Japanese with a noticeably British accent

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The Independent Online
FOR the British visitor there is something profoundly comforting about seeing Japan in recession. On the surface, Tokyo appears as orderly, clean and safe as ever, but there are familiar signs that anyone from the South-east of England would recognise - empty office floors, emptyish restaurants, plenty of cruising taxis, car production down 23 per cent from a year earlier, cuts in steel output, losses at securities firms, companies cutting graduate recruitment and, perhaps most tellingly, a business economist prepared to admit that he had bought his flat at the top of the market and was about 15 per cent down already.

Behind the facade of recession lie bigger social changes, which anyone who visits Japan regularly cannot fail to spot. With one vital exception - of which more later - the Japanese really are becoming more like us.

Lifetime employment is under threat. Nissan has just announced that it is closing its assembly plant at Zama, just outside Tokyo. True, the workers there do keep their jobs . . . provided they are prepared to move. But moving, for half the employees, means going to Kyushu, a different island 600 miles to the south. It would be like Dagenham or Luton workers being told to go to Northern Ireland. The shutdown is being carried out in what, by British standards, would be a sensitive and thoughtful way. But a lot of people will suffer.

This particular event has been triggered by recession, but there is widespread acceptance that the motor industry will not fuel economic growth even when things pick up, partly because overseas production has been built up but more because car ownership is approaching saturation point. You do not need to be a two-car family in Tokyo, nor would most people want to be.

The motor industry is Japan's largest single manufacturing industry. If it is to shrink, Japan's manufacturing base will shrink too. Already fewer people are employed in manfacturing than 10 years ago. This is an economic shift with profound cultural implications.

The increasing number of women in the workforce is another area where Japanese practice is moving closer to European. According to a study by the Economic Planning Agency two years ago, the absolute size of the 15-to-65 age-group will start to decline in 1995. But the decline in the workforce will be postponed until the year 2000, provided Japan makes better use of its women workers.

That means better childcare. At present female participation in the workforce is unusual because there is a sharp fall after women have families which lasts until the children are grown up.

Female participation had been rising steadily anyway, up from 32 per cent of the workforce in 1975 to 38 per cent in 1990, but now there is an economic imperative. According to planners, the key to delaying the decline in the workforce is to keep women in at least part-time work so that the dip in the middle years is not so steep. That would bring Japan closer to European or North American practice, but it would require changes in the relationship between the genders. Men would have to change, too.

There are other, more superficial ways in which Japan is moving closer to other industrial countries. The language barrier inevitably limits cultural interchange, but television screens are full of US films dubbed into Japanese and Madonna's new publication has sold several hundred thousand copies.

The Japanese are also learning to cope with immigrants. Ueno Park, to the north of central Tokyo, has become a centre for Iranian visitors, who were until recently allowed to enter Japan without visas. Many stayed and took jobs. With a nice, but doubtless spurious, precision, the Ministry of Justice calculated that the number of foreign men working illegally in Japan rose from 82 in 1980 to 24,176 in 1990.

But, say people who believe that the Japanese will always be different, Japanese politics will remain introverted so long as there is a single ruling party. Change is in the offing even here, however. Tsutomu Hata, a leading member of the Liberal Democratic Party, told me that Japan may well move to single candidate constituencies within the next couple of years. This would stop LDP candidates fighting each other (very expensively) for seats, and could subsequently unblock the whole political process. Whether or not this happens, there is a mood in Japan that politics needs reform.

There is, however, one vital exception to this process of internationalisation. The group ethic remains extraordinarily strong. This shows in the formal dress codes of both men and women, in the lack of litter in the streets, and above all in the crime rate, which is still below the level of the Fifties or early Sixties and is less than one-tenth that of the UK.

The arrest rate is (to a Briton) astonishingly high - 97.5 per cent in 1991 for credit card crimes, nearly 54 per cent for night-time supermarket robberies. In more than half of all crimes an arrest is made within 10 minutes - yes, minutes.

This group ethic has its costs, but is an enormous virtue when a country has to pull through tough times, for it enables the burden to be shared. Compared with the past, times are tough. In Japan, however, recession means a sharp loss of earnings and makes everyone work even harder. It does not push people on to the dole, at least not yet.