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'Wa' on the Wane?

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'Wa' on the Wane?

by George Fields (Nov 26, 1989)

Will the statement, "The spirit of 'wa' comes from Japanese genes (idenshi)," become as often quoted as the one about Japanese intestines being longer than those of Westerners? It should. The latter, of course, was made in reference to animal protein – particularly American beef – being unsuited to the Japanese physique, with the implication that unlimited quantities of foreign beef should not be imported. The "wa" in the former was advanced as a reason for "dango" being as fundamentally Japanese as the serving of "mochi" (rice cakes) on the New Year.

"Dango" in the dictionary is given simply as "consultation" or "conference," but to the Americans who submitted bids on a construction job for the U.S. Naval base at Yokosuka, it was nothing of the kind. They saw it as price fixing through prior discussion by a cartel, a practice which is plainly illegal in their country. Their reaction was to threaten to sue for substantial damages – an act as natural in the U.S. as is the serving of mochi in Japan.

"Wa" is fast becoming as familiar a term as "shogun" and "yakuza." One recent best seller in Japan, "You Gotta Have Wa," by Robert Whiting, who authored a previous best seller, "The Chrysanthemum and the Bat," is purportedly about the collision of cultures on the baseball diamond; actually it tells you far more about Japanese business than many of the ponderous tomes of late.

To help the American buyer who is browsing in the bookstore, on the book's cover "wa" annotated as "from the Japanese, meaning team spirit, unity, the ball club always comes first." Translated into the language of commerce, it means "corporate spirit, unit, the ball club always comes first." Translated into the language of commerce, it means "corporate spirit, unity, the consumer always comes last." Author Whiting says, "If you ask the manager of a Japanese ball club what he considers the most important ingredient of a winning team, he would likely answer 'wa'. If you ask him how to knock a team's 'wa' awry, he would probably say, 'Hire an American.'"

Well, the Americans are doing just that in the Japanese market. The construction industry is only one of many that is being knocked awry. Large retail stores are obliged to achieve "wa" among various interested parties, so it takes years before a new store can be opened – not before "wa" is achieved. The consequences are just as costly for the buyer as in the construction industry, but Japanese consumers would never consider taking the matter to court. In fact, the spirit of "wa," in the form of numerous small neighborhood stores, in the past served to keep out the big intruder, i.e., the supermarket. Today, however, it is not the Japanese supermarket which is rocking the distribution boat on behalf of the Japanese consumer, but the American trade representative.

The nonreader of Japanese would not realize the pervasiveness of "wa" in the Japanese lexicon, would not realized that, in fact, it is Japan. "Wa" is recognizable enough as the second part of words like "heiwa" – peace – and "chowa" – harmony. Preceded by the character "dai", meaning large or great, it is not pronounced "daiwa", as would be expected, but "Yamato," the current name for Japan – the "place of great wa." "Yamato damashii" is the "Japanese spirit", but drop the Chinese character for "great" and the word is read "wakon," still meaning the same thing; it is, by definition, a characteristic only Japanese can possess.

The Japanese construction industry, threatened with court action, opted for "wakai" – a peaceful resolution – by just paying the American demands without a court battle; this despite the fact that they had already paid a fine to the Japanese Fair Trade Commission. That's right: They were willing to pay a double fine for this "inherent" characteristic. The damages demanded by the Americans seemed stiff at first – ¥5 billion – but in a typically Japanese solution, the figure is to be borne by all the companies that participated in the "dango"; it speaks for the profits made through "dango" that the levy is considered peanuts for the individual companies.

However, a schism in "wa" has developed. Some who did not directly benefit from this particular "dango" couldn't see why they should pay. The American view will be that all who participated in a cartel are equally guilty. It will be interesting if the minority objections are ultimately aired in public, but the more likely outcome is a "wago" – a peaceful concord. The last thing the industry wants is an open debate on the custom; after all, if the Americans can claim damages, there must be many, many more Japanese who can as well.

Corporations have gone along with the spirit of "wa" under the government's "administrative guidance." For example, steel and automakers gather to hear a Ministry of International Trade and Industry official give his prospective for the following year.

Each will carefully plan for plant expansion and production volume so that the MITI estimates miraculously turn out to be right on the nose.

Granted, the spirit of "wa" among the inhabitants of these isles has produced great benefits – Japan's crime rate is one of the lowest in the free world and considerations shown on day-to-day interpersonal dealings make like tolerable in a city as large and congested as Tokyo.

But the basic problem is the same whether it is a "dango" on construction or "administrative guidance" on steel or cars, or actions toward non-conforming minorities. It is all justified on what is good for the self-defined group. "Wa" is much more basic than the preservation of peace and harmony; it is about maintaining traditional community values executed through the incumbent infrastructure. The trouble is that there will almost inevitably be conflict with the interests of others outside the tight circle.

The most dramatic effect of Japanese economic pre-eminence is the perception by the outside world that Japan is disturbing external "wa" by their efforts to preserve their own, internally. "Dango," and "gyosei shido" – administrative guidance – and the Large Stores Act are not predetermined; they occur when community values are quickly eroded. As Japan shifts from a corporate to a consumer society, those values will seem more and more arcane.

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