Japan’s paradoxical neighbourhoods - Page 2
From Griffith REVIEW Edition 18: In the Neighbourhood
© Copyright Griffith University & the author.
Written by Tony Barrell (dec.)
JAPANESE DOMESTIC RICE PRODUCTION IS MORE THAN sufficient to supply demand. Many farmers are encouraged by payments to stay on the land but not to grow rice; and because being Japanese is defined by eating Japanese rice, the home-grown varieties are protected by an import tariff – rice from California, Australia or Japan's Asian neighbours costs seven times the price of the nation's favourite strain, koshihikari. Bluefin tuna and whales may have to come from the Southern Ocean and chocolate from Belgium, but rice is only palatable if it comes from Niigata or Akita.
Those who proclaim the preferences for the authentic sacred grain don't always eat it. Rice consumption has halved since the 1960s. If you want to see an example of twenty-first century conspicuous consumption, just observe the better-heeled Japanese shopper fastidiously browsing the patisserie sections of Ginza department store food halls, as they select their basket of exquisite rolls, baguettes, croissants and friands. Nevertheless, the young Japanese I spoke to recently, in a straw poll of about ten twenty-somethings in Shibuya, the fast food gathering place of Tokyo's ‘West End', told me they didn't like burgers, wieners or French fries, but ate them because they were cheap, and they only went into chain store food outlets because they were places to meet and hang out for hours. Just as Akihabara is the niche neighbourhood for cheap electronic goods, Shibuya is the young person's meeting zone.
One young woman, urgently but unhappily devouring a bucket of hot chips, grimaced and declared ‘why would I eat this crap for any other reason than being poor?' Everyone I spoke to told me they preferred ‘traditional rice based dishes cooked at home', and agreed that Japan should not be forced to import foreign rice. Maybe they say that to all the foreigners, knowing what is expected of them: when talking to gaijin stick to the national imperative.
The same kind of attachment binds city people to their furusato, the ancestral village which many Japanese imagine is their true home. Even if they rarely visit, the furusato is the home of their departed relatives, whose spirits are real. It's more than a convenient abstraction. The main holiday season in Japan is in August – o-bon – when people return to their furusato, not just to visit living relatives but to share some time with the spirits of the dead. The climax of o-bon is a ceremony in which the ancestral spirits are persuaded to leave the furusato and return to the world of the dead. And it's not just the old and lonely who join in these rituals. The huge popularity in Japan, amongst the young, for scary ghost films is firmly based in the tradition of the unhappy, vengeful ghost who has not been treated well by the furusato in or after death.
In the late 1980s, the furusato was revived, nationalised and politicised as the foundation of a regional survival strategy by Prime Minister Takeshita Noburo. He was the inheritor of the powerful and notorious Tanaka faction, which held power from its formation in 1970 until the early 1980s when its leader, Tanaka Kakuei, was disgraced in the Lockheed scandal (the most notorious of many bribery cases whereby, in return for massive cash donations, the ruling LDP favoured purchase of aircraft from the US Lockheed company). Its legacy remains. During his reign Tanaka turned small-time pork-barrelling into nationwide structural corruption, or kinken seiji – money politics. He was supported by his home province of Niigata for more than five decades and showed his parliamentary colleagues how to keep power and rort the system with impunity. The Lockheed scandal was a step too far, but long after Lockheed, voters – especially rice farmers getting government handouts for local projects and subsidies – willingly gave their electoral (and financial) support to the Tanaka faction. Even now Japan's political bribes-for-favours system has yet to be comprehensively reformed.
In 1987, in a move which was both cynical and sentimental, Tanaka's protégé Takeshita tried to give some respectability to money politics by embedding it in the furusato. Instead of funnelling cash-for-votes, he tapped into national and regional anxiety about the depopulation of rural villages. He told the Diet he wanted to promote furusato ‘consciousness' as a way of creating not just material wealth but also ‘spiritual' or ‘true' affluence. As he liked to say: ‘This beautiful blue planet is the shared furusato of all humankind.' He also believed increased furusato consciousness could solve environmental problems.
While furusato spending – ¥100million (about $1 million at the time) to each home town – stimulated many local activities, including the growth of some organic farming practices, the cash was distributed without restraint, and local mayors had a big say in whether it went to building a new tennis court, or towards the commission of larger than life bronzes of LDP politicians. For a few years the name furusato itself became synonymous with flaky projects.
Only in Japan? Perhaps we aren't quite so far removed from the furusato philosophy as we'd like to think. The grandiose homey philosophy was missing from John Howard's ‘practical' gifts to marginal seats prior to the 2007 election, but the intention was the same – money for votes.