Reiwa – Bright New Beginning or Small Step Forward, in Kaizen Style
Spring 2019 came brought with it a new Era in Japan, Reiwa (“beautiful harmony” – the name was inspired from the ancient Japanese collection of poems “Manyoshu”). For the first time in recent history, a Japanese Emperor abdicated.
The new Emperor, Naruhito, is a symbol of things that are supposed to be changed in the Japanese society in the years to come. He is a graduate of one of the most prestigious universities in the world, University of Oxford, he speaks fluent English and during his first official meeting with a foreign Head of State, President Trump, he did not use the services of the officially designated interpreter. But, despite the modern attitude, the whole world was able to enjoy the official ceremony of crowning on May 1st, which reminded us of the period when Manyoshu was written, the Heian period.
So how is Japan now, at the beginning of Reiwa Era, and what are the main changes that transformed the society in the last 30 years of Heisei Era? What are the challenges that Japan is facing in this extremely volatile global environment?
An aging and shrinking population, economic stagnation and also being displaced the second position as the most powerful economy in the world in favor of China, are some of the main challenges. But it was just a few years ago that Japan experienced a similar wave of enthusiasm when Prime Minister Abe came back to power. His strong will, “three arrows” strategy and global player attitude have secured for him the second longest tenure as Prime Minister in Japan’s post-war period, third overall. He remains one of the few leaders of developed countries that kept his popularity in his own country. Despite his moderate success, Japan still has to overcome all of the obstacles mentioned before. Of course, some unprecedented measures were taken to promote a relative opening of Japanese society. It is much easier to get a job now as a foreigner in Japan, companies started recruiting specialists directly from outside the country, the number of international students rapidly increased and the universities benefit from governmental support to become more international. More and more study programs are available in English, although the universities offerings are quite limited, and the number of tourists has reached new records, especially coming from China. Therefore, the overall feeling is that the need for a more open society is acknowledged and accepted, but this may be a little misleading. Naomi Osaka’s case of being accepted as a Japanese famous worldwide athlete is relevant. Yes, she is famous, number one in the world, but maybe not so Japanese. So, the big questions remain: can Japan accept foreigners to become part of the future of their country? Will the newcomers accept the strict rules of the Japanese society and its depths?
I personally think that this is a challenge maybe just as difficult to overcome as economic stagnation or climate change.
It is not only the foreigners who are representing a threat to Japan’s traditional values, but also the young generation, which aims to emulate Western society. The struggle of the animation industry can be a very good example. New talents, young talents that are very creative, ready to sacrifice everything and that are very good at hand drawing are more and more difficult to find these days. The young generation is looking for a more flexible working schedule, women are now competing for the top management positions and prefer more to have a career than a family, expected high revenue is difficult to accommodate with high efficiency and so on. Things that were generally accepted as rules for working ethics are now finally in public debate and, despite the opposition from the political leaders, the need for a change is visible (staying out late for nomikai, female employees wearing standardized clothes and high heels).
There are two things I want to mention instead of a conclusion. The first one is that one of the most popular sayings in Japan is that if you fall down seven times, you stand up eight. So no matter how difficult to overcome a situation might be, there is always a solution.
Also as an old friend is saying, Japan is like a cake, the toping is changing but inside you will always find Japan.
(Photo source: Wikimedia Commons.)