Saturday, April 09, 2005

How Japan and America are different from each other, and Japanese government employees

My mother and nephew have gone back to San Diego after a nice visit. It was fun having them here, although difficult because our life in Japan is so different from what they were used to back home. Although there were a lot of challenges -- Japanese homes don't have central heating so they were always cold, for example, and food they could eat was not always easy to find -- they had fun, I think. Gunma Prefecture is the home of the creator of Initial D, a manga and anime about high-speed mountain racing, and the day before he was to go back, I took my nephew for a run up Mt. Haruna, on which the fictional mountain in Initial D is based on. It was fun to zoom over the real mountain roads in my Miata (sold under the name of Roadster here), and now he has some serious bragging rights with his friends back home.

America and Japan are very different from each other, a fact that I was reminded of all the more during my travels last week. While the Japanese not usually that proficient at English, except for exceptional individuals (like the Japanese staff at J-List) who make a special effort to master the language, a foreign visitor in Japan can still be reasonably sure that someone will come to his rescue if he has a problem of some kind. When Japanese go to the U.S., however, they're taught to speak up and ask for what they want in specific terms, since no one will help a person who is shyly sitting in a corner not saying anything. My son learned this to his cost one day last summer, while attending a week-long science day-camp in San Diego. His lunch had been left with the receptionist, but he didn't know this, and he was too shy to speak up loudly and ask where his lunch was. Because he didn't make an effort to communicate what he needed, he went hungry all afternoon, but I think he learned a lesson.

Japanese government employees, called komuin (KOH-mu-in), are an interesting part of society here. A huge caste of ultra-conservative individuals who work at Japan's city and prefectural offices, they are a massive non-political bureaucracy that are responsible for administering Japanese laws, collecting taxes, granting permits for various activities, and generally making Japan run smoothly. Unlike the private sector, where companies must work hard and show results, Japan's public employees enjoy incredible stability, and theirs is the last segment of society with de facto lifetime employment in Japan. Young people who want the comfort of the stablest possible job and a long, steady climb up the social ladder aspire to pass the difficult national test that allows you to work as a public employee, although of course, if your parents are friends with your local city councilman he may be able to get you a job even if you haven't passed the test -- Japan can be very flexible that way. More so than in the U.S., government employees here are defined as a single group, and some professions that you don't normally think of as a lifetime government job are described with the komuin term, such as police, firemen and teachers. While Japan's public employees provide a solid white-collar backbone of stability for the country, there are a lot of complaints about lack of fiscal restraint in Japan's public sector. For example, despite the decade-long recession in Japan, our prefecture found the money to build a 32-story skyscraper-style prefectural office that cost hundreds of millions to erect yet does nothing but provide government employees with a beautiful view.

Monday, April 04, 2005

Our trip to Hiroshima and the wrong places to bring electronics

It's good to be back home! We were only gone four nights, but traveling around Japan with your 65-year-old mother and two kids can be a lot of work. After seeing the sights in Kyoto, we rode the train to a town called Uji (OO-gee), famous for its green tea and for the beautiful Byodoin Temple, the 900 year old building which appears on the back of the Japanese ten yen coin. We then went on to Nara, a small city that was the capital of Japan hundreds of years ago, and took in the quiet beauty of Nara Park while feeding the deer that overrun the place.

In preparation for our trip, I had made sure to pack all the various electronic devices I'm accustomed to carrying with me: Powerbook, digital camera, cell phone, iPod, Canon Wordtank, PSP, and all associated chargers, of course. I have to admit, I felt a little odd, carrying electronic gadgets while going to see such beautiful and ancient places, such as Miyajima, a shrine established in A.D. 593, built above the beach so that it seems to float when the tide comes in. I wish I could have left all my electronic gadgets at home and gone on my trip with nothing to detract from the ancient beauty of what we were seeing, but I'm just too much a slave to electronics, I guess.

The last day we visited Hiroshima, something that's always a solemn experience for any visitor to Japan. Hiroshima was a bustling commercial port and wartime center when the first atomic bomb used against humans exploded over it at 8:15 on August 6, 1945. The destruction was devastating, killing at least 50,000 people instantly, including factory workers, soldiers, children, and Koreans and Chinese who were made to work in factories in the city. The Peace Park, located at ground zero, is a beautiful place to walk and reflect on what happened, and see the famous symbol of the city, the A-Bomb Dome, a former commercial building that managed to partially survive the bombing. It was important for me to show my children the site, as well as the sobering exhibits in the Peace Museum, which include before-and-after models of the city, glass bottles that had melted in the heat, and a wristwatch that had stopped forever at 8:15. My son asked me many probing questions about what he saw -- why did America and Japan start fighting? What happened to people like him, who were both Japanese and American, living in Japan at the time? I was glad that my mother and children were able to visit this important place with me.