The ward office as a microcosm of Japan’s social, financial mores

Opinions - August 17th, 2001
Henry Scott Stokes

by Henry Scott Stokes 

I went into the Minato Ward office today. I had some small business to transact—getting one of those forms that says that the Japanese seal (or hanko) I own is mine. I guess that I could have been depressed about having to visit the ward office. I already owned a plastic card to show that the hanko is mine.

Instead, the visit to the office inspired a very different train of thought. This really is, as people say, the only functioning system of communism in the world. Big Brother is watching over you at every step through such mecha­nisms as those that surround the hanko. Anybody can have a chop made up at a shop. What counts is that the seal be authenticated. Very well; to do that, you’ve got to go to the ward office.

There, they have records, including tax records. They know a tremendous amount about you. Their files are all on computers these days. At a touch of a key, they can all see your or my tax payments over the last few years.

You don’t get to receive a form to say that the hanko in your hand is yours without a certain amount of palaver. I went through all of that, keeping my temper on a hot day. My form finally came into my hands. I was astounded. It is the most beauti­ful, immaculate, exquisite piece of paper—splendidly printed, if not actually embossed.

Right at the bottom on the right-hand side is the signature of the local ward chief, the kucho. When I say “signature” I mean, of course, his seal. Heavens, that seal consists of enough flourishes and curlicues to amaze the eye— yet that design also contains within it tremendous tautness and discipline, as a piece of design.

I had to wait a little while to receive my form, by the way.

“Sorry,” the shirt-sleeved chap I dealt with told me, “we will have to keep you waiting.” I waited, I think, for a grand total of about 20 minutes. I then received this sheet of paper—I had never asked for one before— that looks as if it entitles me to visit the innermost parts of the Ise Shrine. What have I done to deserve this, I ask myself? I am a correspondent. And still they laid this document on me.

The Kabuki, experts say, is a quintessential art form in Japan. Oh yes. But the grace, the artistry and the subtlety that goes into the routines of this society goes far beyond the Kabuki. This is a society where the formalities count.

While I waited in the ward office today, I observed the offi­cials going about their duties. Manners! Have you ever sat for 20 minutes and observed a group of Japanese office workers going through their routines? Everything is honed to the last degree. Movements of the body, of the hand are curtailed in such a way as to inflict the least possi­ble damage on a neighbor’s space. It is a ballet, so minutely choreographed, that the mere act of picking up a telephone requires the finest touches, as if the phone is a classical music instrument, and the person in question is on stage, about to play at a performance.

All of this without a conduc­tor, naturally. The way one behaves in Japanese society has been rigorously schooled into the citizens—on their mothers’ laps. People don’t need a guiding hand. They never miss a beat.

I note all of the above, hav­ing recently come through a drastic experience. I was working on a 200-page report. This required concentration. For a short period—not much above a week at the peak, but a lot longer than that all told—I was out of circulation. I saw people, but my mind was focused on the work at hand. I was in a pressure cham­ber, as a writer.

What the poet William Blake called “the doors of perception” open up, if you absent yourself from all the bustle of daily life, even for a short period. You see people as they are.

I could not believe what I saw in the ward office today. I had been there dozens of times before. How come I never noticed the people there before? I was preoccupied with myself, no doubt.

So here’s my thought for the day. Next time you read me or some other colleague on the burning topic of Japan today— the economy—pause and re-read a couple of lines for tone and for stance. Has the writer positioned himself or herself correctly? Some of what I have read in recent days on Japanese economic manage­ment struck me as a bit superior. Von oben herab, Germans say (“from above to below”). Preaching. I felt I was reading a bunch of 19th-century mission­aries.

Patrick Smith is one of my favorite people around the Foreign Correspondents Club. He recently visited, writing columns for Bloomberg. But Patrick, your piece the other day—I skip the details—struck me as flat-out preachy, not you. Gillian Tett is one of the most respected writers to cover Japanese finances in many a year. But Gillian, your piece in The Financial Times on the Bank of Japan—the BOJ for short—the other day was just a shade conde­scending.

Do not underestimate the Japanese. They know everything; they know the numbers down. They know the issues. If you are going to criticize people here— and there is lots to question— you’ve got to come straight out with it. This is what Peter Tasker, one of our Brit commentators in town, did the other day in a com­ment on the BOJ. The central bank, he said, got everything wrong for the last 15 years. It is giving independent central bank­ing a bad name, so he said.

That’s right. Tasker, I felt, when I read his words, was not preaching. He was giving it to ’em straight. That is the way to talk to Japanese people, to use candor, straight from the center of the body, as when delivering a blow in kendo. Never conde­scend. That will win no friends, it will persuade nobody. Step back, know who you are, know your place and then speak.

Give people a little space, I say, and even a ward office can come to life as a stage par excellence.

henryss@gol.com