|Japan Reading: Confucius Lives Next Door|
Confucius Lives Next Door
by T.R. Reid
2000, 288 pages
The Asian/Japanese Social Miracle:
At the dawn of the new century, a fundamental shift in the allocation of global wealth, power and influence is imminent. The people of East Asia, after five hundred years of fiscal and political domination by the West, are determined to stand as equals of Europe and the United States in setting the course for the world. They are demanding respect and a place at the table. They feel they've earned both, because of two Asian "miracles" spun out over the past three decades. The first is the economic miracle, which has made East Asian countries among the most prosperous on Earth - but that's not the topic of this book. This book is about East Asia's social miracle - how the Asians have built modern industrial societies characterized by the safest streets, the best schools, and the most stable families in the world. It's about how they manage to maintain minimal rates of violent crime, property crime and drug use, along with egalitarian distribution of wealth and opportunity and a sense of civility and harmony that you can feel when you walk down the street in Tokyo, Taipei, Bangkok, Beijing, Seoul, Singapore, Kuala Lumpur, and other Asian cities. To find out how they've done it, our family travelled all over East Asia, and I spent a lot of time asking Asians to tell me their secret formula. The answer I got was that the Asians achived their social miracle primarily by holding to a set of ethical values - what they call Confucian values or Asian values or, sometimes, the Asian way. (p. 227-228)
Confucius Lives Next Door is a book by T.R. Reid, an American journalist who five years living in Japan with his family. He and was impressed by what he refers to as their social miracle, and this book attempts to understand the pleasant social conditions in Japan.
The "Confucius" of the title is a neighbor, Matsuda Tadao, who takes the time to educate our writer as he stumbles through Asian society. When Reid's son is playing the bass much too loud in a small house in a tightly packed neighborhood, Mr. Confucius neighbor comes knocking. After much polite formality, he says calmly, "Tokoro ga, I am terribly sorry, Reido-san, to intrude on your honorable family at a time when people as important as you must be extremely busy. It is an unconscionable impertinence on my part, but I felt it was perhaps best to tell you, honorable Reido-san, that the noise coming from upstairs in your house - well, of course, I know that my humble family too, must be unspeakably noisy and must be an extreme disturbance to your honorable family. But, Reido-san, that noise coming from your upstairs in your house - that noise is a meiwaku." (p68) meiwaku, which means an embarassment to a group of people. In this case, the loud rock and roll rumbling was disturbing people and reflecting poorly on one house, which gives the wrong impression of the neighborhood.
Reid seems to get much pleasure from these incongruous moments; contorted English and abundant respectful speech. When he encounters the woman on a bicycle who delivers his daily newspaper, she calls to him, in Japanese, "Good morning Honorable Customer! Thank you, thank you for reading our humble paper in the midst of your busy schedule. Now, please excuse my terrible rudeness, but I'm afraid I must move on to the next house." (p81) The book is teeming with these translations; Reid observes that "...just about every conversation in Japan is draped in a heavy blanket of obeisance and courtesy."(p81)
Another example of this comes as Reid explores the typical signage near his Tokyo home:
At Kinuta Park, in a residential neighborhood in southeast Tokyo, I was so struck by the sign at the park entrance that I pulled out a notebook and copied the full text. The sign didn't just come out and say, "No dogs. No alcohol. No dumping." Instead, it was a series of exhortations, with an explanation provided for each of its suggestions:
A complete program for park respect and community harmony presented in coaching phrases. It's a logical plea for courteous conduct; attractive after seeing so much blunt prohibition here in the states. Social impact is carefully weighed throughout. In this case, the individual is asked to understand their place within the social order, and act accordingly.
This social awareness also applies to labor practices. According to Reid, companies in Japan do not generally lay people off, except in the case of a crime. Once you are an employee, you are secure in for life (though by the time I read this book, permanent employment was definitely disappearing in Japan). Here in America, companies grow and shrink according to economic cycles. Both countries have unemployment insurance, but it works in wildly different ways. As Reid explains it, in America, the worker is cast off into the street, and must line up with paperwork to receive their benefits from the government. In Japan unemployment benefits are paid to the company, not the invidividual. Companies who can't afford their workers get unemployment money from the government to keep the employee on their payroll. The employee continues to work and be paid as a worker within the company, unaware that they are receiving public unemployment assistance. (p193) This system keeps thousands of workers attached to their work, their health insurance, their pension plan, as it prevents sudden quantities of unemployed people from straining the social fabric. A sake maker whose factories were offline for a year after an earthquake continued to pay its workers full wages; Reid asked why: "The earthquake was a big enough shock to our people. Of course we couldn't deliver another shock by laying off the workers." (p190)
When you hear a story like this it does stroke your heart. But we're left with American questions. Only large companies can likely sustain this sort of system; is the same conduct expected of smaller businesses? Perhaps an employee would rather know that their days are potentially numbered; with some warning they could look for a new job, make some other plans, perhaps seize another opportunity that they might have otherwise turned down. While Reid presents this eye-opening example of different customs, he doesn't dwell overlong to explore the manifold permutations.
Reid shares a great reverance for one particular result of this strong emphasis on social order: low crime rates. Often throughout Confucius Lives Next Door we witness his wonderment when he discovers that his family doesn't need to buy bike locks, they can send a 10 year old alone with another 10 year old friend on a long trip to Disneyland on the trains alone. In the first chapter, he quotes some crime statistic comparisons between the United States and Japan:
Much of his writing functions as a sort of export of ideas. He is a journalist, looking for a story. In this case, the story is that the streets are safe and people treat each other nicely. So how can we bring that back here? And should we? As he muses over the idea of a US national "you are now an adult day" as they have in Japan, I found myself agreeing that this could be a good experiment. Still it's hard to take up his quick suggestions when many other questions remain unanswered.
While Reid seems to be a firm believer in the Asian social miracle, we know he was not compelled enough by the social order to join it permanently. Perhaps due to the circumstances of his work he was due to leave after five years (by the time the book was published in 1999, he appeared to be working for the Washington Post as a British bureau chief, speaking about daily life in London). Still after his glowing recommendation of the living there, there's a point at which he doesn't share his own feelings. Could he have remained there? Would he have left his children in those schools, learning Confucian values? Is the lack of crime worth the other trade-offs? What are the trade-offs anyhow?
Perhaps Edward Said would see this text as fetishizing the bowing, wise Japanese. There's a limit to the amount of largely positive content one reads before the book begs a more serious or cynical voice to sustain believabilty. Maybe Reid is just an optimist, or a courteous guest; it's as though Reid is being respectful to his hosts in his writing. Throughout the book, many government officials and corporate officers are quoted talking about modern day Japan. He compiles their statements and his own observations into a portrait of a society managing itself beautifully.
Reid's stories of working to explore and integrate himself into the Tokyo he sees give the impression of someone genuinely curious and respectful of the Japanese social order. These are human moments, between people, gathered from across the globe: he's seen visiting his neighbor during the neighbor's wife's funeral, taking his kids to school and watching as they are each assigned their "first friend," renting $40 lawn chairs to sit on artificial indoor beach, attending a spirited NEC event, with singing, for thousands of new employees on the Japanese national new employee ceremony day. And he quotes liberally from the Asian folks around him. So this work does not seem entirely a projection of wisdom and harmony on a mysterious foreign peoples.
Any book that presents this broad a survey inspires some careful watching. Somewhere between the journalist and the academic there is the potential for dedicated nitpicking. For example, some might find fault with the idea that "Asia" has a core set of values. What is Asia, anyhow? Reid takes up this question himself, in a section of the book modelled after Japanese writing; he explains that in Japanese books it is not uncommon to have the author formally aknowledge the flaws in his or her thesis, in a postscript called the atogaki, or after-written.
This book is an eminently readable introduction to the world of foreign perception of living in Asia. There are critics, within and outside of Japan, that readily observe the faults and failures of the current social system; they are by and large not quoted here. There's an annotated bibliography in the back, mentioning books that delve with some detail into the same subjects he touched on. He explores Confucius in some detail, and by the end I was left wanting to read The Analects of Confucius. These first lines from that text appear frequently in this book:
Isn't it a pleasure when you can make practical use of the things you have studied? Isn't it a pleasure to have an old friend visit from afar? Isn't it the sure sign of a gentlemen, that he does not take offense when others fail to recognize his ability?
As he states the Social Miracle:
...the world's lowest rates of violent crime, theft, and drug use; strong, stable families with low rates of divorce, and virtually no single parents; public education that tests out as the best in the world; a broad sense of equality that gives almost everybody a stake in the society and thus helps assure, for the most part, safe and peaceful living conditions. ... [the social miracle] seems less susceptible to cyclical ups and downs. Even as the region has become modernized, industrialized, Westernized ... that fundamental social stability has not wavered. (p 14)
My questions after reading this book:
A) is he correct about the effective social order?
Confucius Lives Next Door links (July 2001)
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