by James Bailey
If America and Europe really want Japan to increase its imports, all they’ve got to do is create more holidays.
With the possible exception of Big Macs, nothing from the West has been welcomed here with more open arms, and fewer nontariff trade barriers, than those special occasions featuring a thin sliver of religiosity stuck between several thick slices of unfettered capitalism. Christmas, St. Valentine’s Day, Halloween—the Japanese have enthusiastically imported these and then, in a time-honored tradition familiar to anyone who’s listened to domestic versions of that musical genre known as “rock-and-roll,” twisted them beyond all recognition.
Mother’s Day and Father’s Day are imports from America, which strikes me as a very counter-intuitive development, like something called Brotherhood Day originating in Bosnia. To be sure, their bleating commercialism loudly announces their All-American bona fides. But when it comes to producing the living examples of the self-sacrifice and love that these days are intended to honor, Japan has what economist David Ricardo would recognize as comparative advantage over the U.S.
Take, for example, mothers. In his autobiography, newsman David Brinkley writes that “none of us could anticipate when Mama could or would let down enough, give enough of herself to show some small sign of kindness or generosity.” Playwright-politician-editor Clare Booth Luce, according to Sylvia Jukes Morris’s biography, Rage for Fame, admitted in old age that “Mother poisoned my life.” Playwright David Mamet’s mother, writes John Lahr in a profile in the Nov. 17, 1997, edition of the New Yorker, told her son, “I love you but I don’t like you.” Richard Nixon, according to Nathan Miller in Star-Spangled Men, “made it evident” later in life that “he wished (his mother) had shown him more open affection.”
Put them all together and they spell M-O-WHAT?
All this is not to say that America is bereft of maters and paters who deserve their carnation corsages and neckties. However, to invoke Ricardo’s doctrine of comparative advantage once again, a society which tells you that personal happiness is a right, as opposed to emphasis on fulfilling familial obligations, is going to be filled with a lot more resentful moms and dads who regard any act of self-denial as a “sacrifice” rather than a “duty.”
As the debate on what to do about Social Security heats up, we’ll undoubtedly be hearing more from American moms and pops about how the children they sacrificed so much for ought now to do a little belt-tightening of their own and give up those health club memberships we never had during the Depression.
But, look at how local moms and pops in Japan have reacted to the belt-tightening they’ve had to endure.
Health care for the elderly was made completely free in 1972. By 1984, the elderly were paying for 10 percent of their health care costs; by 1997, that percentage had doubled, without “any widespread public opposition,” according to The Associated Press. In 1985, future pension benefits were substantially cut and current contributions substantially hiked again “with scarcely a whimper from the public,” writes Sheldon Garon in Molding Japanese Minds.
In 1994, the age of eligibility at which one begins receiving pension benefits was raised from 60 to 65; currently, the percentage of over-65 Japanese males who are working is twice that of their American counterparts; the government is clearly determined to make sure that this country’s chief welfare provider for the elderly is not the government, but the family.
Given this situation, one is compelled to paraphrase Walter Mondale and ask: where’s the beefing? Where are the whimpering recriminations that would be never ending if a similar situation existed in the States? We’ve sacrificed for our children, the blue-tinted and bespectacled brigades would howl, and now they’ve joined forces with Washington to deny us a comfortable retirement. Oh, how sharper than a serpent’s tooth it is to have a thankless child.
Remarkably consistent throughout Japan’s history has been the desire of parents not to be burdens on their children. Generations ago, that meant willingly allowing yourself to be carted off to the mountains to starve to death so as not to take rice from the mouths of your offspring. Today, that means not growing resentful every time your retirement benefits are cut. To a degree that the carping AARPers would find unbearably onerous, Japanese mothers and fathers consider their obligations to their children to be virtually unending.
So, the local observance of Mother’s Day and Father’s Day is yet another example of the sneaky Japanese swiping American holidays without paying the U.S. a single cent in licensing fees. I, for one, would be willing to call it even-steven if they’d export some of their mothers and fathers to remind some of ours about the values that these days are intended to honor.