Japanese watch others watching them: Terry McCarthy examines a national obsession with identity and image

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The Independent Online
(First Edition)

THE JAPAN Sumo Association this week announced that a Hawaiian was to be the first foreigner ever to be given the title yokozuna, or grand champion. This was, in Japanese terms, a significant advancement for foreigners in the traditional sport, but hardly earth-shattering news.

And yet, in the days that followed Japanese newspapers and television stations religiously reported how the foreign press covered the story, as if Japan had withdrawn from the United Nations or declared war on Russia. And so we learnt that the Washington Post carried two pictures of Akebono the wrestler. The national news agency, Kyodo, carried lengthy extracts from the New York Times, the Independent and the Times, and a copy of the Independent's article was even shown on a television news programme.

This is not at all unusual. The Crown Prince's engagement, the Sagawa political scandal, the Emperor's visit to China last October - all have been held up to public view in the mirror of the foreign press, as if some undiscovered secret might thereby be revealed.

Japanese are inordinately interested in themselves, in what foreigners think of Japan and in what other Japanese think of their own society. There is a pseudo-academic discipline, Nihonjinron, the study of Japaneseness, which churns out thousands of pages a year on what it is that supposedly makes the Japanese people so different from the rest of humanity.

And there are opinion polls - hundreds of them, on every conceivable subject from the admissibility of brain death to the wisdom of sending Japanese troops overseas to the kind of sports people watch on television. The leading newspapers and television stations have departments to conduct opinion polls. The Prime Minister's office never stops polling the public on the minutest details of education, lifestyle expectations and safety issues. Japanese society is under permanent review.

With an innate fondness for hierarchy and rankings, Japanese like to know, for example, that the top three sports watched on television are sumo, baseball and marathons. Or that the most scary disease for 51 per cent of the nation is cancer, followed by Aids (27 per cent) and a stroke (5.7 per cent). A quarter of those asked in one survey said they would not want to be told by their doctor if they had cancer. Fifty-two per cent said they thought brain death could serve as the definition of death - 22 per cent said no. As for euthanasia, a remarkably high 78 per cent said they would consider the option if they were terminally ill.

Political opinion polls are held frequently, and their main function seems to be to reinforce the sceptical view Japanese take of their elected officials. At one stage last year the government's approval rating was down to 10 per cent, and it has not been above 30 per cent for more than 12 months.

More serious are surveys on the environment: one held last April by the Yomiuri Shimbun found that only 39 per cent of respondents in Japan thought acid rain was a problem, compared to 68 per cent in Britain and 60 per cent in the United States. A low level of concern was also expressed in Japan over the destruction of rainforests: 39 per cent objected, against 67 per cent in the UK and 60 per cent in the US.

Perhaps the main reason for the interest in polls is that the public has trouble keeping up with the breakneck speed of change in Japan. Just over 100 years ago Japan was a closed feudal society, and since then it has become a military power, a war wreck and an economic power, with the wrenching social changes that have come with it. People are still wondering how the ditching of Japanese traditions in favour of Westernised urban living has affected society.

So in a new year poll for the Asahi Shimbun, 23 per cent described society as selfish and 17 per cent as lacking order - barely 1 per cent picked out the traditional Japanese virtue of social harmony as an accurate description of modern Japan. In the same poll, 78 per cent thought the increase in instant food was bad, and 41 per cent disapproved of attempts to make the shinkansen, or bullet train, run even faster. However, one constituency came out remarkably well from a poll in October. Asked whether they could trust newspaper reports, a stunning 88 per cent said yes. You read it here first.