Here's an insider's irreverent view of bureaucratic Japan

February 25, 1995
Elisabeth Sherwin -- gizmo@

Imagine your job requires such devotion that you routinely spend your nights at the office. Not just working late, but sleeping over at the office.

And imagine that you are required to take your vacations with your co-workers. These vacations consist of drunken partying (you don't drink) and watching pornographic films (which you find offensive).

This was the situation in which Dr. Masao Miyamoto found himself shortly after returning to his native Japan in 1986 after 11 years in the United States. Talk about culture shock.

Miyamoto decided to deal with it by writing critically about his experiences as a member of the vast Japanese bureaucracy. First he published a series of articles in a leading Japanese magazine, then he used the articles as the basis for a book called ``Straitjacket Society'' (Kodansha International, 1994, $22).

Miyamoto committed a grave social and political sin by writing a book about his individual experiences. In Japan, the group is more important than the individual.

As a result of his insider accounts on Japanese bureaucracy, he was punished for his transgressions. He was posted progressively farther and farther away from Tokyo, the seat of power.

A native of Tokyo, Miyamoto graduated from Nihon University Medical College in 1973 and after a year of post-graduate training in pathology he moved to the United States. He put in three years of post-graduate work in psychiatry and psychoanalysis before accepting a position as assistant professor of psychiatry at Cornell. In 1984, he became an assistant professor at New York Medical College.

In 1986 he returned to Japan. He doesn't tell the reader why but hints about family obligations. Indeed, he doesn't tell the reader why he stayed in Japan, either, even though he underwent great difficulties after the magazine publication of his expose.

He started out promisingly. Miyamoto was named deputy director of the mental health division of the Ministry of Health and Welfare upon his return to Japan and rose steadily through the ranks. He succeeded at his job even though he did not follow the three cardinal rules of Japanese bureaucracy: ``Don't take vacations, don't be late and don't initiate anything new.''

Miyamoto became famous in Japan because he dared take an overseas vacation - two weeks in France. His account of the machinations he went through to take the time off is both funny and absolutely perplexing since it is so very different from the American way.

But Miyamoto was in trouble with the system before he dared take a vacation.

``In Japan, bureaucratic positions are highly respected because everyone knows that bureaucrats wield enormous power,'' he writes. ``Thus, when most Japanese hear that I am the director of quarantine at the Port of Kobe, they usually remark, `That sounds like a wonderful job.'

``In reality, the position ... for the Ministry of Health and Welfare is a dead-end job, so I always reveal the truth to them ... and most people look shocked. In Japan, unless you have a close relationship, it is unthinkable to speak so frankly. People are more comfortable exchanging ritualistic pleasantries and scrupulously avoid anything that might cause discomfort or shock.''

Presumably, after January's disastrous earthquake in Kobe, Miyamoto's job became critically important. Maybe his performance at that time earned him some respect with his bosses. For his sake, let's hope so because Miyamoto made himself intensely unpopular with the higher-ups (though popular with his peers).

``The bureaucracy is the biggest trade barrier to entry into Japanese markets, since the bureaucracy controls the entire market through a system of regulations and permits,'' he writes. ``If the markets were truly open, it would enrich the lives of consumers in both Japan and the West.

``But this would mean downsizing and restructuring, to which the bureaucrats would never agree. Therefore, do not expect any meaningful deregulation in the future.''

Japanese people are asked to adhere to a philosophy of messhi hoko or self-sacrifice for the sake of the group.

The Japanese are educated so that even if they are frustrated or unhappy they will resign themselves to the situation. This education is very important since, if people do not complain, it is easier to propagate the philosophy of messhi hoko.

It's a concept that Americans probably would do well to embrace a little more often, but it's a concept that seems to have gone seriously awry in Japan.

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