To do and to be done

Back in the 1990s when I was still living in Japan, there were swarms of "commentators" who were eager to provide "theories" on why Japan's economic golden age had ended. The ten years following the economic bubble burst was called "the lost decade" — a recession that lasted a decade as opposed to the normal three or four years — to exaggerate the impact of the bubble. (They were wrong, of course. As of 2009, the days after the bubble era is now correctly reflected as "the lost two decades.")

In hindsight, the increase of these commentators reminds me of an old Japanese common saying, bamboo shoots after rain, the equivalent of springing up like mushrooms. Stephen King wrote in On Writing about how adverbs easily creeps into our writing life, using the dandelion as an example: seeing one in your yard is nice, but if you do not weed it out, you'll see 50 of them the next day. Then it is too late. Same logic here, but of course you cannot (easily) pluck commentators out like you do with dandelions. Plus, back then I was innocently delighted to find out that Japan's journalism wasn't as shallow as I thought *.

Each day, we were reading hundreds of small opinions about Japan's economic malaise in newspapers, magazines, and television (they still had power in those days). I read them too, because after all, the issue was a disguised version of this question: "Why we are the way we are?" Who wouldn't want to read them?

There was one problem (or two). The opinions all sounded the same. They used the same "pool of source" to explain everything (they loved to single out the root of all evil, as if pointing out the parents' broken marriage would explain all about a child's bad behaviors). The following is examples of such "reasons."

  • Cold war has ended.
  • The labor pool started to shrink.
  • Real estate was used as a means of investment.
  • The government was incompetent. **

The difference between each opinions lied in the orders of such "source of evils" and conjunctions that connected each reason: Although, Therefore, However. We were reading the economic version of Harlequin romance. Instead of blond beauties with green eyes romancing a hunk, we had middle-aged boldies and fatties with coke-bottle glasses verbally wrestling with news anchormen. And we, men and women alike, watched the latter much more than the former. Maybe here lies the source of Japan's peculiar adult entertainment industry.

Earlier I wrote about their problem of being similar. Nowadays I see another problem, deeply rooted in Japanese psychology, and therefore also made those "opinions" less effective or sometimes useless. It is their passive attitude. Almost without exceptions, they said either the problems "occurred," as if an invisible Big Brother was laying its hand over Japan's future, or the problems were caused by the government, foreign vulture hedge-funds, or their darling, the US.

I felt something was terribly wrong about how we discussed about (and listened to) the economic problems, but I couldn't articulate why. Now I can. We never questioned "What have we done wrong?" to ourselves. Everybody blamed anything, ranging from the Cold War to the government officials receiving golden parachutes. But no one blamed himself.

I still do not have a concrete reason why Japan got into that economic mess, but I am sure the tendency to blame someone, the passive-aggressive attitude, had a huge role.

* Japan's journalism is not that shallow, that is true, but my mistake was to apply the theory to the mainstream media. I should have looked for individual (sometimes underground) journalists, just like lifting a rock in your backyard and see what is moving underneath it. I might not have found cute (but useless) dandelions, but I could have found a delightfully active ecology of spiders and worms. Which is what "real news" look like at first sight.

** Another flashback: nobody questioned, "If the government was that stupid, then weren't us all stupid too, even more so?"