Five Facts about Japanese Politics and Economics to Fill Awkward Silent Moments Spent in Company of Japan-Ignorant People

Today’s topic is, well, like the title tells you. Just five facts I think worth mentioning. I often start monologues on random Japanese topics, or add the suitable amount of information about Japan during small talk conversations with my friends. They are used to it. And most people even ask about it when they find out what kind of special/weird/extraordinary thing I’m studying. If you sympathize with my quirky behaviour, or you took the trouble to read this far and don’t want to give up now, here we go:

Fact number 1

The Emperor of Japan is the only monarch left in the world who is still called Emperor. Moreover, current Emperor Akihito is a descendent of Japan’s first Emperor Jinmu (660 BC). Akihito is the 125th Emperor. I mean, it all stayed in the same family! China for example, had several dynasties, which means that there were different ruling families. It is amazing the Japanese succeeded in maintaining the position of the Emperor for around 25 centuries (although that was no plain sailing). Controversy about the function of the Emperor reached a peak at the end of World War II, when Hirohito declared himself to be a human being and not an incarnate God. In the Kojiki 古事記 and Nihonshoki 日本書紀, Japan’s two oldest writings, is described how the Imperial family descended from Amaterasu, the Sun Goddess.

First Emperor Jinmu and current Emperor Akihito

First Emperor Jinmu and current Emperor Akihito

Fact number 2

The Constitution of Japan (1947) was originally written in English, and afterwards translated into Japanese. That’s because it was written by American people during the occupation. MacArthur’s SCAP team managed to fabricate the most fundamental law in less than a week. Special thanks go to Beate Sirota Gordon, who made gender equality legal. Today, it’s still the same Constitution. Especially article 9 is a “popular” topic for discussion. Additional fact: Japan has no army, but “Self-Defense Forces”.

Constitution_of_Japan_original_copyFact number 3

Japanese prime ministers are not boring. We think immediately of “Lion Heart” Koizumi Junichirō (aka the Japanese Richard Gere). But who I want to introduce is Asō Tarō, prime minister from 2008 to 2009. He profiled himself as a passionate manga fan (which gave him the nickname Rozen Asō, from the manga Rozen Maiden)  and wanted to use Japanese pop culture to improve international relationships. He received a lot of criticism because he mispronounced or read kanji incorrectly during his speeches. As result, he gained another nickname (how studying Japanese politics can be a lot of fun!): KY Asō. Here is some explanation needed. KY is the abbreviation of Kūki Yomenai 空気読めない or “someone who can’t read te air”, meaning someone who cannot understand the situation. In Asō’s case, KY stands for Kanji Yomenai 漢字読めない, or someone who can’t read kanji (Chinese characters). So dearest reader, if you do have some issues studying kanji, don’t worry, at least you can make it as a prime minister. Extra fact: Aso has made a comeback this year as Minister of Finance in Abe’s cabinet. As no reading mistakes are reported this far, I assume furigana (the pronunciation in phonetic writing system next to the kanji) was successfully added.

Barack_Obama_&_Taro_Aso_in_the_Oval_Office_2-24-09Fact number 4

– And I tell you this because of the huge difference with Belgium, it’s more like taking some extra day off here – to go on strike in Japan is not really to go on strike. May following quote makes it all clear to you.

”In Japan,” he said, ”we have what I suppose you Americans would call ‘job inactions.’ When we strike, we put on armbands to show we are unhappy and we go into the plant and work twice as hard as usual to prove to the bosses how valuable we are.” – New York Times 

Why? Because labor unions are integrated in the company. Apart from the wages, they do not have many things to protect, because the Japanese company structure is famous for its “lifetime employment”. Nevertheless, every spring there’s a kind of traditional labor union festival held, oh wait no, it’s a strike! Shuntō 春闘, the Spring Offensive for a higher wage originated in the 1940 and  concerned negotiations  between the enterprise unions and employers. However, it lost most of its initial meaning and has become more or less a tradition.

Fact number 5

In 1980, the land price of Japan used to be around 1600 trillion yen or 4 times that of the USA  (and Japan fit 25 times in the USA). Especially Tokyo was a little bit expensive. In the late ’80, only the inside area of the Japan Railway Yamanote Line in Tokyo was worth 400 trillion, what made up for… the whole area of USA. Sony bought Columbia Pictures of Hollywood, Mitsubishi owned the Rockefeller Center for 80 percent and the Japanese Royal Palace was as much worth as California. Needless to say the American felt slightly intimidated. Why the high prices? Until 1990, Japan had created a bubble economy. That means that real estate stock prices skyrocketed due to speculation.

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6 thoughts on “Five Facts about Japanese Politics and Economics to Fill Awkward Silent Moments Spent in Company of Japan-Ignorant People

  1. Haha, the next time there’s an awkward silence in the train or bus I’ll randomnly spill these facts :p Thanks for sharing, you made me laugh and really refreshed my memory 😉

  2. Very interesting! I also like to hassle my friends with monologues about Japan 🙂 Thanks for providing some extra topics!

    I remember trying to explain to my Japanese calligraphy teacher what a strike was. She just couldn’t imagine it. She said, “what, so they just stop working???”, and when I confirmed it, she exclaimed the typically Japanese “エエ。。”

    • Glad I’m not alone 😀
      Thank you for sharing your personal experience! In fact, I was not very sure if the Japanese conception of strikes was still the same nowadays, but apparently is has not changed that much. Imagine trying to explain Ford Genk or NMBS strikes to Japanese people…

      • Of course my teacher is a lady of a certain generation. I’m not sure if this still implies to younger generations. The discussion we had about a strike was due to the excessive number of train strikes in Belgium in 2012. I think especially the suspension of train services, on which so many people depend, was unimageinable to her.

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