The Boomers Take Over In Japan

Japan's generation gap doesn't get any clearer than this: At the sushi bar of his tiny Tokyo restaurant, Miyoji Odagiri, 64, vividly recalls the humiliating defeat by the U.S., which then saved him from starvation during the occupation. "I love America," says Odagiri, who trained to be a kamikaze pilot. "Just think how terrible it would be if Japan had won."

But a short distance away, at the Ministry of International Trade & Industry, 45-year-old Kazumasa Kusaka, an energy official who until recently directed MITI's division of international economic affairs, sees no need for such deference to a country that defeated Japan before he was born. Says Kusaka of his own generation: "We are more willing to accept conflict with the U.S. for the sake of better relations long term."

It may come as a surprise to Westerners, but there is no such thing as a Japan Inc. that speaks with one voice. Japan's postwar baby boomers--the dankai sedai of nearly 20 million men and women in their 40s--are emerging with a distinctive new message. True, government and big business are still dominated by men in their 50s, 60s, and even 70s. But they are ceding power to this new cohort of energetic men and women.

OLD VALUES. The Japanese born after the war are eager to clean up the murky politics, untangle the byzantine bureaucracy, and deregulate the economy. They helped Morihiro Hosokawa, 55, snatch the Prime Minister's chair from 74-year-old Kiichi Miyazawa and now are set on dragging Japan into a position of world leadership. "Generation is the largest single element in the changing Japanese structure," says Yukio Okamoto, a former senior Foreign Ministry official who is now a consultant.

This is not to say Japan is adopting wholesale the values prevalent in the West, as many scholars have argued it would--and as many Western policymakers earnestly wish. In fact, as more Japanese are educated abroad and learn to speak English, they are using their skills to articulate a Japanese perspective with which Westerners may disagree. Moreover, Japanese social structures remain firmly in place. According to sociologist Chie Nakane, the process of slow, cooperative decision-making she described in her seminal 1970 book, Japanese Society, still operates today.

What's really happening, these experts argue, is that this generation is absorbing fresh ideas and skills from the outside--without eroding their core Japanese character. "The trick is balancing Western ideas with Japanese values," says Hirotaka Takeuchi, a former Harvard business school professor now at Hitotsubashi University. That's a trick earlier generations managed to pull off during the Meiji Restoration of 1853, when the U.S. Navy pried Japan out of 250 years of isolation, and after World War II, when Japan submitted to U.S. occupation to rebuild.

FRIENDS OF BILL. Who are the Japanese now waiting to assume command? Despite a readiness to take on the U.S., many are so inspired by the vigor of America's own baby boomer leadership that they like to give their age in relation to President Clinton's birthday (Aug. 19, 1946). They may remember the chewing gum handed out by American GIs, but they recall nothing of the war. They challenged authority in the late '60s and were the first generation to study abroad. Today, their average household income is three times that of Japanese who were in their 40s a generation ago (chart).

In contrast to older Japanese, some of their most accomplished members are women. Compared with their elders, the dankai sedai are independent and opinionated and possess a high degree of self-confidence--even if they have been battered some in Japan's current economic slump. They are eager to test new ideas in business, and a small minority is even willing to speak out on such formerly ignored subjects as the environment. Tsutomu Shimizu, a 39-year-old lawyer, for example, is battling for the rights of people with AIDS. Speaking about the boomers, Yasushi Matsumoto, a sociologist at Nagoya University, says: "They are capable of leading Japan in new directions."

Some of this desire for change stems from a generational dissatisfaction with government. In a survey by the Prime Minister's office last year, almost 76% of Japanese aged 40 to 44 felt negatively about the government, vs. only 62% of Japanese over 60. This summer, the boomers' resentment fueled the political revolt against Miyazawa. It was the wakate--a group of Diet members in their 40s--who demanded that the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) ditch its back-room meeting of party stalwarts and let all members vote for the next party president.

While Hosokawa, the beneficiary of that upheaval, is older than the boomers, he counts among his confidants Yuriko Koike, 41, a former broadcaster who won her seat in the Diet as a member of the Japan New Party (JNP), and new Diet members Seishu Makino, 48, Koudou Kohata, 46, and Sakihito Ozawa, 39, who also chairs the JNP policy committee. Outside his coalition, within the old-line LDP, younger members such as Kenji Kosaka, 47, are pushing an agenda for more political reform and a larger role for Japan in global affairs. "Their day is not quite here, but postwar leaders are a force to be dealt with," says Japan scholar Robert M. Orr Jr., an adjunct professor at Temple University. "Generational change is on fast forward."

A big part of the change demanded will concern the way Japanese benefit from their affluence. The older generation was much more willing to live in tiny spaces and forgo consumption. But now, Hosokawa's boomer-dominated coalition wants to improve the quality of Japanese life. Some items on the agenda: cutting income taxes to give Japanese more to spend on themselves and introducing product-liability laws.

But Westerners shouldn't think this emerging pattern of change will make Japan a pushover in trade spats. While Japanese in their 40s still tend to admire the U.S., they see far less reason than their elders did to capitulate to Washington. The Japanese boomers involved in trade negotiations, for example, don't want to buy targeted numbers of U.S. goods. Japanese in their 30s are even less sympathetic. "This is not the America I learned to respect," says one disgusted 32-year-old bureaucrat with an Ivy League MBA.

RETHINKING RAISES. Such assertiveness could propel Japan into a new stance in diplomacy. The insistence of such boomer politicians as Kosaka sent Japanese volunteers into the U.N. Cambodia peacekeeping force last spring. Unlike the generation that vividly remembers World War II, boomers aren't inhibited about discussing a broader role for Japan. The 44-year-old television commentator Yoichi Masuzoe, for example, wants Japan to obtain a seat on the U.N. Security Council, but only after it changes its constitution to allow for international security activities.

Boomers are bringing a new perspective to corporations as well. For decades, Japan's elders kept their heads down and cranked out products, aiming for market share and confident of continuous expansion. But a growing number of Japanese believe that the old model can't last forever, and like sporting-goods executive Masato Mizuno (box), they are trying to breathe fresh ideas and vitality into Japanese companies.

At beverage company Suntory Ltd., for example, 47-year-old Executive Vice- President Nobutada Saji draws on his eight years studying and working in the U.S. to help his cousin, the president, run the company. Because profits are neither as predictable nor as copious as they once were, such companies as Suntory, Honda Motor, and Sanyo Electric are reevaluating Japan's seniority system. "We have to be less emotional and more logical--like in the U.S.," says Saji, who is setting up a system to determine promotions regardless of age.

Rethinking business may be relatively easy compared with the job of enlarging women's role in society. Not until well after the war did anyone seriously begin to question Japan's chauvinism. As a result, some 5% of women now in their 40s have university degrees--low by U.S. standards but impressive compared with the 0.9% of women in their 60s who have degrees. Some boomer women, such as 44-year-old Fujitsu Ltd. engineer Yasuyo Kikuta, have made their way up the corporate ladder.

Ironically, because of the demographic bulge, most college-educated women were squeezed out of the work force in their late 20s and 30s. As a result, "Japan's baby boomer women think radically but behave traditionally," says Mariko Sugahara, 46, the first woman bureaucrat to join the Prime Minister's office. Those boomer women who do succeed in the workplace have done little to win extra services, such as day care or maternity leave, from employers.

GLASS CEILING. Changing sexual stereotypes is such a daunting task that the likes of Kikuta and Sugahara mainly are role models for women in their 30s, such as Satsuki Katayama. A deputy director in the international finance bureau of that male bastion, the Finance Ministry, Katayama now works on development aid and was the first to break a glass ceiling for women by earning a two-year job rotation in a local tax office.

So far at least, the impact of women boomers has not been to soften dramatically Japan's competitive edge, as some Japan-watchers predicted. Overall, they've been obliged to work just as hard as their male colleagues and have often chosen to give up families so that they can concentrate on their work.

Women such as Fujitsu's Kikuta have actually helped spruce up their company's product line by coming up with innovative ideas. And in politics, Japanese women in their 40s are playing a key role in revitalizing the political system so that it focuses better on meeting people's needs. Besides Koike, newly elected women members of the Diet include Yuriko Takeyama, 46, of the JNP, and Makiko Tanaka, 49, of the LDP.

What male and female boomers share is the goal of a "new Japan." Shrugging off the inferiority complex that gripped their elders, the dankai sedai are laying the groundwork for a revitalized political system and a new posture in the world. They are lending fresh thinking and energy to corporate Japan and adjusting the balance between men and women. If they accomplish even a fraction of their agenda, the world will soon face a more sophisticated and self-assured Japan.

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