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Japan Unmasked
About Face by Clayton Naff

Far Eastern Economic Review
April 20, 1995

Clayton Naff has written two books in one. The first is a painstaking report on features of Japan's changing society, from its overworked hospitals and shifting labour ethics to its increasingly strong-minded women and relaxed young people. The other book is anecdotal, offering the reader a view into the Japanese family that the author married into. About Face ambitiously sketches Japan from the top down and the bottom up.

Revolution is a main theme here. In Naff's words, signs of "a grassroots revolution, of citizen power overcoming arbitrary authority, continue to sprout all over Japan." He notes that the "Japanese spirit" is on the wane. By this he means "the unity, the discipline, and the serene determination that had made [Japan] great." On the personal side, he witnesses his mother-in-law and the husband who supports her pioneering efforts to publish a magazine for educators. His sister-in-law decides to move in with her boyfriend, shocking stuff for a young Japanese. Naff's personal details illustrate his general thesis.

Japan is changing in the realm of work ethics. There are fewer salarymen suffering "death by overwork." And what is considered women's work is changing incrementally: The number of women in managerial positions is creeping upward. Japanese universities enrol more female students than ever before. Women are tiring of the "good wife, wise mother" ethic. But freedom has its price: Naff reports that Japanese women lead the world in job dissatisfaction.

Labour relations are another hotbed for imminent "revolution." Leisure time is on the increase. The lifetime employment system has begun to die away: Young workers are more apt to change jobs and shun company-bonding excursions. Naff tells the reader that the era of "the sceptical, self-interested, family-oriented worker" is dawning.

Naff is most on target when describing political revolution. The break-up of the "1955 system" was an event of major significance. The Liberal Democratic Party's monopoly rule, that odious product of a self-serving electoral system, has come to an end. The political rebellion of the summer of 1993 is a major event in Japanese history.

Naff's tour of modern Japan is a whirlwind of thumbnail history sketches and statistics. But as in many books that attempt to explain Japan, there is too much reliance on the general. For instance: "The modern samurai salaryman finds that Japan's unwritten code of behaviour requires him to remain non-violent and mostly amiable even when drunk... company men may roar but they don't come to blows." This is an ill-fitting anecdote for a book that begins: "Too often, attempts to write about 'the Japanese' end in caricature."

But this generalization is a casualty of Naff's ambition: to chronicle a multifaceted social revolution. At times this ambition breeds hyperbole and detracts from his case. In the course of the book, he hopes "to have demonstrated that no amount of wealth can suppress a natural human desire for the freedom and dignity of the individual." Maybe so, but does the "Japanese spirit" really have one foot in the grave? Who agrees on what this spirit is, anyway? Seeds of "individualism" may be sprouting in Japan, but to proclaim a social revolution is premature.

Another problem: The final pages bring America into the picture, rather unnecessarily. Naff writes: "The more the United States is seen to be advocating a freeing up of Japanese society in general, rather than just trying to pry loose a little business for itself, the swifter the change in that direction is apt to be." What does this mean? One expects more from a seasoned business reporter. Naff fails here to prescribe or predict. Since this book is presumably aimed at Americans, its concluding lines ring hollow.

Japan is indeed changing. Significant steps have been made by women's groups, maverick politicians and other upstarts. But this change is coming slowly and unevenly.

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