Japan’s greatest good: Life

March 12, 2011 18 min read 0 Comments

It is hard to say there is one country that necessarily epitomizes a focus on “life” as its Greatest Good. Every country is about the protection and lives of its people. Every society comes into being – at least in part – as a haven where the strong can protect the weak and everyone looks out for each other. So why would I go and choose Japan as a place where the emphasis is more on Life than on the other Great Goods? Strong cases could equally be made that Growth, Society, or Stability are Japan’s greatest Goods – strong enough that they warrant a short discussion before we turn to Life.

The government’s role

If I were writing this chapter twenty years ago, I might have been persuaded that Growth was Japan’s greatest good. The country had come from utter destruction to world economic domination in thirty years. People referred to the country as Japan Inc. and corporations as the main players in the society. It seemed that everything was designed for Japan to grow economically. But all of that ended in the early 1990s. Since then economic growth rates have been among the slowest in the developed world. Yet, the lifestyle of the average Japanese person has arguably improved for the last 20 years.  Japanese work fewer hours, live in better homes, have more and better cars, commute fewer hours, shop in better stores, and – most importantly – live longer than they did in the 1980s. Something besides Growth seems to be at work in Japan today.

Japanese society is also known for being highly disciplined, orderly, and unflinchingly structured. Japan’s trains and subways (even buses, amazingly!) arrive and leave within seconds of the scheduled time. Japanese hierarchy is about as clear cut as any on earth – deference is paid to those older and those who are older (up to retirement at least) are charged with protecting those who are younger and inculcating them with values and behaviors that make them contributing members of society. If you’re the same age as someone else, then you defer to the person who went to the better college or the better high school – there is a meritocratic categorization that every Japanese person knows all too well. So why would Japan’s greatest good NOT be Society or even Stability – it seems like a rigorously structured society. And one adage that even the occasional visitor to Japan has heard is that the “nail that sticks up should be hammered down.” This points to a need for fairness and equality. 

These observations suggest that the Greatest Good in Japan might be something other than Life. But mostly, these behaviors are social not governmental. Japanese culture is heavy on social relationships, structure, and fairness; but when we look at what the government enforces. It is, more than any other nation on earth, focused on keeping people alive; government mandates and policies are written and enacted with more of a premium on Life than any other society on earth.


Legislating against war

It all starts with Japan’s Constitution. It is the most pro-life in the world. The basic law of the land is about peace and non-aggression – even to protect its own sovereignty, offensive hostility is not warranted.

The Preamble to the Constitution starts with these words (italics added):

“We, the Japanese people, acting through our duly elected representatives in the National Diet, determined that we shall secure for ourselves and our posterity the fruits of peaceful cooperation with all nations and the blessings of liberty throughout this land, and resolved that never again shall we be visited with the horrors of war through the action of government, do proclaim that sovereign power resides with the people and do firmly establish this Constitution.”

"We, the Japanese people, desire peace for all time and are deeply conscious of the high ideals controlling human relationship, and we have determined to preserve our security and existence, trusting in the justice and faith of the peace-loving peoples of the world. We desire to occupy an honored place in an international society striving for the preservation of peace, and the banishment of tyranny and slavery, oppression and intolerance for all time from the earth.

"We recognize that all peoples of the world have the right to live in peace, free from fear and want.

Then Article Nine of the Japanese Constitution, ratified shortly after the end of the Second World War, takes this even a step further. It formally renounces war and war potential, and specifically forbids Japan from ever again maintaining land, sea, or air forces. 

Since then, Japan has actually built up an all-volunteer “Self Defense” force of 250,000 people on land, sea, and in the air. One percent of the country’s GDP is spent on this civilian-led force. Japan has now developed one of the most technologically sophisticated militaries on earth.  

But, the Japanese population still is largely opposed to war. There is some evidence that younger people (those whose parents don’t even remember World War II) are likely to be slightly more hawkish than earlier generations, but still Japan, by and large, is a country that doesn’t even like to see their Self Defense Forces deployed in other countries for any military activity. When they are sent abroad to support the United Nations peacekeeping activities, for instance, they are always involved in non-lethal activities. Issues of peace and war are still major drivers of election outcomes in Japan. The ouster of US military forces from the southern island of Okinawa was a campaign promise that helped to elect Yukio Hatoyama and his Democratic Party in 2009; and it was his backtracking on that promise that drove his popularity level to support from less than 25% of the populace.

War and peace and war and peace and …

Culturally and historically, Japan is not necessarily a peace loving society. Anyone who has read about World War II would have troubles thinking of Japan as peace loving. But the expansionary, imperialistic philosophy that started after Japan opened to the West in the 1870s and culminated in the 1940s, was a 70 year period of aggression following a 250 year period of peace. The Tokugawa Era in Japan, sometimes called Pax Nipponica, was the longest era of peace in any society in recorded human history. This peaceful era immediately followed a period known as the Warring States Era, which you can imagine was a bit less serene.  What most people in the world don’t realize is that during the “samurai era” of the Tokugawa shogunate, the samurai never really got to fight. They practiced swordplay a lot – but most of their days were spend in tea ceremonies, writing poetry, and (naturally) political machinations. Never did they get to engage in actual war. 

It is a bit like there is a Peace-War switch, a light switch if you will in Japan. When it is on, the light of peace is radiant. Japan is a beacon, and example of non-aggression for the world. When it is off, the culture is belligerent and bloodthirsty. 

After World War II, it was not necessarily the Japanese people’s choice to adopt a Peace Constitution. Left to their own devices, they may not have.  But as the only recipient of nuclear warfare in the world, the Japanese capitulated completely. They fully expected to become the 49th state of the United States. 

The mindset of the immediate post war era is exemplified by a story I heard years ago about General McArthur’s first triumphal motorcade into Japan. On August 30, 1945 – just weeks after the atomic bombs – McArthur landed at Atsugi Air Force Base and then had to drive a few miles to his temporary Occupation Government.  Along the motorcade route, Hirohito’s Imperial soldiers were posted in tight formations along both sides of the road. As McArthur’s car would near, the Japanese soldiers would turn their backs to his car. McArthur was reportedly incensed. He expected the soldier to face him and bow or salute, but turning their backs was a deep insult to him. Later a trusted advisor set him straight. The Imperial soldiers were trained to act exactly this way when the Emperor passed. They would turn their backs and avert their eyes as a sign of respect. But in this case there was an added rationale for their behavior. The Imperial guard were now entrusted with protecting McArthur and as such, they also were turning their backs on the motorcade to keep an eye on the crowds lining the route – a crowd that had recently lost loved ones to McArthur’s military. It was not unreasonable to think that someone along the way might be unhappy about his arrival in Tokyo. The soldiers were turning their backs so they could keep an eye on the crowd and anyone posing a threat to the General.

In two weeks, Japanese military mindset had gone from kill all Americans to protect their General. That is an amazing pendulum swing. Will Japan’s pendulum swing back to militaristic warmongering? Yes, probably. But we are less than 70 years into this cycle. If this period of peace is only half as long as Japan’s last peace period, most of us will never live to see that change.

Life goes on and on and on

Perhaps it is this religious and cultural background that has ensured that Japanese cycles of peace have been longer than their cycles of war. Further, it is perhaps these cultural beliefs that ensure that government rules and practices have a very pro-life component to them.

Generally, Japanese traditional religious beliefs are life affirming to all kinds of life – human, animal, and even plant. The native religion of Japan is Shintoism, which holds sacrosanct all of nature. To be in touch with nature is basically to be close to the Gods and natural objects (animate and inanimate) are worshiped as sacred spirits. 

Buddhism was introduced to Japan in the sixth century, and the Japanese were quick to adopt the parts of Buddhist teaching that dealt with the spirits of living and dead people and animals. The Buddhist teaching of revering all life as part of a grand cycle resonated with traditional Japanese beliefs. But now the Japanese had even more reason to avoiding hurting or killing a lower life form (or even a lower status human being) because, according to Buddhist teachings, in your next life you may come back in a similarly lowly station. Every living being should be treated with respect.

Japan is certainly not the only culture with deep-rooted beliefs in the sanctity of nature.  But it is certainly one of the few modern nations where average citizens maintain a sense of animal and plant deities. And while the Japanese don’t report that they are for the most part deeply religious, the idea of natural spirits does stir their imaginations.  Hayao Miyazaki’s animated shorts and full-length movies often feature these animistic images.  The Japanese flock to the theaters in droves to see these films.  Miyazaki started in the early 1990s and became known for using young protagonists or children to play key roles in his storylines.  Innocence seen through the lens of precocious youth is often juxtaposed with themes of nature and ecology being destroyed by man.

In 2001, Miyazaki launched the most adult and most deistic of his movies.  With its release in Japan, Spirited Away drew an audience of 23 million.  The reviews of the movie were stunning and it cemented Miyazaki’s reputation within Japan.  An Academy Award for Best Animated Film brought the movie to the attention of even non-film buffs in the West.  But on viewing the show, many were non-plussed the imagery was definitely non-Disney.  Sure, there were talking animals, but the animals were of questionable integrity.  As likely to eat as they were to shelter the human characters.  While Japanese audiences seemed to revel in the animal and plant spirit gods, Westerners found themselves yearning for a clearer wrong and right.  For the Japanese, nature is good in and of itself.  No matter what form it takes.


A life not wasted is more of a life

It is not just in issues of war and peace that the Japanese government emphasis on Life can be seen. I was first made aware of this when I was just a college student. I was interested in Japanese views of individuality and collectivism and decided to write my undergraduate thesis on Japanese juvenile delinquency as a way to explore that. My research involved riding with a motorcycle gang for a summer and riding with a motorcycle gang involved run-ins with the law. And it was the way the law dealt with the kids in the motorcycle gang that gave me my first glimpse into Japan’s focus on Life.

The motorcyclists that I rode with were all in their teens and they did some bad things. When they were hauled into a police station and booked, the kids didn’t immediately expect they would be jailed. Because usually they weren’t. The most common punishment was to be asked to write a letter of apology and sign it. They were then released to their parents or to their homeroom teacher. Even when they violated the law more than once, they were released after a scare and a formal apology. 

I asked the police why they did this. One particularly articulate officer explained with a question: “Why should they spend any of those limited hours in jail doing nothing with their relatively short life?”  The hope was that with a catch-and-release strategy, they could move these kids on to productive lives. My experience was that their strategy worked quite well.  Of the 20 or more motorcycle gang members that I knew in those days, only one went on to a life that involved adult criminal behavior. The rest, for the most part, became salesmen. The last time I saw any of these guys, they were in suits and ties and talking about their sales commissions. 


Walking past the death scoreboard

Frequenting neighbor police stations in Japan while completing my research and walking past them regularly since (there are over 15,000 of these small police boxes in the country!), I was (and am still) struck by the prominent display in front of all of them of accident and death statistics. A board with moveable plastic numbers announces the number of accidents and accidental deaths in the country the day before and a running tally of the number for the entire year.

In my book, The Attention Economy, I found that a profound form of attention is what I call “back of mind” attention – this is routine, almost subconscious attention. I found that companies that want to get more attention to a particular initiative do well to have constant reminders of that issue posted around the work place. It just keeps the initiative in the back of your mind without devoting a lot of serious thought to it. But initiatives tend to work better if these signals are present. 

There must be some deep psychological impact to the Japanese populace of regularly passing police boxes and stations with the death count so proudly displayed. And it is another non-subtle message that the government is working to preserve life – a message that I’ve never noticed so clearly enunciated by any other government on earth.

Caring about health care

During the US debate about healthcare reform, the Japanese system was often rolled out as an example of one form of government-run health care system. Most Japanese were granted government-health insurance in 1938, making it one of the earlier nations in the world to offer health care to most of the population. Then, in 1958 the law was revised to cover the 30% previously uninsured. Since that time, either employers or the government covered all Japanese.

There are three broad categories of insurance in Japan: employer-based insurance, national insurance and insurance for the elderly. Primarily, the national government, private employers, and individual coinsurance payments finance these programs, but the services are delivered through a mostly privately-operated hospital and clinic system. All of these programs cover a broad range of services: in- and out-patient care, most prescription drugs, and dental care.

Japan’s system differs from the US model in that it is compulsory; has no competition among insurers due to government established reimbursement rates; and patients are free to choose their medical providers.

Today, Japanese go to the doctor about four times as often as Americans – on average 14 times a year. The choice of physician is completely free – no need for a referral from anyone. Walk into any doctors office in the country, shell out a small copay, and your visit (and the prescribed drugs) are virtually free. Japanese can expect to be seen – even by the most popular specialists – on the day they choose without a waiting list.

A culture of living and letting live

Something about being one of the most densely populated countries on earth – especially when you consider that most of the Japanese islands are mountainous and largely inhabitable – is that you learn to live healthily in close quarters. While medieval Europeans treated bathing as an annual affair, Japanese had already incorporated it into a daily routine – and built a tradition of worshipful relaxation into a visit to the bathhouse. Buddhism connected bathing to purification; mountain spas allowed for Shinto worship of nature while soaking in an outdoor hot spring. And Japan’s close quarters made bathing a necessity. The health benefits of a seriously scrubbed society are clear, but a specific law requiring bathing doesn’t appear to have ever been on Japanese books. Nevertheless, the consequences of not bathing could result in one of the oddest reasons I’ve heard for being ineligible for military service. In Japan, you could be denied a spot in the military or receive a dishonorable discharge for body odor. That’s right … during World War II, if you didn’t bath for a few days and started to offend your platoon-mates with your stench, you’d be shipped back to an awkward homecoming.

The social emphasis on avoiding the spread of diseases in a dense population can be seen every winter in Japan today. About ten-percent of the morning commuting population on any Tokyo train or bus during flu-season can be seen wearing a medical nose and mouth mask. Some wear it because they don’t want to be infected themselves. But the vast majority of face-mask wearers do it because they are still sneezing or coughing and want to limit their likelihood of infecting their co-commuters and co-workers. 

Most of us Americans would probably prefer to stay home rather than go back to work wearing a face mask before we are completely healed. But the work ethic of Japanese almost demands that you show up at your place of employment as soon as you are able to drag yourself out of bed. Everyone senses a responsibility to work, but there is also a strong right to work. 

A surprisingly large – and visible – portion of older men is employed in “traffic directing” jobs. Any construction site or public works project has a handful of people whose sole job is to direct foot traffic around the hazard. In the US, a traffic cone is set out and you are pretty much on your own. In Japan, a truck that is backing up is cause for four or five older gentlemen in highly reflective outfits to wave red flashlights and make sure that there is no harm to anyone in the surroundings. Even a parking lot entrance and exit will usually employ at least one person whose sole job is to ensure that the entering or emerging cars negotiate the intervening sidewalk without threat to pedestrian life or limb.

Hard to live without a livelihood

This right to work is reflected strongly in Japanese employment law. And it exhibits a very different set of priorities than you find regarding employment in the US. Japanese thinking is that an employee is dependent on an employer for life itself. Once an employer hires someone, they have a responsibility for more than a few weeks or months – they are really making a lifetime commitment to that person. You can’t fire, reduce the salary or demote an employee without cause. And if there is cause, you have to punish them according to work rules that have been established by the Labor Standards Office. The only other instance when a salary can be cut or an employee fired would be when the company is nearly bankrupt and all employees (including management) take a cut at the same time.

These laws, as many analysts have noted, really only apply to full-time employees in relatively large companies. And the lifetime guarantee only lasts up to the age of 55. Older, non-permanent, small-company employees actually don’t have any of these guarantees. And increasingly, Japanese workers are accepting “temporary employment.” Some estimates put the percentage of non-permanent workers under the age of 35 at about 20%. These workers are known as Freeters (combining the word “free” with the German for worker “arbiter”) or NEETS (people Not in Employment, Education, or Training). They do actually work, but they are not “officially” employed. So they are not officially exempt from layoffs. Often these non-permanent jobs pay better hourly wages than permanent jobs, and there is not the obligation involved in being a permanent, full-time employee. During an upturn in economic growth, companies often hire temporary employees first and then after assessing the situation (to make sure the need for additional staff is long-lasting), they will convert some temporary jobs into permanent jobs. But every employer in Japan understands the obligation involved. Once employees are full-time, it is impossible to fire them just because economic growth slows or sales are sluggish. In this way, the livelihood of the employee – not the interests of the shareholders – is the ultimate objective of a Japanese corporation – Life not Growth is the top priority.

Working to death

The intersection of life and work is not more obvious anywhere in Japan than in the concept of karoshi (kah-roe-she), or "death from overwork.” Just the fact that a particular terms has been developed to describe the phenomenon in Japan may make you think that there is a real problem. And while there is no doubt that Japanese employees tend to stay late at the office – later than their American counterparts, there is a social aspect to these later hours that is not found in many American firms. My experience in consulting with and working for Japanese firms is that Japanese employees are much more likely than Westerners to go for drinks and dinner with their coworkers – usually at a bar or café near the office. A common pattern is then for the employees to go back to the office after the social outing. 

Especially with the downsizing of workforces in the US over the last decade, there is plenty of evidence that the average American worker spends almost as many hours and at least as much effort in the office as do the Japanese. The main difference is this: If a Wall Street broker is found in the morning slumped over his computer, it will be called a heart attack. If a Japanese banker is found under the same circumstances, it will be labeled karoshi, and an investigation into workplace practices will be launched. 

Karoshi was labeled in the late 1980s and since then almost 40,000 Japanese have been deemed to be its victim. That large number pushed bureaucrats to structure the Japanese pension system to offer benefits to the families of karoshi victims. And following the 2008 death of a 30 year old Toyota work (who had been putting in 80 hours of overtime a month), the Japanese courts insisted that Toyota change its work processes to ensure no more karoshi among its workforce. No similar pension benefits have been granted to workplace death survivors in the US. US courts don’t push corporations to redesign the employment practices to keep employees from overworking. Again, in Japan, we see the obvious emphasis on Life rather than on economic Growth.

Life begets longer life

All of this emphasis on life and living conspires to give Japan the lowest infant death rate and highest life expectancies (an average of 82 years) in the world. But of all the Japanese, it is those on the island of Okinawa who can claim the longest lives. The Japanese government claims that 457 Okinawans are at least 100 years old — that is 34.7 centenarians for every 100,000 Okinawans. By far, the highest ratio in the world. (By contrast, the USA has about 10 people over the age of 100 for every 100,000 in the population.) And Okinawan oldsters appear to have far lower rates of dementia and hip fracture than their U.S. counterparts.  Some Okinawan centenarians claim they are still having sex, but researchers can’t confirm that. But a few individual stories are truly amazing: martial artist Seikichi Uehara was 96 when he defeated a thirty something ex-boxing champion in a nationally televised match and Nabi Kinjo became a local legend when she hunted down a poisonous snake and killed it with a fly swatter. She was 105.

Okinawans benefit from all the usual Japanese Life priorities – the “peace Constitution,” the health care system, the employment guarantees, and the cultural emphasis on life and living.   But Okinawans also lay claim to better nutrition (they eat a quarter of the salt and sugar of other Japanese) and a relatively stress-free existence – with year-round warmth and sunshine, short commutes to work, and few corporate jobs.  

Disaster planning on shaky ground

Maybe it is centuries of living in one of the most physically vulnerable geographies on earth that makes the Japanese so focused on Life. The earth can shift below your feet at any time in Japan. While developed countries in the west – those focused on Growth and Individuality – move more and more budgetary resources away from governments, one Japanese learning from the great Hanshin earthquake in 1995 was that more centralized control is actually better for saving lives. The Self-Defense Forces in Japan were given authority to deploy automatically in case of a disaster without local political authorities calling for that help. And fire response coordination was centralized in Tokyo and Kyoto rather than with local fire departments.  Japan’s government and her companies have for years, sacrificed Growth opportunities to invest in better and safer construction and disaster planning – all to save one extra human life.

The flip side of Japan’s life culture

I suppose I can’t end this discussion of Life in Japan without a short detour into Suicide in Japan. Japan is one of the only countries in the world where suicide is still considered an honorable act. It is not illegal and, to many, it is considered honorable. Many non-Japanese have come to be familiar with the Japanese terms for suicide – seppuku and hara-kiri (introduced to the US by military personnel with the pronunciation “Harry Carry” after World War II). Official statistics show that about 30,000 Japanese per year kill themselves. That puts the suicide rate among the top ten countries in the word, and by far the highest rate among developed nations. Over 70% of these are men, many over 60 years old, but a disturbingly large number of 30-somethings as well – one common pattern is that they are jobless, and deep in debt to loan-sharks. And suicide is the leading cause of death among those under 30 years old.   Some still adopt the traditional samurai method of death by sword, but stepping in front of trains, falling from tall buildings or cliffs and drug overdoses are also common. But it is one traditional method suicide that brings us back full-circle to the cyclical nature of life. It was not uncommon for older people in Japanese history – those reaching the point of complete dependence on their children – to just wander off into the mountains and never be heard from again. In highly urbanized Japan, this is somewhat more problematic. But there is still a place, even for this form of suicide. It is called the Aokigahara Forest – a dense forest with literally breathtaking views of Mount Fuji and signs posted along the most common paths reading “Please reconsider” and “Consult with the police before you decide to die.” About 70 people a year make this place their final return to nature.

Perhaps it all comes back to the definition of life in Japan. Life is protected and cherished like it is no other country. But once a life is no longer seen to have purpose or meaning, it is unusually common for an individual to put an end to a life not worth living.