small companies enjoyed opened markets around the world for decades. It is time to finally open the Japanese market to others too. Ancient rice distribution law will soon be replaced by slightly more reasonable one, other measures are also being taken, but it is only a beginning, a sign of a good will. I often hear that there is no restriction for foreign companies on this or that market. And actually, there are no formal barriers but there are informal or hidden ones. I do not say nothing is happening. I only claim that all of the changes are happening to slow.

     Unlike decentralization and deconcentration mentioned above, the constitution survived despite many attempts to overturn or restrict it, or made it more “Japanese” as Mr. Nakasone and others intended. Other pieces of legislation also survived but very often did not progress at all. The women in Japan only formally have equal rights with men. My British friend’s wife left Japan some 20 years ago. She rose in ranks to become a vice-president of a major international bank in London. Her cousin of her age back in Japan also choose carrier in banking, but after many years ended up as a secretary to a president of one of the biggest Japanese banks. I think this case is self-explanatory in illustrating my point. Women in Japan have to be given more chances. They have to be able to have their own carriers and not to be afraid that marriage or something else will end them up. Japan is certainly a peace loving country, but as long as it does not recognize officially its role as an aggressor in the World War II, as long as it does not admit atrocities its soldiers committed in China, Korea, and other East Asian countries, as long as it does not acknowledge enslaving Korean women, as long as its officials will play tricks with private letters and unofficial statements, or set up private funds to avoid official commitments Japanese intentions will be treated with suspicion.

     Some time ago my family participated in an outdoor weekend organized for Tokyo “gaikokujin" (foreigners') families. As it turned out only 2 or 3 families were short time visitors to Japan. Between others, there were people born in Japan, married to Japanese nationals, or living in Japan for several years, but still called “gaikokujin”. The nationality-citizenship issues also have to be addressed if Japan wants to be recognized as an honest member and leader of the world community.

     At the beginning of this essay I stated that we are in love with Japan. Sometimes people say that “love is blind”. Our love to Japan, however, is certainly not “blind”. I found here an excellent work environment, the one I would hardly be able to find anywhere else in the world, and certainly not in Poland. We already made here many wonderful friends. My STA Fellowship will end next summer, but we already decided that we would like to stay in Japan a little bit longer. I enjoy working and living in Japan, but I am also interested in and concerned with this country’s problems. As an, essentially, outside observer some of this problems I can see much better than Japanese people themselves.

Zygmunt J. Jakubek
October 18, 1995, Wako, Japan.


I was invited to write this text for a monthly of Science and Technology Agency of Japan (grantor of my STA Fellowship). The text was supposed to express my experiences with Japan and appear in "Voices", a column presenting views of foreign researchers in Japan. I hate writing peans, so I decided to write what I really thought about Japan. I knew the text touched some forbidden areas, so I asked some of my Japanese friends for their opinions. They accepted the text as critical but fair. I submitted it and the text was rejected by a local editor on the basis that it would anger the head editor, or maybe somebody else, I do not recall now. There were also arguments like: 1) The text was to serious for the "Voices" - should be submitted to The Japan Times or similar; 2) I was not qualified to write about some of the things I mentioned (rice, women issues etc.); 3) I was late with the text and there was no time to translate it into Japanese, and some other blah, blah, blah, but it was already enough for me. I wrote another text, which was published. I learnt a lot about Japan from all of this.


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