Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Dangerous stasis

Archaic Torso of Apollo

We never knew his fantastic head,
where eyes like apples ripened. Yet
his torso, like a lamp, still glows
with his gaze which, although turned down low,

lingers and shines. Else the prow of his breast
couldn't dazzle you, nor in the slight twist
of his loins could a smile run free
through that center which held fertility.

Else this stone would stand defaced and squat
under the shoulders' diaphanous dive
and not glisten like a predator's coat;

and not from every edge explode
like starlight: for there's not one spot
that doesn't see you. You must change your life.

--Rainer Maria Rilke

A couple of recent, interrelated articles on Japan seem particularly germane to conversations I've had while traveling in the US recently--so much so that I've used them as handouts on a couple of occasions to help orient audiences and raise questions.

The first story appeared in the Japan Times earlier this month and addresses the now notoriously sweatshop-like working conditions and wages in the vast majority of anime studios inside Japan, and the industry's inability to attract and retain young talent. I addressed this in Japanamerica and other venues, but since the conventional wisdom is that Japan's anime producers are being destroyed by file-sharing and downloading by overseas fans, it seems worthwhile to look more closely at the antiquated and insidiously self-destructive business model in Japan's own backyard.

After graduating from Tokyo Animator College, Yuko Matsui began working at a midscale animation production agency.

News photo
Work in progress: A student works on a project at Tokyo Animator College. ALEX MARTIN PHOTO

Two years later, she earns roughly ¥80,000 a month, averaging 10 hours a day doing the grunt work of filling out "in-between cels," drawings on transparent sheets used between key scenes to help create the illusion of motion.

Although she lives with her parents, she can't save any money and has given up on paying her national pension fees. Still, the 22-year-old apprentice considers herself better off than some of her peers who say they have to endure frequent all-nighters with few days off.

"There were seven others I knew who graduated with me at the same time, but three of them have already given up and quit," she said...

You can access the story on the Japan Times web site here.

The second article is an Op-Ed from the New York Times that also appeared earlier this month. In it, Masaru Tamamoto addresses the curious case of a nation in perpetual stasis since World War II.

RECENT events mark Japan’s re
turn to the world’s stage, or at least so it seems. Tokyo was Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s inaugural overseas destination. Last week, Prime Minister Taro Aso was the first foreign leader to visit the Obama White House. All this suggests that Washington sees Japan, the world’s second-largest economy, as a powerful nation. If only we saw ourselves the same way.

The truth is, Japan is a mess.

Read Tamamoto's Op-Ed here.

I enjoin myself to bite my tongue. Living in Japan is a privilege, and an honorable and sane one at that. I feel very fortunate to have a life in a beautiful country, with civilized citizens, and a sane coast of cities, wherein safety is an unspoken by-product of existence. I am a half-Japanese, or a borderline figment, and as such, I'm lucky. I get to indulge in the best of our world at half the cost, personal and fiscal.

But at what price?

The problem with Japan--and the rest of us, Japanese, half, or otherwise--is that we fear the quality that most emboldens us: change. We don't want to change. We want stasis--trains that run on time, simple ideas, dumb accounts.

Since the birth of my parents, the Japanese perfected this longing better than anyone in the world. You can now be a resident of Japan, foreign, half or otherwise, and live your days in honest stupidity: No one will ever ask you to go further, press harder, ask more of yourself, or, really, really work.

But maybe now, in 2009, things are finally changing, as they do in history, without our input. As the old parable goes (and I was always told it was Chinese), if you want to boil a frog, turn the heat up slowly. The frog will adjust, the heat will increase incrementally, and the frog will die.

But if you want the frog to live, turn the heat up fast. The frog will leap from the pot.

In short: It's getting hot in here. Leap.


D said...

Knowing the post is old, perhaps you have already moved past... I have a question. Towards the end of your post you mention that "No one will ever ask you to go further, press harder, ask more of yourself, or, really, really work." Yet, through various third hand descriptions, I have heard that salerymen for example work like dogs for very long hours. Also mentioned in the story of the inbetweeners is how long the work is.

Is this just mindless more work, is it lots of human work that is cheaper than making mechanical efficiency? Humans are no less a paradox than the countries they make, and I might imagine that Japanese efficiency might not be applied to everything, but is that the problem?

PS. I started reading you from links at ANN, just so's you know.

Roland Kelts said...

Excellent question, and you are spot on in your assessment of the salaryman work ethic in Japan, not to mention the diligence of Japanese students, service industry employees, teachers and train conductors, et cetera.

What I'm trying to distinguish is the nature and orientation of one's efforts--and the degree to which they are pushed beyond formula. Sisyphus works awfully hard repeatedly rolling his rock back up the hill. The post WWII societal contract Tamamoto delineates is one in which the state promised stability (and lifelong employment) in exchange for obeisance, thereby attempting to negate risk.

I think Tamamoto is asking: Is that really possible, let alone desirable? And to what end--especially when paradigms are shifting fast, and the state's societal contract may no longer be adequate to the challenge.