Books: Flying Visits: Postcard from Japan - 2 : The Bridegroom of the Sea |
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Postcard from Japan - 2 : The Bridegroom of the Sea

A back-breaking sleepless night on the floor of the Two Views traditional inn had left me sobbing with fatigue, but the Sumo wrestlers soon restored my spirits. Not even Jun-san the PR-man had been able to scrape up a proper Sumo match, since it was the wrong season. But he had obtained permission to visit a training camp in the enormous city of Osaka, and thither we went in the early morning.

A Sumo training camp mainly consists of a metal shed about 40 feet by 20 feet. It has to be made of metal because when a dozen Sumo wrestlers are throwing one another around inside they tend to bump into the walls, and if the walls were made of traditional materials the wrestlers would go right through, wrecking half a suburb before they came to rest.

The Sumo wrestlers are not especially tall, but they are especially big. They go out rather than up. They might even be called fat, but they have none of the awkwardness that usually goes with fatness. They can do a sideways splits and touch the ground in front of them with their shoulders. You try it.

Inside the shed was a stove on which to brew seaweed tea, some benches for the privileged spectators, and a ring of raked sand. Each wrestler took his turn defending the ring against all the others in succession. After a long preliminary routine of glowering, ground-pounding, snorting and stalking, the opponents ran suddenly into each other with the noise of colliding water-melons. Each encounter was all over in seconds.

The idea, it transpired, is to get the other fellow’s centre of gravity moving in the wrong direction, whereupon his momentum carries him out of the ring. Watching this from close quarters is like sitting on the outside of a hairpin bend during a grand prix race for articulated lorries. Every few minutes one of the wrestlers hit the wall, making it reverberate like a large gong. This would evoke a good deal of comradely chortling from his colleagues, accompanied by the ritual readjustment of jock-straps. A Sumo wrestler’s jock-strap is a black belt which not only goes underneath him in order to ward off instant hernia, but has to go around him a couple of times as well. It is therefore very long.

That exercise completed, there were several minutes of Zen contemplation. Then one wrestler stood against the wall while the others formed a human pyramid and ran at him. By rights his intestines should have come out of his ears, but he smiled instead. Just when I though these were the strongest men I had ever seen, the door of the shed rolled open and a man swayed in who made the rest of them look emaciated. This was Kitanomi, the current Sumo champion of Japan. He walked with his feet about a yard apart. He stopped, looked at the others, snorted, and swayed out again. That was his training session for the morning.

Kitanomi is so famous that even the normally impassive Jun-san got excited about securing his autograph. Jun-san had purchased special sheets of white card for this purpose. Across these Kitanomi airily waved a felt-tip. The felt-tip looked like a toothpick and the signature looked like a more than usually meaningless abstract by Franz Kline, but Jun-san was well satisfied. Sipping my seaweed tea while the wrestlers went next door to embark on the epic they call lunch, I marvelled all over again at the way the Japanese can put so much formality and ritual into the smallest thing. A Sumo bout lasts about half a minute, yet a whole way of life is built around it.

Jun-san’s all-powerful schedule declared that it was time to return to the modern age. On the Shinkansen we raced down to Hiroshima, there to spend the morning at the Mitsubishi shipyards. Only a small part of the Mitsubishi empire, these are awe-inspiring in their size and productive potential. They are also nine-tenths empty, since the world already has more ships in the 120,000 ton range than it needs. (Eight of them used to be cranked out every year in this one spot.) Engineers of appallingly high rank assembled to assure me that the spare capacity was in the process of being switched to other things. My tour of the factory took in one of the other things — a complete oil refinery about to be floated in its entirety to the Persian Gulf.

In the gear-cutting plant I watched a computerised gantry-mill do its complex number with very few humans being present. Under the Japanese system workers don’t get fired, but nobody conceals the fact that more and more of them will have to be retrained as automation steps up. When you add the prospect of zero growth (and even the most optimistic Mitsubishi engineer didn’t expect the yards to be operating at capacity again in the next decade) it becomes obvious that jobs must grow fewer.

In Japan the big companies, the zaibutsu, are accustomed to controlling events. During the war they even persuaded the Government to compensate them for bomb damage, and the McCarthyite mood of the Occupation ensured that there was no concerted attempt to break up their powerful networks of ownership and administration. A worker in a big company is set for life whatever happens. But not even the big companies can go on expanding when world markets are already saturated; and if they don’t expand, there must be a growing number of people who don’t get taken on; and the general result must be insecurity. If the Japanese work-force as a whole begins saving its money against a rainy day, who will buy the goods which the Government is encouraging the outside world to send?

The same question reared its lumpy head at my afternoon fixture in Hiroshima, the Toyo Kogyo plant, where they make Mazda rotary-engined cars. Mazda is a middle-sized firm — only about three-quarter of a million units a year — but the productivity is enough to give a British shop steward heart failure. On the production line I saw four Kawasaki Unimate robot welders zapping all the welds on each car body without human assistance or even supervision. The robots were cassette-controlled and could switch programmes automatically according to which model they were working on. Further down the belt, the occasional human being was on hand to hang the boot door. Otherwise it was all machinery, the robots leaning and dabbing like ants milking an aphid.

At Renault and Fiat automation has gone even further, but nobody could be more efficient than the Japanese. You can see why it is difficult for a British components manufacturer to supply a Japanese company, even with official encouragement. At Mazda there is hardly any warehouse space for components. Parts for sub-assemblies arrive on the day, even on the hour. Once again the shortage of land dictates the way of doing things.

Rice is a demanding crop. The first thing it demands is a co-operative effort. The whole family has always been involved. Every Japanese company is a direct descendant of the rice culture. All decisions are discussed at every level from the bottom upwards and nobody is allowed to feel unimportant. At Mazda, as at Mitsubishi, the tradition holds. Nobody gets fired, but as the export drive slows down (and at Mazda it is being slowed down voluntarily: their new RX7 sports car would be a sensation here if they released it), they are thinning their work-force by the simple expedient of taking nobody on. The average worker at Mazda is thirty-six years old and has been with the company eleven years. You don’t need a pocket calculator to see that the young men who aren’t being hired must inevitably swell the number of Japanese citizens who won’t be in the market for British exports.

Nevertheless there is no reason for despair, although if there were a single place in Japan calculated to lower your morale, Hiroshima would be it. Even if you think you already know all you need to know about the effects of an atomic bomb, a quick glance around the Memorial Museum still comes as a shock. In the evening I went out with Jun-san and two of his colleagues from jetro to paint the town. We lined up on the bar-stools of a nightclub called the Bridegroom of the Sea. It was just big enough to hold the four of us. While the lads took turns singing pop songs into a microphone (the bar-girls had endless supplies of back-up tapes, songbooks and fixed grins) I took the only drink I have had in five years and tried to sort out my feelings about Japan’s current fix. How can an exporting country with an economy in recession step up its imports? It’s like squaring the circle.

Yet in trading with Japan Britain enjoys an advantage that can go a long way towards overcoming even the most ruthless equation. Ever since the Meiji restoration opened them up to Western influence the Japanese have admired the English language and what they conceive to be the British way of life The Japanese study the English language assiduously and with increasingly less hilarious results. It might raise a smile when Nissan calls a sedan the Cedric; or when the tobacconist offers cigarettes called Hope, Peace, Just, Epsom and Mr Slim; or when you see a bottle of some alcoholic beverage called Fuku Rocks. The older hotels will occasionally regale you with risible warning notices. (‘Body posture lower and cover mouth with handkerchief when escape.’) The exhibition halls at the Mikimoto Pearl Island feature some choice rubrics about the pearl-diver’s career. (‘These are man and wife, working in double harness. They sail away into the offing...’) But on the whole any funny English you see will date from twenty years ago.

Nowadays the Japanese are so attuned to the English language that they are incorporating it into their own. Through the medium of neon signs, the English alphabet is rapidly being added to the three alphabets that make up Japanese. The tendency to respect any product with an English name is doubled when the name really is English, and doubled again when the name is mellowed with age. Burberry, Dunhill and Hardy Amies are household names in Japan. The connotations are of the Royal family, country life, dogs, grouse.

If I were British Leyland, I would quit trying to sell the Japanese cheap cars and instead penetrate the market at its most vulnerable point — crisps. The Japanese are not yet crisp conscious, but could easily be made so. At present their comparable delicacy is dehydrated octopus shreds, sold in a transparent plastic box. When you open the box the emergent odour throws you for a loop of large radius. I can’t believe a Japanese wouldn’t rather eat British Leyland crisps. All you would need would be a TV advertising campaign suggesting that British Leyland crisps have been a feature of British life since William the Conqueror and that the Queen is crazy about them.

Considering the effort the Japanese put into learning English, the least a prospective British exporter can do is to make a start on Japanese. The spoken language is not wholly impossible. There is no distinction between singular and plural, for example, which simplifies the grammar. The degrees of politeness are what makes the spoken language hard to get the hang of. No one should imagine that he will ever be able to do business in the language, but any attempt at ordinary conversation will be welcomed by the Japanese, who are as hospitable in this respect as the Italians and Russians, and the opposite of the French.

The written language really is a challenge. But of the three alphabets, Katakana and Hiragana are both phonetic and fairly easily learned. Since Katakana is used to translate foreign names, half the neon signs in Japan are busy providing you with free look-say language lessons. The name of every railway station appears in Hiragana just above an English transcription, so you soon find yourself learning that too. As we travelled on the Shinkansen, Jun-san tested me on phonetic alphabets while I gave him exercise on his ‘l’ sounds. ‘You lily-livered lout,’ he would recite, ‘you left me lying there.’ Meanwhile I would shout in triumph at having deciphered a neon sign saying ko-ka ko-ra.

The third alphabet, Kanji, is the poser. Composed of roughly 2,000 Chinese ideographs, it is better regarded as a vocabulary than as an alphabet. Japanese children need six years to absorb the first 881 characters, so the beginner can hardly hope to make quick progress. But even then you will find yourself learning a few characters (entrance, exit, up, down, mountain, river, and so on) without really trying. It’s a long way from there to the great literary masterpiece The Tale of Genji by the Lady Murasaki, but there are more immediate satisfactions. The written language is a pleasure to the eye, thereby conforming to a general cultural pattern in which everyday things are only a step away from art.

From Hiroshima back to Tokyo on the Shinkansen is more than five hours of industrial landscape. Millions of compulsive over-achievers were toiling away as I raced past them. Back in Tokyo, I was taken to visit the enormous newspaper Asahi Shimbun, whose economics experts lined up on the opposite side of the lunch table to Exchange Views. The picture they drew was slightly different from jetro’s. According to them, the Japanese economy, though it will not collapse before the rest of the world’s does, is nevertheless headed for further recession. There will probably be no great political shift: Fukuda might be replaced, but the Liberal Democratic Party will go on ruling, mainly because there is no real Left. (Ripping up Narita airport does not count.) The deciding factor will be if the big companies start to go bankrupt along with the small ones, thereby leading to mass unemployment. Meanwhile there is nothing to do except learn to live with the post-industrial age. The Government can do something to reduce the balance of payments surplus by stockpiling raw materials. But whether it can get the same result by encouraging imports remains problematical. Low domestic demand is unavoidable.

So there it is, and there are even some wise people who are glad. The most impressive man I met in Japan, Kazayuki Matsuo, of the American History department at Tokyo’s Sophia University, thinks that economic success has produced a kind of Hell, that the Bullet Train simply takes people nowhere at a greater rate, and that what Japan needs is more of the English disease. Japanese domestic life, he believes, has become a disaster, in which tired husbands stagger home late to wives who have nothing to live for except television and pachinko, a mindless version of pinball.

I could see his point, but was still glad that however Japan’s future is settled, it will probably not be by war. Looking south-west from the top of a skyscraper on my last day in Tokyo, I could see all the way to Fuji — about 150 miles. The whole stretch of coast was full of people, and beyond the holy mountain they went on and on. The first B-29s appeared over Japanese mainland targets on the night of June 14, 1944. They spent more than a year bombing Japan out of the war. The big cities burned well. The official USAF figure for the great Tokyo fire-raid was 86,000 dead, and the Japanese put it at more than twice that.

The cumulative effect of the fire-raids and the atomic bombs was to convince Japan that she was forever out of the running as a military super-power. Remembering too well what happened last time, the Japanese now have no thought of overcoming trade restrictions by any other means than brains and skill. Another war in the Pacific has become unthinkable. In Australia I grew up with the constant reminder that a generation of our best men had been decimated. One of the victims was my father, who was a POW in Japanese hands. His sufferings were so terrible that perhaps it was a blessing he did not come home, but thirty years later I still feel that my whole life is taking place in the light of that one event. I had expected to be depressed by the Japanese. In fact I was exhilarated, because in a way they are showing us that the future is still worth looking forward to.

One day all the world will be like Japan, full of more and more people with less and less to do. We can scarcely hope to make the transition better than Japan is doing. To a remarkable extent she has preserved the old along with the new, and preserved her own culture while absorbing an extraordinary amount of everybody else’s. In Japan you can see how the collective and the individual spirits need not necessarily crush one another.

By now a dab hand with the chopsticks, I dined out on my last night with Jun-san the PR-man and the boys from jetro. Saying goodbye is always a lengthy process in Japan. I was sorry to be going, but by now I was burning to be alone. After twelve days of propinquity, what the Westerner needs is unpeopled space. JAL provided some. Refuelling at Anchorage, Alaska, my Boeing 747 made a beeline for Copenhagen. It was a relief to look down on the North Pole. Not even the Japanese could do much with that.

— June 11, 1978