Tokyo Damage Report

Japan book review 8 : STRAITJACKET SOCIETY by Masao Miyamoto, M.D.


 I was told that this is a famous book from the ‘90s about a government whistle-blower who dares to stand up to his crooked colleagues in the bureaucracy. He dares to argue and have his own opinions.

Naturally, I was expecting that he would blow the whistle about policy issues, like so:

“Sir, these statistics show an alarming rate of increase in tuberculosis among Yokohama children. I have developed a detailed 15 point plan to prevent the epidemic.”


“No way, Miyamoto! Mr. Tanaka is in charge of that area, and implementing your plan would make him lose face!”


“But sir, Mr. Tanaka is notorious for taking bribes from the placebo industry!”


And so on.


But in fact, Mr. Miyamoto’s complaints are entirely 100% about the Japan Inc. lifestyle, not policy. You know, the whole, “The salaryman has to spend 12 hours a day at work even if he’s got nothing to do, he has to go drinking with colleagues, and he never can spend time with his family” thing.There's almost no mention of or concern for the actual sick Japanese people whose fate is affected by these bureaucrats.


Since all foreigners agree with this  "WTF salaryman?" complaint anyway, why should you bother to read it?


Well, let me put it like this: haven’t you ever wondered what would happen if a single Japanese guy stood up and said, “You know what? Fuck this. I’m going home at 5PM. Smell you jerks later”?


Miyamoto is that man, in real life.


And his lengthy transcripts of arguments he had with his bosses are priceless! Listening to these bitter old men try to justify the traditions.


Also, even better: Miyamoto works for the Health Ministry . . . because he’s a psychologist! So he spends the book psycho-analyzing his colleagues. (spoiler alert: they’re not well).




Dude is rad. He sneaks out of “voluntary overtime” meetings to meet his girlfriend. He insists on vacation time that is garuanteed in theory, but no one ever takes. He straight-up refuses to go on “voluntary” drinking parties unless he’s paid. He burns old documents which contain outmoded protocols, forcing his colleagues to make up new protocols. He dares to travel overseas for work-related conferences with foreigners. He ‘punches in’ to the ‘voluntary’ Sunday workdays, but spends the day running errands and having coffee at restaruants, returning in the evening to punch out. He refuses to ‘voluntarily’ help his seniors move when they change apartments. And, worst of all, he writes newspaper articles detailing his fellow bureaucrats’ drunken antics on the taxpayers’ dollar: the naked salaryman dancing and air-guitaring, the porno video parties, the kind of prejudiced talk that never makes it into official statements: “Hah? You’re getting married to a gaijin? That’s not good – your kids will be mixed blood. They’ll never be bureaucrats. . . they’ll have to settle for going into show-buisness!”


Also he describes the hazing and bullying that even adults do on the job in Japan. Not just of him- the office freak, but of all new recruits.



Good points :


Miyamoto doesn’t like abstract arguments, instead he gives lots of  down-to-earth examples!


Bad points:


The welfare of the sick people of Japan doesn’t ever enter into it. Weird.


Assumes readers understand intricacies of the parliament and budget-appropriations processes.


He’s got this idea that “Japan is so successful that pretty soon other countries will have to adopt the Japanese 14-hour-workday model, which is unfair to other countries.” That didn’t happen.


Related: at several points he insists that the long workdays, are the reason for Japan’s success – EVEN THOUGH HE ACKNOWLEDGES THAT PEOPLE AREN’T ACCOMPLISHING STUFF for most of their 12 /14 hour days. Huh? If you were talking about China’s 12 hour sweatshop days, I could understand, but. . .

Maybe Miyamoto is trying to hint that the long hours BY THEMSELVES, regardless of how you spend them, build group solidarity and teamwork, and it’s that teamwork which makes Japan successful. But he never articulates that properly, and besides, the question then becomes, exactly how does “teamwork” increase productivity if people aren’t working?!?


Let me start by quoting from the foreword by Juzo Itami, the movie director who was later killed by the mob. Turns out that for a film director, Juzo is a really smart person. He tells the history of Japan’s bureaucracy:



(after the Meiji Restoration), Japan’s ultimate goal was economic and military equality with the great powers. To achieve this national goal in the shortest amount of time, an elite group of proto-bureaucrats – mostly former samurai who came to dominate the government – gook it upon themselves to force a then relatively ignorant citizenry in the desired direction. All human, natural, and other resources were mobilized to realize the grand national design envisioned by these bureaucrats.



In this rush for parity with the great powers, the bureaucrats accumulated tremendous power. Their control was accepted by the people, who, having just emerged from feudalism, had no experience with anything other than hierarchical rule. In short, the new bureaucrats replaced the daimyo fief-holders and samurai retainers, who, as their role of warrior declined, had come to exercise most local administrative duties at the apex of political power.


From the start, the Japanese bureaucracy was based on the premise that the citizenry was ignorant and needed leaders, and since parlimentarians were chosen by an ignorant electorate they too were ignorant. Under this assumption, the bureaucrats felt it was natural and proper that they become the de facto leaders. Today, in 1994, these assumptions remain unchanged.


Under this arrangement, Japan almost became a great power itself before losing everything in the disaster of World War II. During those cataclysmic times, the bureaucrats invaded every convceivable area of people’s lives, justifying their actions as wartime necessities. The powers nominally vested in the Diet and in political parties evaporated, as the “Emperor’s bureaucrats” assumed virtually dictatorial control.


From the ashes of defeat, Japan was remodeled, more or less, into an American-style democracy at the fiat of the United States. A new constitution was written by the Americans, providing for a separation of power among the executive, legislative, and judicial branches of government. The constitution also granted far more autonomy to local jurisdictions.


In the American-written constitution, the popularly elected Diet was to be the sole repository of legislative power. Naturally, this blueprint of power presented the ultimate crisis for the bureaucrats; the new constitution was about to effectively deprive them of their control of the reins of the Japanese legislative process.


To circumvent the intent, if not the letter, of the constitution – which explicitly forbids bureaucrats from taking part in the legislaive process- the bureaucrats sneaked through a clause in the Cabinet Act that allowed them to propose bills. They then added a similar clause to the Diet Act , permitting them to join Diet deliberations of their own proposals as formal members of the various committees.


Almost by default, elected representatives – few of whom had any specialized expertise in the legislative process itself – left the actual drafting of bills to the bureaucrats. Diet debate became a mere formality. Cabinet ministers and Diet members literally read to each other from scripts authored by the same bureaucrats. In the end, the bureaucracy reemerged as the dominant force behind Japan’s legislative process.


Local autonomy suffered as similar fate. The bureaucrats needed powerful centralized control to realize their aims. And american-style division of states, each with its own independent legislative, executive, and other institutions like a local militia, police, and courts, was their worst nightmare.



Acting counter to American occupation policy, the bureaucrats first manipulated to bring governors under the central government’s control. Officially, governors were still elected locally, as spelled out by the Americans, but since their jobs had both local and naitonal implications, the bureaucrats made a case that “uncooperative governors” could hinder national efforts. Once this claim was accepted, the central government gained the power to issue directives to locally elected governors and press for their implimentation. Power was also given, in extremis, to dismiss local governors. As a result, local governors became the minions of the national bureaucrats.


According to the original American design, local governments were to be granted the power to enact their own laws and ordinances. To jump this troublesome hurdle, the bureaucrats added a convenient provision; by appending the words “… unless otherwise stipulated by national law or government directives based thereupon,” they effectively gutted the clause. It was left to the national government to decide what might be “otherwise stipulated.”


Under occupation guidelines, local governments were to take the first share of all tax revenues, leaving the surplus fo the central government. The bureaucrats cunningly negated this policy by saying that such critical national undertakings as foreign affairs, defense, and nationwide infrastructure projects should receive priority funding. The Americans accepted this argument, and the bureaucrats emerged triumphant once again.. It was left to them to decide what tax-funded undertakings would be “national” in scope. Under the  subsequent interpretations, even the development of local rail facilities and their evnvirons became a national project since they could be considered part of the nationwide urban development scheme.


By assuming virtually total control over (local) tax revenues, the central government began allocating funds for local undertakings, a power they have wielded condescendingly over the years. Today prefectural governors and city mayors spend most of their time in various bureaucratic offices begging for subsidies. In effect, local governments became nothing more than branch offices of the central bureaucracy.


The democratic separation of powers and decentralization of authority guaranteed in Japan’s constitution exist today in name only. . . .Japanese bureaucrats were able to retain their traditional and primary role, first established in the Meiji era: to protect and foster industrial growth. The bureaucracy has always believed that state capitalism (that is, bureaucratically guided economic policies) was the most effective way for a developing country to catch up. Japan’s postwar economic miracle seems to have proven them right.


Japan is no longer “catching up.” It no longer models itself on what it once perceived as more advanced nations. Today, Japan must develop new. Globally competitive technologies, products, and services. Bureaucrats, however, are only good at harnessing the national vitality under a system of state capitalism or socialism. It is becoming more and more apparent that they are not capable of inspiring human or social creativity. In fact, they are most often counterproductive when dealing with matters of the spirit.


As preservers instead of creators, bureaucrats tend to provide assistance to lagging industries. This hampers natural competition and perpetuates uncompetitive, obsolete industries and business practices, and obstructs spontaneous a natural urge toward ever higher creativity and efficiency.


For the average Japanese person such as myself, the creates problem concerning the bureaucracy is that it has usurped so much legislative power. Unlike politicians, bureaucrats cannot be voted out of office. We may be unhappy, but we have no way of registering our dissatisfaction. And it is also unrealistic to expect elected politicians to take the lead: they would have to depend on the bureaucracy itself to write the reform legislation!


All of this notwithstanding, we cannot abandon hope. Fortunately there are a handful of conscientious Japanese bureaucrats who are truly concerned about the current circumstances clouding Japan’s future. They are seriously trying to find ways to reform the system.




According to Miyamoto, the famous “no personal life” salaryman/bureaucrat lifestyle is based on the traditional saying Messhi hoko – or ‘self-sacrifice for the sake of the group.’ Not only that, but since bureaucrats (specifically the Ministry of Education) run the educational system, this philosophy is indoctrinated in Japan’s children, as well.


Further, “messhi hoko prevents people from becoming independent. What this means in terms of personality structure is that a person’s pride is fragile, and he can be easily injured (and is prone to envy, of which more later).


However, a greater problem with the inability to develop independence is the concomitant lack of impulse control. This is the main reason why Japanese cannot say no. What messhi hoko does is to arrest development at the stage of adolescence. One could say that the bureaucrats, in addition to controlling the economy and politics, also control the maturation of human development.


Another example of masochism at work: the hazing of new recruits. The “transformation of pain into pleasure” which is necessary to convince one’s superiors that one is truly dedicated to the organization. Guys with PhDs fetching tea and mopping floors. A great use of taxpayer money! Miyamoto points out that bullying in most societies is thought of as teenager-y, and adults who do it in an obvious manner are thought of as having some kind of arrested development. Only in Japan is it normal.




Another theme of the book is how central envy is to Japan. Not envy of material goods or giant ripped abs, but envy of people who have talent, because they stand out from the group. This creates inefficiency, as fast workers slow down and people with ideas for how to speed up procedures keep silent. The true meaning of DERU KUI WA UTAERU (‘the nail which sticks out gets hammered down’) turns out to be EVEN MORE SINISTER than we gaijin thought: the ‘sticky nail’ doesn’t usually mean a foreigner or a Japanese punk-rocker. The ‘sticky nail’ traditionally means a regular-looking Japanese, pursuing the same normal goals as his co-workers, but DOING IT BETTER. Jesus!


In a Socratic-method dialogue with an apocryphal foreigner, Miyamoto makes this point: “It’s extremely common for people with authority to have less ability than those working under them. Working for an incompetent boss is just something you have to put up with; people praise you quite openly for doing so. Besides, the personnel bureau arranges things so you can be reassigned to another post in two years, so that it’s bearable.”


“Why two years?” (the imaginary foreigner) asked.


“For one thing, the authority of the bureaucratic structure is awesome; to prevent individuals from abusing the power it confers, strict time limits are imposed on the posts they serve. Also, because the system offers no rewards for special ability, little attention is paid to the training of specialists. Jacks-of-all-trades who can handle a variety of assignments are valued more highly. For that purpose, a maximum of two years at any one post is about right.”


“So the generalist is preferred over the specialist.”


“By definition, a specialist is someone who knows more about his field than others!” (sticky nail foul).


What distinguishes Japan’s ‘totalitarianism’ is that there is no observable Big Brother figure (what Skya said in Japan’s Holy War). It is the structure itself that functions like Big Brother. This kind of (big brother in your head) structure makes it impossible to change the system.




The ‘demerit system’ : you’re not really praised if you take risks and succeed. You’re not praised if you try something new and solve problems. But your career suffers if you try something new and fail. Miyamoto calls this the ‘demerit system’ and likens it to a ratchet that only turns one way, 

“The ability of Japanese to produce high-quality goods derives in large part from this. There is a downside, however: fear of mistakes leads to a heavy emphasis on precedent,” which makes Japanese institutions unadaptable. Also, says Miyamoto, and frankly I don’t really understand the connection, this system promotes unaccountability.


Near as I can figure out, the idea is, “as long as everyone is doing it according to protocol, who cares about results.” And if those results cause a scandal in the public, who can we hold responsible? The bureaucrats were just following the orders of the boss, and the boss was just ensuring that the protocols were applied correctly. This is me guessing. Honestly I hear about this “institutionalized irresponsibility” and “Japan’s leaderless society” a lot but have yet to find a good explanation of what is up with that.


Anyway, Miyamoto goes on, for those at the top, punishment and accountability just means being promoted sideways: if Mr. X does something scandalous, the government will make a big show of firing Mr. X, only to quietly assign him a just-as-good job in another section after the furor has died down. No one thinks that Mr. X will continue to make poor decisions in his new post. The only issue is saving face.




Abstraction and ambiguity: NOT a case of “you foreigners just don’t understand” . . . while it’s certainly true foreigners don’t get it, it’s also true that abstraction and ambiguity are primarily used by Japanese to BULLSHIT OTHER JAPANESE BLIND.


“someone else had this to say: “You’re young so you write in a clear, concise, simple style. You’d better to learn to write like an adult.” When I asked him what he meant, he explained, “For example, choosing more abstract expressions; phrasing things so it’s impossible to say whether you’re writing what you yourself think , or general opinion.”


This echoes the theme of "Shutting out the sun", p.117

Ambiguity is considered a virtue: one editor at NHK, the government-owned network recounted how a superior chastised her: he handed back a script and instructed he, “Could you make the story less clear?”


Back to STRAITJACKET SOCIETY, another example:

He handed me a guideline – not an official ministry publication, of course, but an unofficial pony that circulated among bureaucrats. At the risk of earning the approbation of my colleagues for divulging its contents – like a magician giving away tricks of the trade- let me illustrate just some of it.


The word maemuki ni, which means “positively” or “constructively” is calculated to give listeners faint hope that something may possibly transpire in the distant future, although there are no immediate prospects. Eii, the word for “assiduous” or “energetic,” is used when prospects are poor, but you want to impress listeners with your efforts. The word jubun (fully, thoroughly) is useful when you want to stall for time, and tsutomeru, to endeavor, means that you take no responsibility. The expression hairyo suru, literally to give something your “careful consideration” actually means letting it stay indefinitely on your desk without ever taking any action. Similarly, kento suru (investigate, look into) means to kick something around but do nothing. Mimamoru (follow closely) means you will assign it to others and do nothing yourself. The expression okiki suru, or “respectfully listen”, likewise means you will only listen and do nothing. Finally, shincho ni, or “cautiously,” is used when things are virtually hopeless but you can’t come right out and say so.





Japan’s politicians don’t write laws. Bureaucrats write laws. The job of the politician is to get as many subsidies and grants for his home prefecture as possible, and thereby get elected. This sounds fucked but remember: the bureaucrats themselves gobbled up all the local taxes.


The process for making laws goes like this: a ministry writes a draft of a law. The politicians make a big show of sitting in front of cameras and asking the bureaucrats questions about the proposed law: (see, guys? I am SO working hard, even though I didn’t write the law!) and the bur bureaucrats answer them. This whole thing is a PR charade, however: the pols give the bureaucrats copies of their questions the night before, and the bureaucrats stay up all night working on answers. Sometimes, if the pol is lazy, he’ll actually ask the bureaucrat, “What’s a good question for me to ask you?”

This kabuki-like ritual is known as okyo-yomi, or “sutra chanting.”


Also: resolutions in the Diet are expected to pass unanimously. Picture the public outcry in YOUR country if that started happening in YOUR Congress.


The other main link between the ministries and the Diet (parliament) is the yearly passing of the BUDGET : which ministry will get more money? Which department’s budget will go up, and which down? This all depends on who can take the “social problems of the month” that the newspapers are up-in-arms about and say “that program I wanted anyway will solve this social problem.” This capitalizing on scandals is short-sighted, says Miyamoto, and prevents the government from having a coherent policy on anything. But the bureaucracy is dead-set against de-funding programs (even old ones that no longer serve any purpose). So the only way to get funding for new programs without losing face, is to blame it on outside pressure: “Dreadfully sorry, old chap, but the media pressure / foreign country pressure is forcing us to defund the “free 8-track players to baseball coaches” program.”


A more common-sensical stance towards government projects should include the disbandment of project teams after the project winds up. Plans for a new project would then begin. But that would imply criticism of the person who initiated that program. In a hierarchical society, drastically altering a policy initiated by your senior, even one that has been outmoded in the natural course of events, is considered unfitting behavior.



Anyway, the budget is passed at the end of the year – as a result the bureaucrats spend an entire week sleeping at the office. The whole office floor is covered with futons, and everyone eats onabe together, while working round-the-clock to put together proposals for funding of various projects, as their ministers meet in front of TV cameras, hammering out the details of who will get what money. And of course, these budget negotiations are another PR farce. The real deals have already been sealed in private way before that: “in reality budget revisions are based on the rank of the officials doing the applying, with the necessary funds set aside all along.”


The existence of this ritual is known to every bureaucrat in Tokyo, to the press, and of course to the politicians involved. The only ones who know nothing about it are the citizens.


11 comments Tags: ,

11 Comments so far

  1. Ryan Cecil July 23rd, 2011 5:28 am

    Very interesting! Hey, what books are you planning on reading and/or writing about in the future? I use these reviews as recommendations but it would be nice to be ready to comment when you published a post. :)

  2. andy July 23rd, 2011 6:44 am

    How come in the time it takes me to read one of your book reviews, you can read a whole another book and write a review for it too. So not fair!

  3. Ishihara July 23rd, 2011 6:53 am

    Yeah, I'd like an amazon list or something! :)

  4. admin July 23rd, 2011 2:03 pm


  5. Rune August 9th, 2011 3:24 pm

    I read this book recently (thank you public library) and can only support Schultz in his recommendation.
    Schultz: Erotic, Grotesque, Nonsense: The Mass Culture of Japanese Modern Times by Miriam Silverberg is also worth reading. I am also contemplating reading Queer Japanese: Gender and Sexual Identities through Linguistic Practices which I haven't come around to reading yet, but the premise is interesting.

  6. admin August 9th, 2011 10:25 pm

    @rune: thanks! actually i messed around and wrote a report based on Silverberg’s book as well. Let me know what you think of the queer japanese book if you decide to go that way.

  7. Rune August 10th, 2011 7:52 am

    @Schultz seems like I need to catch up on my reading then. This being the only of the book reports I have read as of yet. Though atm my time is spent trying to explain ignorant and naïve, but hard headed, aquaintances the reasons behind the London riots. My analysis in it's purest form being: A return to Thatcherite policies leads to a return to Thatcher era riots.

  8. Jay August 18th, 2011 10:11 pm

    Wow, I never knew that about Juzo Itami's death (and the attack before that).  Now I really want to see all of his films (I've only seen Tampopo).  Too bad some are rather hard to find.

  9. Sarah September 26th, 2011 9:26 pm

    The true meaning of DERU KUI WA UTAERU (‘the nail which sticks out gets hammered down’) turns out to be EVEN MORE SINISTER than we gaijin thought: the ‘sticky nail’ doesn’t usually mean a foreigner or a Japanese punk-rocker. The ‘sticky nail’ traditionally means a regular-looking Japanese, pursuing the same normal goals as his co-workers, but DOING IT BETTER.
    In New Zealand we have a similar thing called 'the tall poppy syndrome,' the observation that if someone excels at what they do (like a wild poppy growing taller than the main crop in the cornfield), other people will start trying to cut them down, pouncing on any mistake they make and muttering about 'Huh, I wouldn't want to be such a show-off,' as if their own mediocrity demonstrated their humility and lack of pretension. This is especially true if the person excels in academics or the arts, because the only traditionally accepted form of excellence is in sports (preferably rugby).
    There's a fundamental difference, though, I guess, because the Japanese saying comes from the attitude 'This is just the way it is, bub' while 'tall poppy' is usually cited as an example of what's wrong with our society and why high achievers tend to leave New Zealand.

    Well, no shit, they leave New Zealand in order to have access to vastly more opportunities and rewards than they could possibly have in a country of four million people that hasn't figured out what its economy is going to be based on if not sheep and cows. Even if they were more appreciated and less bitched about that would still be true. The weird corollary to tall poppy syndrome is that if you do something that impresses everyone overseas (climb Mount Everest, make Lord of the Rings) and return to/stay in New Zealand you will be a national treasure.
    On the other hand, Japan has such a big population and such a complex media empire that you can be a megastar within Japan without needing anyone overseas to have a clue who you are, so it's not surprising that aspect is different.

  10. Letterman September 28th, 2011 1:08 am

    @Schultz  Your comment "Honestly I hear about this “institutionalized irresponsibility” and “Japan’s leaderless society” a lot but have yet to find a good explanation of what is up with that.reminded me of the book The Enigma of Japanese Power: People and Politics in a Stateless Nation by Karel van Wolferen. It's very good, would love to see it reviewed by you as well.

  11. admin September 28th, 2011 4:24 am

    @letterman: thanks! actually I just finished reading it. . . there’s way too much good stuff in there for me to summarize all the good parts! And I think you’re right – the Wolferen book probably DID singlehandedly start the “leaderless society” meme, if not also the “institutionalized irresponsibility.” In fact, I’m now reading SECRETS OF THE TEMPLE, a book about the USA Federal Reserve bank, and I’m surprised at how, well, Japanese the Fed is (compared with all the other American bureaucracies). The Fed sounds like something straight out of Inside the Kaisha or ENIGMA OF JAPANESE POWER. Perhaps I’ll do a rant on that subject. . . . if my current rants turn out to be TOO ACCESSABLE AND INTERESTING TO NOOBS.

Leave a reply