Los Angeles Times, July 7, 1989, Friday


Mr. Suzuki's Lament
Self-Denial Wears Thin for Japanese

By KARL SCHOENBERGER, Times Staff Writer

TOKYO -- Regard Mr. Suzuki, the composite Japanese salaried worker. He rides 90 minutes to and from the office each day in a sardine-packed train, works marathon hours, lives in a tiny rental apartment with a lovely wife and family he hardly ever sees, and suffers the constant indignity of spending two to three times what his counterpart in the United States would pay for a hamburger or a haircut.

Global statistics say he is comparatively rich; yet he feels frustrated, and decidedly poor.

Listen to the blue-suited Mr. Suzuki at a bar over a few beers one night and he will grumble a formulaic complaint about the hard life. He will lament that he is landless after missing out on the Tokyo real estate boom and now cannot afford to buy a house. He will say he is losing confidence in the scandal-ridden ruling Liberal Democratic Party. And he might remark about how unfair the divisions between "haves" and "have-nots" are becoming in Japanese society.
A Shrug and a Smile

But ask him why he has not walked out on his overbearing employer, lodged an angry consumer complaint, voted for the political opposition or emigrated to greener pastures abroad, and he will reply with a shrug and a tight smile of chagrin.

Mr. Suzuki may be a hackneyed stereotype, but his existence is real -- a cornerstone in the very blurry puzzle of contemporary Japan. Foreign observers are especially baffled about what makes him, and his contemporaries, tick. Why, they ask, does this level of society resign itself so stoically to its seemingly miserable lot in life? Why not rise up in rebellion?

The answer, in a word, is gaman, loosely -- and incompletely -- translated as perseverance.
Glue of Social Contracts

Not much scholarly attention has been paid to this primordial virtue, perhaps because it is so painfully obvious from inside Japan, and mostly invisible from the outside. Yet a close examination of the language of everyday Japanese suggests that gaman is the glue that holds together a complex and stressful web of social contracts.

To gaman is to deny oneself expression, gratification and in some cases dignity for the greater cause of yielding to another or fitting harmoniously into a group. The process also has a flip side: Japan's Mr. Suzukis know that certain rewards are guaranteed for anyone who exercises proper gaman. Paramount among these are job security and the abstract satisfaction of belonging.

"Gaman is the way of life. That's what they teach you ever since you're born -- that if you persevere, you'll make it," said one flesh-and-blood Mr. Suzuki, a 33-year-old employee of a Tokyo brokerage who commutes daily from Yokohama. On a good day, he gets a seat on the train. "What's the reward? Job satisfaction. If I really wanted material things, I'd switch to a foreign investment bank right away, and buy a Mercedes."

Even Japanese-style perseverance has its limits, however. Old folks have been complaining for generations that young people "can't gaman" anymore, but nowadays there actually seem to be some tangible signs that patience is wearing thin.

For one, Japan has become affluent enough that it is gradually molting the old myths of austerity, sacrifice and urgent national purpose. A new breed of consumers called the shinjinrui, or new human beings, the local version of the yuppies, has bypassed the rigors of self-discipline and begun pampering themselves in a way their parents would never have dared.

Employment practices, too, show less restraint in recent years. Mid-career job transfers, once taboo for white-collar workers trapped in a system of lifetime servitude, are becoming relatively common. A plethora of job-placement magazines and head hunters now serve restive "salary men," as they are called.

Typical is a phone-book-thick magazine calling itself "Doda! Business & Behavior," a name apparently inspired by the carefree refrain in the song "Camptown Races." One telling ad in a recent issue features a misty photo of the Golden Gate Bridge and teases the reader with bold type that declares: "Latitude is the key word to life. There are times when it is necessary to change jobs. . . ."

And on the political scene, voters are getting somewhat feisty on a large scale for the first time in recent memory. This was evidenced in last Sunday's Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly election, in which the conservatives got stomped. Pundits explain that people are finally losing their tolerance for official corruption, and taxpayers are refusing to gaman with an unpopular 3% tax on consumption.

The rising amorphous irritability was captured by the recent film "Bakayaro," whose title is an expletive meaning something similar to "To hell with you!" or "Stuff it!" or "Drop dead!" In the movie, a moderate box-office hit, tension builds in a series of intolerable situations until the heroes cannot gaman any longer, and scream "Bakayaro!" to their tormentors -- a pretentious lover, an abusive customer, a sadistic boss. With the release of pent-up malice, various problems are resolved.

"The more people who can say 'bakayaro!' the better," said Yoshimitsu Morita, the film's director, who is now working on "Bakayaro Part II." "If you feel strong enough to say it, you're liberated and the circumstances around you will eventually change. They'll respond by trying to prevent these outbursts, and new morals and new human relationships will evolve."

Morita, 39, won critical acclaim overseas five years ago with the film "Family Game," a bizarre tale of a middle-class family putting their son through "examination hell," which climaxes in a riotous food fight. Even without explosions, however, Morita thinks gaman is evolving into a more manipulative, passive-aggressive force as the individual learns to assert his will.

"Gaman has changed from a pure virtue to a strategy," Morita said. "People know how far they can go, and they calculate satisfaction."

Ironically, the word gaman originally was a Buddhist term meaning "to regard oneself as great; to make light of others; conceit," according to the authoritative Kojien dictionary. Asserting oneself or being willful is the second meaning. The definition now in currency, of persevering, ranks only third.

The word has long been stripped of its negative nuances, however, and today most Japanese think of practicing self-denial as a supreme mark of valor.

Indeed, gaman-zuyoi, literally strong in perseverance, is synonymous with heroic. And despite Morita's "bakayaro" thesis, succumbing to feelings of anger is still considered a sign of weakness. Many foreign visitors are quickly humbled by the delicate rules and invisible walls of this finicky society, and they learn that getting angry or going against the grain -- part of a proud tradition of individualism in some corners of the world -- can be counterproductive here.

The Japanese, after all, are world champions in conformity. They work overtime and take vacations in unison, slavishly follow fashion trends, and still gaman to pass the various rites of passage in whatever group they attach their fortunes to.

It begins in the cradle, said Tetsuo Takahashi, a psychiatrist and director of intercultural programs at the Menninger Clinic in Topeka, Kan.

"In Japanese society, gaman may be considered a set with amae," or the syndrome of indulgence that characterizes bonds of dependence between Japanese children and their mothers, Takahashi said. "The mentality of the average Japanese can be explained in terms of patiently keeping anger and evil thoughts restrained within, while expecting the benevolence of others."

Japanese children establish their sense of self through "libidinal projective identification" with their mothers, that is, by being good and going along with the program to score points in the Oedipus complex, Takahashi postulates. This is because Japanese mothers are always there -- much like corporate families offering lifetime employment.

American children, on the other hand, have a tendency to define their identities by rebelling, which is their way of coping with the "separation anxiety" caused by mothers who keep a greater distance, the theory goes.

Whether or not child-rearing is the key, the incongruity of American and Japanese cultural values is a recurring theme in the debate over economic friction. The capacity of Japanese workers and consumers to make sacrifices is seen by some foreign observers as somehow unfair. The deck seems stacked against the petulant Americans.

One author, James Fallows, a columnist for the Atlantic magazine, goes so far as to suggest that gaman -- although he does not call it that -- is somehow linked to Japan's massive trade surplus because consumers are repressing desires and distorting market forces that might ordinarily spur them to buy more imports.

"Japan now has enough money to do anything it wants. Why do rich people keep living this way?" he wrote, referring to the shabby housing, the lack of leisure and the pitiful purchasing power of the Japanese. "The answer to this question is crucial, because it essentially determines whether the world's trade battles with Japan will ever end. If most Japanese people agree with the outside view -- that Japanese life is needlessly hard -- then trade imbalances will start working themselves out.

"The Japanese government may try to keep markets closed," he continued, "but the people themselves will eventually rebel."

Fallows ultimately concedes that the Japanese appear to be "not unhappy enough to demand a substantial change," but other foreign observers have been quick to presume that Japan's purportedly downtrodden proletariat is on the verge of awakening.

"As I see it, the workers of this country are carrying the load on their backs, riding those crowded trains," observed American corporate raider T. Boone Pickens Jr., visiting Japan recently in an unsuccessful attempt to gain a seat on the board of directors of a company in which he acquired an unfriendly stake. "And one of these days they're going to get tired of putting up with it."

Pickens saw hope that his brand of shareholder democracy might someday catch on here, once investors realize how they are being taken advantage of by managers not strictly required to account for their actions. The self-described shareholder advocate was unable to comprehend why passive Japanese investors are able to gaman with skimpy dividends from the companies they own.

Pickens' conundrum is not too difficult to explain, in light of the lucrative capital gains that reward persevering shareholders on Tokyo's super bull market. But the fact remains that the overall quality of life in Japan lags considerably behind that of other industrialized nations, and people are beginning to notice.
Japanese Aware of Hardships

Japanese are an intelligent, literate and well-informed people. Their own Assn. of Real Estate Appraisal has informed them that a piece of land in residential Tokyo sells for 99 times the cost of a comparable lot in the Los Angeles area. Their Economic Planning Agency advises them in a recent study that they work 360 hours more a year than the average worker in the United States, France, West Germany, Britain and Sweden, and live in 20% less space. Japan scored last among the five countries on the agency's "New Social Indicator scale."

Despite their $95-billion global trade surplus and commensurately powerful currency, many Japanese consumers realize -- or at least strongly suspect -- that an inefficient distribution system gouges them and that they are subsidizing export industry with high prices. They know they spend more on a Big Mac than fast food connoisseurs in other advanced societies.

Their own government admonishes them to loosen up and take Saturdays off, to treat themselves to more leisure time and to stop squirreling away so much of their earnings in savings accounts.

It is no longer a secret that people in foreign countries can, and do, treat themselves to central heating, but affluent Japanese still shiver over space heaters in the frigid winter. Extensive sewer systems have been built in only 39% of the country. Some dentists still ask whether patients need Novocain before drilling.
Pleasures, Comfort Put on Hold

After 120 years of frantic modernization and national sacrifice, the old saw about Japan being a "poor island nation without natural resources" is losing its logic. Yet all indications are that the ethos of gaman is here to stay. Life in Japan is not necessarily all that hard, it is just that many of the pleasures, comforts and rewards have been put on hold, indefinitely.

"Japan has become the richest country with money earned abroad -- but only in bookkeeping," the Asahi newspaper said in an editorial earlier this year. "Living in Japan, there is no feeling of being rich. . . . It is high time to change the Japanese way of thinking."

But already, the nostalgia of Spartan discipline is taking root. In an omnipresent subway ad aimed at shinjinrui, a Tokyo English conversation academy displays a photograph of a young woman wearing a Meiji Era schoolgirl's uniform -- plain kimono and hakama pantaloons -- and looking quite stern. The caption reveals that the school's theme is "To gaman romantically."