Having a sense of homogeneity, the japanese really consider themselves uniformly middle class. And while that was outstandingly true for many years, Japanís economy is distorting, while not exactly deteriorating.
As corporations became the backbone of the economy and financial derivatives an open casino, Japan has suffered what other countries have experienced more sharply. With the notion of outsourcing, a slow but steady abandonment of the notion of lifetime jobs, the disparity on the distribution of the wealth has left the middle class with lower living standards, with the very unlucky ones suddenly sinking to deep poverty and even homelessness.
This scenario was lucidly presented in a film that we have already introduced: Tokyo Sonata. Still, these harsh times are within the confines of a first world nation. This suffering middle class is one that can still vacation overseas, afford gadgets and own cars.
For the purpose of this series, poverty provides the perfect conclusion to Nihonjinron, focused on society.
The notion of an homogenous middle class, a form of ishin-denshin(1), acts as the japanese version of the american dream, perfectly encapsulating the pillars of the nihonjinron theory. Poverty acts as its antithesis.
Being poor means standing out, dragging down the group. It is the norm to try to hide poverty as best as possible, pretending a middle class living(2), all in the name of haji (shame and embarrassment,) working, through appearances, to avoid it.
Being poor means missing on the wonders of the japanese education system: school clubs, cram schools and other extracurricular activities become a burden to the wallet. Most importantly, the highly competitive nature of said system ends up excluding the poor from high school, making college impossible, and ensuring a multigenerational cycle of unescapable impoverishment.
The family is the most crucial victim of poverty, not only dividing it, but condemning its new structures: Within single parent families, more than half live in poorness in Japan(3).
Ryo is a sixteen year old boy. His father dumped him and his mother long time ago. He lives alone, since his mother has been hospitalized for a deathly disease. Living from the meager salary his job at a convenience store provides, he sees his situation worsen as his boss stops tolerating his stealing of food.
Surviving from a reserve stash, Ryo ends up dropping out from school. After her mother dies, he is asked to pay the hospital fees, to pay for the funeral expenses, all of that while the rent for his miserable home is late and he is cut out from electricity and water.
Ryo, homeless and without family, becomes a symbol for Kobayashi Masahiro, director of the film, harshly questioning the so called group mentality that the nihonjinron dictates. Ryoís existence becomes hopeless and useless; a forgotten. Forsaken by the cold bureaucracy of a system that apathetically failed its citizen.
Based on a true story, one that made waves internationally, although admittedly, by the film itself, manipulated to fit the intention of its director, shows us how poverty arrives in different ways, and as just exposed, stays hidden in plain sight.
I, the author, as principle have avoided relating in the first person throughout all these essays. Here, an exception has to be made: if for some reason you can or will watch only one japanese film in your entire life, this is the one. With a running time of 141 minutes, encompassing months of events in a slow paced style, Nobody Knows is a true epic of the real life. It is a character study, a social commentary, a heartfelt tale, a universal story that showcases, not only Japan and its japaneseness, within a Tokyo of the 80ís where kids could safely walk at midnight without a single worry, but also the human condition were hope dies last, when love lasts forever and also where humans find the easiest to be inhuman.
A Conclusion To The First Half: On Japanese Society
As obvious as it might be, it has to be remarked the polar nature of films. Even with the transparent japanese style, that appeals to real life, day to day stories, it is always the outstanding ones that appeal to writers and directors, therefore it is mostly the extremes what we can see of Japan, if using cinema as the sole insight.
Masatoshi Tominaga in his dissertation on the nihonjinron argues that, ultimately, the concept of japaneseness is artificial and imagined, pointing out that its peculiarities are exaggerated, ignoring the similarities. He argues that such dismissal makes of the japaneseness a fabrication that, nevertheless, is willingly maintained.
On the other hand, Cool Japan, a talk-show/documentary series transmitted on NHK World, gathers a panel of japanese and expatriates to discuss every single bit that makes the japanese different from other societies. Taking subjects that have been explored in this series, and many other more subjects, the show, stages a discussion, dissecting the little details that are considered uniquely japanese and inquire the expatriate guests to react to the exposed peculiarities.
In its website(4), NHK explains that Cool Japan is a show designed to clearly expose all the japanese aspects to the world, that are generating more and more interest to the international community, leaded by fashion, anime, architecture and cuisine.
Therefore, for the second half of Nihonjinron, we will dig beyond sociological characteristics, as we focus now on Japanís art, entertainment industry and folklore: on japanese culture.