JAPAN'S BEST KEPT SECRET AND LEGACY OF HEISEI TIME
Each country has its own tightly held state secrets, important issues and future plans discussed in confidence between experts behind closed doors. For some, it's defense strategies or security for citizens or how to handle a financial crisis, for others how to control free speech and any dissent.
In USA, for past few weeks and months, it's been how to keep the investigation into president's possible collusion with foreign powers secret from the media until the official report day. According news, Mueller committee members were forbidden to take their PC's and phones into the meetings to prevent any recording and info leak of how their study progressed and what was the final result.
In Japan, the most tightly held secret this month has been deliberation of the name for the new imperial period that starts on May 1. Highly learned experts of Japanese and Chinese language, literature and history have been shifting through their
vast cultural sources to find the most suitable "kanji" to symbolize today's momentum and also fit the forthcoming decades, when the name will be used in official documents and calendars – similar to current Heisei or "Achieving Peace" they came up with 30 years ago. Next Monday, cabinet secretary Suga will pick out from their proposals three from which the final one will be decided in the ensuing cabinet meeting for immediate announcement on live-TV.
Like in USA, ministers will be forbidden to take their mobile phones to that meeting to avoid any risk for last-minute leak that could spoil the high moment when the name is told to the public. The choice is considered highly important by most people even if imperial years are not used in daily conversation anymore. Yes, each country has its own most important issue.
Yet, as much as each one try to keep its secret, it seems none are 100% leak proof. In USA, it seemed President Trump knew already weeks before that the investigation result would be a relief for him: so clearly his furious protests and aggressive tweets changed to more mellow and accepting then. In Japan, so many seem to "know" that the new name will include kanji - as in "anzen" for safe or safety. It can't be only because the character is also in Prime Minister's name?
HEISEI "LOST DECADES"?
The change of Emperor is a big thing for most Japanese, not just calendar printers, and they like to think that with it much old is closed and something new will begin.
Heisei period certainly has been different from Showa time that lasted over 60 years and included several totally different periods in Japan history: change from democracy to militarism, then devastating war and foreign occupation first time ever, followed by new democratization and unbelievable economic rise that reached its climax in "bubble" years at end of 80's.
Heisei started with collapse of bubble economy. Tokyo stock market sank from 40,000 points to 7000, some big name companies as well thousands of small ones bankrupted and lack of workers turned into unemployment not experienced since 50's. Suicides rose to record levels and even yakuza organisations could not keep their 60,000 members on pay roll: well known gangs were "downsized" to 20,000 by their own "management". For first 10 years, the entire banking system was expected to collapse until the immense bad debts were finally written off by pressure from Koizumi government, especially its economy minister Heizo Takenaka.
Conservative corporate management, human consideration and steady financial support helped Japan to avoid mass employment and consumption collapse that many other countries including Finland chose for their path to recovery. In the road selected by Japan, business profitability and economic growth remained long feeble and highly dependent on global cycles, a big contrast to earlier go-go years. No wonder that many observers have written Heisei off as Japan's "lost decades", yet many of us who lived it through disagree with that simple judgement. We have seen constant, if slow, change for better in economic management, corporate thinking and social attitudes, even if it took until 2012 for Abe second government to really start tackle the economic and social reforms that everybody knew had to be done. Even now, the speed of reforms has been much slower than wished for.
A fresh survey shows that most Japanese people agree with above. 70% see the Heisei period "good' or "relatively good" and the figure was even higher among young people under 30, who never experienced the "bubble time" fallacy, when Japan was expected to become World No.1. For Japanese, the three big events that shaped up the society during Heisei were Tohoku giant earthquake and tsunami 2011, the Aum Shinrikyo sarin attack 1995 and the big Kobe earthquake same year. According to the survey, the best prime minister was Junichiro Koizumi (77%) ahead of Shinjo Abe (38%) and the biggest sport star was baseball player Ichiro Suzuki, a legend, who just retired after 19 record years in US Major League. Not unexpectedly, today's heartthrob skater Yuzuru Hanyu was No.2.
As for entertainment, the "boy band" SMAP that lasted almost through all Heisei period, won hands down, of course. The five guys, who expanded to all-around TV stars with own drama films, talk shows, even cooking programs, were probably the last music act that was accepted and followed by whole family from young children to grand parents. Now, Japan has finally changed to different music and different idols for different generations and different tastes, something that happened in Western countries already in 50's and 60's.
As for other change in attitudes, 86% Japanese think that much more needs to be done to improve women's position. Same 86% think that internet is something positive, yet among people over 70 years only 23% think so. Don't know if it is related to internet and social media, but 51% think Japanese society has become less tolerant than before. Now, that's a worry for all of us!
For us Finns here, things certainly have changed during the past 30 years. In comparison to 1989, Finland has become tremendously better known here. Just about everybody knows white nights, aurora lights, Santa Claus, Moomin, sauna and Sibelius as much as heavy metal bands, ski jumpers and top drivers for Formula and Toyota rally cars, not to talk about top level free education, child care and old people care, subjects that so many Japanese want to travel to Finland for study. We are not just well known, but admired. Time after time, people can read news how Finland has topped again another world survey whether in education, equality or honesty or just being "happiest nation" in the world, like again last week. All these accolades seem almost embarrassing sometimes: we can't be thaat goood!
Take this latest "happiness" index and think again how many smiling faces you see on Helsinki streets winter time or serving you in an Esplanade cafe or slurping coffee at back of the village gas station bar. A look at the elements in the index compiled by professor Sachs and his colleagues at New York University shows that what they are actually talking about is "wellbeing". The all-around collection of economic and social measurements include the usual GDP per capita as well as employment, education, health care and social security, equality, democracy, free speech etc - all kind of things which really are pretty well in Finland. But do they alone make people happy? I doubt it. Assured of good living, yes.
End of Heisei brings also a big change to our Chamber of Commerce: Executive Director Clas Bystedt, who has run the show from the beginning 20 years ago, will retire and move away from Japan. Classe came here just before Heisei period started, so he is a real Heisei man. His contribution to the Chamber over the years has been more than all the rest of us put together. Without him, the Finnish Chamber would not be what it is today; not for our own members nor for all those newcomers from Finland, who would like to join business here. Not either for our common European cause and business position here that we work together with other European chambers for.
Let's raise a glass for "Kanpai and otsukaresama" for Classe at our Annual General Meeting next week. And another one for "Cheers and welcome" to our new Executive Director Antti Kunnas.
Tokyo, March 29, 2019
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The columnist is a Japan veteran among Finnish business, our Chamber ex-president and today Member of the Board of Trustees.
After running a major Finnish industry company's Japan business for over 20 years, he is now Senior Associate in a strategic consulting company.