The multiple-ring circus

Opinions - April 5th, 2002
Robert J. Collins

by Robert J. Collins

The interesting thing about the three-ring circus whenever it came to town was that its had, well, three rings. (“Hey, look at that, Tommy. The trapeze guy just fell to his death. Cool.”)

Tommy missed it. He had been counting the clowns emerg­ing from the little car. And my other brother had been sharply focused on the bowel movements of elephants. (“Big ka-ka,” Jim reported, holding out his arms and describing a circle way over his head. “And ka-ka smokes,” he added. “That’s steam, you nit­wit,” corrected Tom and I gently.)

We all had fun anyway. Each of us had zeroed in on whatever interested us amongst all the col­or, noise and motion. The event was bigger in our senses than it probably was in reality, but isn’t that the point of a three-ring cir­cus? (The ka-ka was examined up close as we left. We told Jim that the obvious presence of straw in the end product was the result of elephants’ fondness for Shredded Wheat. Jim never ate the stuff again. Still doesn’t—worried no doubt about steaming straw in his own personal ka-ka.)

Observing Japan is not unlike going to a three-ring circus. There certainly is color, noise and motion. And the sense of what’s going on is probably bigger than the reality, but the question is: What is the reality?

Having been a businessman here for many years, my interests are up there on the high wires where the big companies and banks swing back and forth. Dur­ing the good years they could do nothing wrong.

“Watch this, Watanabe-san. I’m going to do a triple back-flip with my eyes closed. You’re my banker. Catch me.”

“I’ll catch you, Suzuki-san, with my hands in my pockets.”

And catch him he did. All the flips and spins worked out—the right people were in the right place with the right piles of capi­tal. It was all magical, and people wrote books about Japan, Inc., and how marvelous the business practices must be.

But then the triple back-flips didn’t always work, or if they worked, the catcher wasn’t quite in the right place.

“Sooorrrrrry, Suzuki-san.” (Thump.)

That ring of the circus has now become the Domain of Thumps—where the big guys go spinning off into space without a prayer of being caught. Not only that, the government can’t even provide the traditional safety net. There’s still a crowd around the ladder to the trapeze area, but many are climbing down.

What is the government doing? They’re the clowns getting out of cars and going off to meetings. My brother Tom would get a kick out of them. Hundreds of politicians squeezing along corri­dors past the rabid press into rooms with atrocious wall-paper and upholster)’. There they fight among themselves, set time-bombs for scandalous revela­tions, realign political factions, pick great amounts of nit, switch their clown masks around to confuse everyone and go out and climb into cars. (I really hope they appoint someone to hang around until the end to sweep the spotlight under the canvas. It was always so poignant. The Prime Minister perhaps?)

Now then, the end-product of all these meetings? Remember, there’s a lot of thumping going on in the next ring. Japan has big problems in the economic arena. And those problems will not go away with just new high-wires or fresh resin. There must be fundamental and structural changes.

Well, here’s where my broth­er Jim’s interests lie. “Big ka-ka,” he said that day, holding out his arms, etc. “And ka-ka smokes.” I feel bad about correcting him and saying it was steam, not smoke. Because whichever it is, the essence is the same. And that was all he was observing then, and it would be all he’d see today looking at possible solutions offered by our elected officials.

Yeah, Japan is a three-ring circus. And the people here don’t even eat Shredded Wheat for breakfast.