Sunday, August 30, 2009

Japan In Numbers

Japan loves counting things. The precise length of the noodles in rival brands of instant ramen; the average skirt lengths of high-school girls from the north or south; the number of words for “obsessive” — Japan doesn’t wonder, it tallies.

So when general elections come around, and official campaigning for the August 30 vote began yesterday, the armchair Japanologist is immediately squashed by statistics. You want a snapshot, but end up with the whole album. Each data point seems so exact and so significant: the fertility rate, the suicide rate, number of patents filed annually, the number of people over 65, the unemployment rate, the rate of GDP growth and a thousand more beautifully calibrated gauges.

The world’s second-richest nation is on the brink of its most spectacular political upheaval in 54 years but the excitement is lost in a sludge of numeracy. But the reality — the unspeakable truth that would bring down the Japanese statistics industry — is that the whole picture can be painted in just six numbers.

21,066 is the number of companies still operating in Japan founded more than a century ago. This tells you more or less all you need to know about Japanese corporate culture, management style and appetite for change. It tells you what the Japanese think about longevity and why they are less worried about being the fastest ageing society on Earth than everyone else is on their behalf.

When Western companies talk glibly of their “corporate DNA”, it is a management consultant’s metaphor. When Japanese do it, they are talking about actual chromosomes. Broken down further, the figure is even more astounding — it includes an Osaka-based construction company founded when London was still run by the Middle Saxons, and seven others established a century before the invention of the quill pen. Hundreds of the companies were doing business before the United States was founded. There is a reason Japan doesn’t like listening to patronising “how-to” lectures on capitalism and corporate governance, and it opened its doors to customers in AD578.

1 is the number of gifted civil engineering students who died this week in an Osaka river while testing a concrete canoe. Japanese technology has lost some of its lustre over the years, but never let it be said that its best and brightest have lost that mischievous spark of brilliance that makes them such formidable inventors.

49 is the age of Yo Onaga, arrested last week on the sun-kissed southern island of Okinawa after beating his 76-year old mother to death. He turned himself in and explained that he “just snapped” after she hid the TV remote control. It is the sort of vileness that feels almost comically out of place in Japan, where street crime is so low, people are polite and lost property offices receive a constant stream of valuables returned unransacked from train seats and cafĂ© tables. These are not illusions, but they conceal a simmering anger that any new government will soon have to address. It is a fury that finds its expression in domestic violence, school bullying and a range of social pathologies that Japan is extremely reluctant to diagnose, let alone cure.

15 is the number of police officers of the Hachioji constabulary that it took to issue me with a 20,000 yen speeding fine at the weekend. Four manned the radar trap, two strolled into traffic and waved me to the side of the road. Another two guided me to a coned-off area where I was to park while four women officers processed my driving licence and two hefty bruisers glared menacingly from their Toyota Black Maria. At the end, a senior officer thanked me for my patience and warned me not to do it again. Yukio Hatoyama, the leader of the opposition Democratic Party of Japan has declared the civil service bloated and vowed to fight waste. I’ve no idea what he means.

1,200 is the number of new cars that, on average, hit the roads of Beijing every day — if only to sit for hours in their maiden traffic jam. The number is inspiring, terrifying and thick with messages about the vigour and ambition of the next great Asian economy. Don’t think for a moment Japan hasn’t picked up on all that.

24 is the number of times that a cotton shibori flannel — the sort that is soaked in water, heated up, sealed in plastic and offered to restaurant diners before they start eating — can be machine-washed before it dies in a heap of tatters and lint. It is a figure that defines both the meticulousness of Japan’s service industry and the consumers it serves. Diners want clean hands, but rather than simply showing them to the sink, Japan contrives a fabulously finicky, enormously wasteful system to make it minutely more convenient.

It is a retail and design attitude that has evolved over decades and is tilted in favour of the customer rather than the purveyor. It is certainly expensive, probably barmy and horribly vulnerable as Japan’s economy declines. When 24 washes seem like economic folly and the shibori goes, sensibility will have finally lost its glorious Japanese war with sense.

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