Two Nations of 12 Year-Olds

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"Lord, I can’t wait to see their faces,
When I get the nerve to say:
Take this job and shove it,
I ain’t workin’ here no more."

~ Johnny Paycheck

Every year hundreds, perhaps thousands, of young Japanese vanish from the face of the earth. Even their own families and friends do not know where they go. It is a phenomenon common in today’s Japan. Usually, after a few years, they reappear with little word about where they had gone and why. Their families and former friends are left confused and hurt.

Where do these young people disappear? What could have possibly happened to them in the time — the years — they were gone? Had aliens transported them into some sort of time-space continuum where they were locked into limbo and had strange tests performed on them? Had they been kidnapped? I know, from an American point of view, these would be among the first questions that would pop into anyone’s mind.

But this is Japan, and for better or worse, this is the way things are. The mind-set of the typical Japanese — when compared to the mind-set of the typical American — in these types of cases, is a different as night and day.

First off, let me tell you about a recent case I know of where a young Japanese vanished: An acquaintance of mine, a 23 year-old guy named Hashimoto-San, has disappeared and, as of this writing, has now been missing for nearly two weeks. His friends all mentioned that they felt something was strange about Hashimoto-San the final time anyone saw him; they say he seemed, "distant". Now no one has seen nor heard from him since. In the 20+ years I have lived in this country, this is the third time that someone I knew had simply vanished into thin air.

The first time a Japanese that I knew had disappeared was about 12 years ago. He was a very good friend of mine named Sugaya-San. I thought we were best buddies. But one day, poof! He was gone. He disappeared completely off the face of the earth. His brothers, friends, and other family members called me and asked if I knew where he was. I was shocked. I still, to this day, do not know what happened to him — or if he ever reappeared.

The second person that I know who went missing was an assistant director at MTV — I cannot recall her name. One day she was there; the next day she was gone. No one, to my knowledge, ever heard from her again. And now, Hashimoto-San disappearing makes three.

The last time anyone saw Hashimoto-San was the morning of Saturday July 16th. He and some of his friends went out drinking all night and their little get-together ended at about 5:00 am. This type of all-night drinking is not all that uncommon in Japan. In fact, sometimes it is considered a part of work. Drinking with work associates is considered part of the job; it is sometimes necessary in this country in order to gain trust. That’s not to be judged as good or bad: That’s just the way it is.

But, in Hashimoto-San’s case, this was a bit odd; for he was scheduled to be at a studio for a live television broadcast by 9:00 am that same morning — but he was a no-show; no phone call; no nothing. The television production company that he works for became alarmed later that week when they sent a staff person to visit his apartment (where he lived with his girlfriend) and she said that she didn’t know where he was either. A police report has been filed and that’s where the situation stands today.

Does Hashimoto-San’s disappearance sound like foul play? In America it probably would, but not in today’s modern Japan. This type of thing seems to happen in Japan all the time. It has to do with a very old society and the hierarchy that companies in Japan still cling to.

Now here comes into play an extreme contradiction in Japan when it comes to the worker and his place of employment: When a Japanese enters a company, they are expected to be a part of a team — a part of a "family." They are expected to do their best to get along with everyone and make the best of the situation at hand. Younger Japanese people who join the broadcasting business are particularly expected to work inhuman hours in this absurd business. One young man I know, named Higashi-San, works more than 18 hours a day, 7 days a week; often sleeps on the floor of the office or studio, and hasn’t had a day off since April 14 (I asked him about this a few days ago). How do these guys do it? Good question. But it is all a part of the sacrifice that is expected and must be made if they are to continue in this work. And believe me, there are plenty of people who have a dream about working in the mass media and would take his place in a minute if given the chance.

By the way, a young Japanese guy like Higashi-San who works like a dog and gets no holidays or days off probably gets paid anywhere from $1000 to $1500 per month. Is this good or bad? Neither. No one forced him to take this job with its insane work hours and pay. If he wants to make it in the television business, these are the sacrifices he must make. All those who have gone before him did the same. That’s the way it is.

But this article is not about guys like Higashi-San who stick it out for their dream and do their best to make themselves and their families proud of them. It’s about the ones, for whatever reason, disappear. Since the younger Japanese are expected to become part of a family when they join a company — especially a smaller one — it becomes a question of disgrace and dishonor to quit that company. Until the time they decided to quit — regardless of whether or not their reasons for doing so were valid — they worked hand-in-hand with their co-workers and seniors. They built trust. To quit would mean to break that trust. Their co-workers might feel betrayed. Their boss, who was undoubtedly their benefactor, would definitely feel that the young worker had been disloyal. The person who has decided to quit may feel that they are unworthy of their friends, family, and company and so, instead of walking into their office and quitting, they will often do things the Japanese way and quietly disappear. They choose to vanish rather than face their friends and former coworkers in shame.

In this country, of course, the Japanese all understand what a young worker’s disappearance implies.

Now many people in America might say that this shows that the American way is better; that the way of the Japanese shows that the Japanese have no guts and are like children. I’m not too sure about that. Like I said, I don’t think that the American way and the Japanese way can be compared. But, granted, it may be better if the Japanese young people showed more guts when deciding to quit their jobs, but I wonder if this isn’t a more mature and adult way than the road some Americans choose when leaving their jobs and burning their bridges just as much, if not more, than the Japanese do.

Take the Johnny Paycheck lyrics above — Hasn’t this kind of thinking become a part of the modern American Dream? I think it has. I think that many Americans today would love to say this exact same thing to their boss tomorrow morning.

But think about this rationally: How could anyone possibly benefit from saying such things, or from making such a scene at work? Who could possibly be happy and satisfied saying the above words to their boss when they quit their job? The responsible mature adult? Or a fool that allows the ugly, egotistical inner-child out for everyone to see? Is the American way of doing things better? Or is the Japanese way better? I will let you decide.

I cannot judge fairly, for I can see the spoiled 12-year-old child in both.

Mike (in Tokyo) Rogers [send him mail] was born and raised in the USA and moved to Japan in 1984. He has the distinction of being fired from every FM radio station in Tokyo — one of them three times. His first book, Schizophrenic in Japan, is now on sale.

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