How Japan's stress on teamwork has created a civilised society but a weak economy-and children who cannot win at musical chairsby Nicholas D Kristof / August 20, 1998 / Leave a comment
I never intended to scar these Japanese kids for life. I just wanted to give them a fun game to play. It was my son Gregory’s fifth birthday party last year, and he had invited all his Japanese friends from the Tokyo kindergarten which he attended. My wife and I explained the rules of musical chairs, and we started the music. It was not so awful for the Japanese boys. They managed to fight for seats, albeit a bit lamely. But the girls were at sea.
The first time I stopped the music, Gregory’s five-year-old girlfriend, Chitose-chan, was next to him, in front of a chair. But she stood politely and waited for him to be seated first. So Gregory scrambled into her seat, and Chitose-chan beamed proudly at her own good manners. Then I walked over and told her that she had just lost the game. She gazed up at me, her eyes full of shocked disbelief.
“You mean I lose because I’m polite?” Chitose-chan’s eyes asked. “You mean the point of the game is to be rude?”
I guess that is the point. American kids are taught to be winners, to seize their opportunities and maybe the next kid’s as well. Japanese children are taught to be team players, to obey rules, to be content to be a mosaic tile in some larger design. One can have an intelligent debate about which approach is better.
The Japanese emphasis on consideration and teamwork perhaps explains why Japan has few armed robbers but also so few entrepreneurs. The civility that still lingers in Japan is the most charming and delightful aspect of life here. Taxi drivers wear white gloves, take pride in the cleanliness of their vehicles, and sometimes give a discount if they mistakenly take a long route. When they are sick, Japanese wear surgical face masks so they will not infect others. The Japanese language has almost no curses, and one can go years here without hearing a voice raised in anger. The conundrum is that Japan is perhaps too civilised for the 1990s.
To revive its economy, mired in a seven-year slump, the country needs an infusion of economic ruthlessness, a dose of the law of the jungle. Japan desperately needs to restructure itself, which is to say that it needs to create losers-companies must lay off workers, mom-and-pop rice shops must be replaced by more…