Saturday, December 23, 2006

A yen for Japan

Japan is probably the last word on progress and prosperity in the modern world. A.J. Philip gives his impressions of the world’s second largest economy, and its people, who are disciplined, industrious and courteous

TELL me in one sentence why Japan has achieved so much progress in so short a time," asked an Indian journalist to a reporter of a Japanese newspaper. He did not bat an eyelid before answering, "We did not have to spend a farthing on defence".

He was referring to the fact that after the defeat in World War II, Japan had to forego its right to maintain military forces and the huge savings it made on this account could be ploughed back into the reconstruction work.

However true the statement may be, there are other equally important factors for the development of Japan as I could make out during my four-day visit to Tokyo as part of the Press contingent that accompanied Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.

If someone were to ask me about the secret of the success of the Land of the Rising Sun, I would put it one word, "discipline". And if I could add one more expression, I would say "hard work". Tokyo has a lot more cars than Delhi but during my stay, I could never hear anyone honking the horn. It has cleaner air than Delhi. Traffic jams are frequent but people seem to factor them into their travel plans.

The imperial shrine, a major tourist attraction
The imperial shrine, a major tourist attraction

Tokyo, a shopper’s paradise
Tokyo, a shopper’s paradise — Photos by the writer

Late one night while returning from an exotic Japanese restaurant, which provides a breathtaking view of the Rainbow Bridge, the car in front of us suddenly stopped. It could have ended in a collision if our driver had not applied the brakes on time. The time was 2 a.m. and the traffic was minimal.

Our driver could have easily reversed and then overtaken the car in front. No, he waited for at least a couple of minutes so that the driver in the front car could restart the car and move forward. At the designated place where we could overtake the car in front, our driver gave him a stare, which the other one did not notice.

Policemen were nowhere to be seen at that time but the driver followed diligently every traffic signal on the way. All cars in Tokyo are equipped with a computer-aided navigation system. Suppose you want to go to ‘A’ in one part of the city from ‘B’ in another part of Tokyo. Just feed the destination details into the system. The computer already knows where your car is located. On the screen, it will show you the route to take. At every intersection or crossing, an arrow will indicate which direction to take to reach ‘A’.

The computer shows the shortest route and if there is any jam or if any road is closed, it will choose the most convenient alternative route. There is no need to ask any passerby for routes and there is a saving of fuel too. Even a total stranger to Japan can comfortably drive in the city if he knows the navigation system.

It is amazing to watch how the Japanese keep their roads and streets so clean. Of course, the city is a concrete jungle with little open spaces but there are areas where "manicured" trees with yellow leaves are in plenty. Surprisingly, you won’t find a single leaf on the road. "The Japanese have employed people whose job is to catch the leaves as they fall. If the leaves touch the ground, they are punished" commented a wag.

Back in New Otani Hotel in downtown Tokyo where we stayed, the huge restaurant on the ground floor was closed. But two workers were busy cleaning the floor and tidying up things before the restaurant opened early in the morning. They did not talk to each other, engrossed as they were in work.

They seemed to follow the instruction of Mitsui Takafusa (1684-1748), the third generation of the great house of that name: "Never waste your attention on matters that have nothing to do with your work. Merchants who ape samurai or think that Shinto, Confucianism or Buddhism will preserve their inner heart will find that they will only ruin their houses if they become too deeply engrossed in them. How much more true is this of other arts and entertainments! Remember that it is the family business that must not be neglected for a moment".

Japan did not have Calvinism but its businessmen adopted a similar ethic. The key lay in the commitment to work, rather than to wealth. The Zen monk Suzuki Shosan saw greed as a spiritual poison; but work was something else: "All occupations are Buddhist practice; through work we are able to attain Buddhahood (salvation)." In other words, one does not have to be a Weberian Protestant to achieve success. He can be a Japanese too!

A characteristic of the Japanese is the etiquette they follow in their daily life. They are the most respectful to fellow human beings. Ashis Chakravarti of The Telegraph, who knows a smattering of Japanese, explained the four different ways in which "thank you" is said. It depends on the status of the
person concerned.

At the national Diet (Parliament), I saw a Japanese lady virtually touching the floor with her forehead while welcoming Dr Manmohan Singh. The poor Sardar could not respond in equal measure. If I had stayed there a bit longer, I would have developed a backache responding to the bows as I had to every time I said "thank you" to a waiter or a doorman or a driver or a shopkeeper.

The knowledge that Japan has the second largest economy in the world was brought home when we waited outside the lobby of Four Seasons Hotel where the Prime Minister stayed. Japanese businessmen and their wives were arriving for a lunch hosted by Union Minister Kamal Nath. They came in Rolls Royces, BMWs, Audis and the latest Mercs. Few of us had ever seen so many luxury cars converging at one place.

Of course, the richness did not come all of a sudden. Let me quote from Hane’s Peasants, Rebels and Outcasts, "From morning, while it was still dark, we worked in the lamp-lit factory till ten at night. After work we hardly had the strength to stand on our feet. When we worked late into the night, they occasionally gave us a yam (to eat). We then had to do our washing, fix our hair, and so on. By then it would be 11 o’clock. There was no heat even in the winter, and so we had to sleep huddled together. Several of the girls ran back to Hida. I was told that girls who went to work before my time had a harder time. We were not paid the first year. In the second year I got 35 yen, and the following year, 50 yen`85 The life of a woman is really awful".

The quotation tells much of the story: low pay, poor living conditions, the commitment to personal cleanliness, the gradual improvement. In the hotel, it required a little bit of effort to understand how the hi-tech toilet worked. To the left of the western-style commode is a panel of switches. As soon as you sit, a green light on the panel blinks and the flushing system starts.

With a knob, the pressure of water can be adjusted. There is a switch, which directs hot water to the area where washing is required, and another, which ejects cold water. Such technology does not come cheap. A dinner in the hotel costs something like $100. I had to banish the thought of buying a woollen long coat I liked when I checked the price: $1000. There are some markets where goods are cheaper. Electronic goods like cameras, videos, I-pods are cheaper, though many of them may be Japanese but are "Made in China".

How do the Japanese live? I have no clue except a conversation we had with our guide Fujika. "An average Japanese family consists of husband and wife and two children. Both parents work. Real estate prices are, perhaps, the highest in the world. They pay 30 per cent of their income as tax. Their children start learning English from Standard V".

The guide made it a point to mention that the Emperor does not pay any tax. "At one time, as many as 6,500 people worked to keep the Emperor in style at the Imperial Palace. Today, there are only 1,500 employees working for the Emperor". Despite his criticism, Fujika considers the institution of royalty sacred.

The palace compound spreads over an area equivalent to Sukhna Lake in Chandigarh. A favourite haunt of morning walkers, "you make one circle of the palace and you would have walked 6 km". Obesity, in any case, has never been a problem for the Japanese.

Waiting for Uyeno

Statue of Hachika, the much- remembered dog
Statue of Hachika, the much- remembered dog

A journalist friend wanted a companion to go to Shibuya railway station in Tokyo. He also wanted a photographer to click him with the statue of a dog, called Hachiko. I agreed to be both for him.

He did not know much about the statue. His daughter, who studies in Class III, had "ordered" him to bring a photograph of the statue. That is how we reached Shibuya, a fashionable shopping area with hordes of harried commuters, departmental stores and a giant television screen that covers half a skyscraper.

Despite the diminutive size of the statue in comparison to the massive neon flash of the city, it was not difficult to find it. More than 70 years have passed since Hachiko died but it is still alive in the collective memory of the Tokyoites.

Hachiko was born at Akita in 1923. Eisaburo Uyeno, a professor at the Imperial University, brought him to Tokyo the year after. The dog would accompany the professor to the station, from where he would catch a train. In the evening, Hachiko would wait for its master with the tail wagging.

Hachiko was just two years old when one day the professor failed to return, as he died of a massive heart attack. But the dog did not leave the station. His waiting continued till March 8, 1935, when Hachiko died on the spot where he last saw his master.

The grief-stricken Tokyoites decided to put up a statue in Hachiko’s memory. Famous sculptor Ando Teru, who knew the dog, was commissioned for the job. During the War when metal shortage hit Japan, Hachiko’s statue too was melted.

After the war, the citizens came together to put up a new statue for which Teru’s son, Ando Tekeshi, who as a child had seen Hachiko, agreed to do the sculpting.

Today, the statue is a favourite haunt of nature lovers. Hundreds of people visit it every day to take photographs with the dog. The Railways have placed a full-sized rail compartment in front of the statue as a permanent exhibit.

The station is also known as Hachiko station. A colossal mosaic of Hachiko in playful moods is depicted on the wall of the railway station as a tribute to Chu-ken Hachiko (the faithful dog Hachiko).

— A.J.P.