I spent a lot of time in Tokyo in the 80’s when I was in the Merger’s and Acquisition group at Merrill Lynch. The life of the Japanese Salaryman was always an endless source of fascination to me. When I would suggest to young Japanese that they could get out of the rat race, they would look at me with such sadness, saying in essence “there is no life here out side of a big corporation”.
And then Japan went through a period in the 90’s of zero growth. The assumption has always been that capitalism would collapse with zero growth. But that didn’t happen. But something strange did begin to happen, young people started acting as independant economic actors.
It was engineering prowess that lifted this nation from postwar defeat to economic superpower. But according to educators, executives and young Japanese themselves, the young here are behaving more like Americans: choosing better-paying fields like finance and medicine, or more purely creative careers, like the arts, rather than following their salaryman fathers into the unglamorous world of manufacturing.
The New York Times treats this story like the loss of engineering talent is some great crisis. I doubt it. I think the Japanese are collectively engaged in some sort of liberation process from the industrial machine which has dominated their lives since the end of World War II. You can see it in the Manga and the Anime. The Japanese have had a profound imaginative belief in “The Future”, in which magical productivity and brilliant robots would relieve mankind from the killing drudgery of life. But every year the subways got more crowded, the working hours got longer and the future never brought pleasure. So maybe some decided that the worship of growth and efficiency was a trap–an they have opted out.