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  • irishtimes.com - Posted: January 12, 2009 @ 6:59 pm

    Big in Japan

    Harry McGee

    I write this from Tokyo as Brian Cowen’s official visit to Japan kicks off. The city is unbelievable. Some 35 million people live in the greater connurbation – making it the biggest metropolis in the World – yet you could eat your dinner off the street. The city is overwhelming to the sense on first sigt. Its appearance is brash, modern and futuristic – Times Square multiplied by Picadilly Circus – and you sometimes feel that Western (American) culture is on the cusp of overwhelming the country’s own unique culture and heritage.

    I wasn’t crazy about Sofia Coppola’s ‘Lost in Translation’ but those who live here say it was so so accurate in its visual portrayal of the city’s neon showiness and the neon showiness of its youth  – with their colourful and outre expressions of individuality. Technology is all-encompassing too. You go down to Electric City in downtown Tokyo to witness floors and floors of young males (predominantly) playing amazing the most eye-popping video games. On trains, commuters watch live TV on their mobile phones.

    But underneath the concrete and modernity, and the extravagant get-ups of its youth, the people themselves retain mores and a culture that have been there for generations of generations.

    For such a massive city, there is an incredible sense of order and conformity. Women are still expected to be home-makers rather than remaining in the workforce after marriage. The salary men work prodigously long hours and seem more honour-bound to their company than their home. In return for a position for life, they give all their time and unquestioning fealty to their company.

    And for such a huge place, just about everybody you meet is unbelievably polite and courteous and friendly. Friends who live here say they feel completely safe anywhere in the city. Crime rates are extraordinarily low compared to western cities. Today was a national holiday – coming of age day – where young women who have turned 20 in the past year wear the traditional kimono. And for all the individualisation of look – including Japanese punk – that young people hanker after, and for all the obsession with designer brands , it is still a very traditional society, where the modern and the ancient co-exist side by side.

    Cowen arrives today with at least one tiny consolation. His popularity might have tanked in recent times but he’s still more popular than the Japanese prime minister Taro Aso. An opinion poll published at the weekend found that Government disapproval had jumped to 72 per cent, with Aso seeing his own support levels plummet from 50 per cent in November to just 27 per cent now, with his rival Ichiro Osawa’s mercury levels going rapidly in the opposite direction. And the unfortuntate prime minister has only been in position since Septemer and has hardly even got over his first 100 days.

    Politics is cruel. In no other profession is there such unremitting scrutiny of the here and now. Japan has been in recession for a decade and only began to experience modest growth again  in 2005. Its banks have tended to be more conservative than American and British banks and tended to shy away from derivatives. But they invested in other banks. The collapse of Lehman Brothers and all the other Titanic events that have occurred since have results in those modest growth levels being swept away. Aso’s government is currently trying to bring a massive finanical incentive package worth many billions through the National Diet (parliament).

    Japan experienced a massive property bubble and a tigerish economy in the 1980s and early 1990s that exploded (or, more accurately, imploded) in spectacular fashion. It then expereienced a decade of deflation, of negative growth, and zombie banks and development companies (the honour system in Japan prevented some financial instutitions from calling in bad loans). These selfsame characters will star in the drama unfolding Ireland over the next few years (let’s hope for a happy ending!).

    But superficially at least, this massive, super-efficient, confident, bright city shows little of the scars it must have suffered in that time. We will learn more about it as the week goes on.

    • Green Ink says:

      “I wasn’t crazy about Sofia Coppola’s ‘Lost in Translation’”
      Right. Outside now.

    • Eurobob7 says:

      Harry – check out the Japanese ‘zombie banks’ – in their big (90s) property led recession the banks inhibited growth by ‘zombie’ lending. At least that’s the urban myth. Is it true? and if they did a re-run would they do anything different

    • Eoin Brazil says:

      Hi Harry – take a listen when you’re travelling on the metro/underground to the melodies (http://www.boxesandarrows.com/view/ambient_signifi) if you want to hear another difference of how they do things just a little differently.

    • Dan Sullivan says:

      What amazed me about Akihabara was the components for electronics that were for sale in narrow corridor like markets. I lived outside Tokyo for about a year and a half back in the early 90s and it’s an experience unlike any other. I’d enjoy going back for a visit but I reckon I couldn’t afford it.

    • Dan Sullivan says:

      Actually, as Eoin has brought it up it is worth noting the extent to which sound is used to signal/notify all kinds of action. For example crossing at pedestrian lights there is one sound for the light on your left and another for the one on the right. If you had the time, it is worth getting on a train for an hour heading north from Tokyo and then getting off and getting lost in what is suburban Japan. You’ll really feel the difference in the day-to-day texture of the place.


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