July - 1987 - Tokyo Business Today

Anyone who drives the toll highways here will know the problem: The traffic is jammed. The unscrupulous try to steal a march on everyone else by moving into the empty half-lane on the kerbside. As they whizz through to the front of the jam, the honest drivers in the regular lanes end up having to wait much longer than they should.

In any Western society the answer would be obvious and immediate: You or I would edge our car into a position blocking the kerbside half-lane. Other drivers would back up our blocking efforts. The unscrupulous would be defeated. Right would prevail. Morality would be upheld. The highway would applaud.

But try doing the same in Japan. I can tell you from frightening experience just how hopeless your cause will be. In the first place it is almost certain that none of the other drivers will cooperate in your blocking efforts. You are left on your own. This makes it easy for the more thuglike of the inside-laners to try to retaliate. As they edge their cars dangerously close and try generally to intimidate, you find yourself even more isolated. No one, I repeat no one, will lift a finger or twitch a steering wheel to help you. If the thugs force an accident the chances are more than even the police will blame you for having provoked the trouble in the first place.

Why are the Japanese such cowards when it comes to confronting public trouble makers? The more instinctively based morality of the Japanese is superb when it comes to things like returning lost property or keeping ones environs tidy. But it breaks down in other areas. Garbage lines rural roads, molestors have a free run of the trains, bike gangs take over the night streets of Tokyo, gangsters run much of the society. The morality lacks universals and absolutes.

Recently we had the shocking story of an honest citizen beaten up badly on a railway station by thugs whom he had told to stop smoking. No one even tried to come to his aid. Some time after a Mainichi reporter wrote of the stark terror he felt when he tried to stop two abusive smokers in a non-smoking carriage. No one backed him up. He ended up fleeing the train.

True, every society has its instinctive taboos and complexes. We are all tribal for example in questions of so-called national honor. Even when our nation is clearly in the wrong we want to believe it is right. Those who take a moral stand are seen as pesky trouble-makers.

But in domestic morality we are usually more objective. We can easily put principles ahead of feelings; sometimes too easily. Meanwhile in Japan those who try to uphold principles are seen as pesky trouble-makers.

At the national level the blindness is close to total. The recent death of the alleged Teigin Bank poisoner, Sadamichi Hirasawa, revived the story of the notorious 731 unit which killed thousands of Chinese and Soviet prisoners in chemical and bacteriological experiments in Manchuria during the war years. The nation which was so determined to punish Hirasawa despite serious doubts about his guilt shows no interest in punishing the 731 unit murderers. Many hold high positions in Japanese society.

In the wake of the recent killing of an Asahi Shinbun reporter the so-called patriotic activities of the rightwing gangs here come once again into focus. The legitimacy of these people could he ended tomorrow if someone at the top of this nation / tribe had the courage to condemn their activities for what they are. But don't hold your breath waiting for this to happen.


Tokyo Business Today Article Index