JAPAN IS KNOWN throughout the world for its economic successes, yet Japanese society remains an enigma to many outside its borders. Those people who stress the nation's uniqueness, including many Japanese, often overlook the common human traits that make crosscultural communication possible and rewarding. Those who stress Japan's convergence with the West miss the deeper differences that have allowed Japan to chart its own path through the unknowns of the postindustrial period.
Geography and climate do not determine social organization or values, but they do set parameters for human action. Leaders of this island nation historically have exerted close political control over their people and have limited foreign influence to degrees not possible elsewhere. Mountainous terrain and wet-rice agriculture fostered--but did not ensure--attitudes of cooperation within the social unit and a sense of separateness from the outside.
Extending nearly 3,800 kilometers from northeast to southwest, Japan has a generally mild, temperate climate with a rich variety of local habitats. This expansiveness resulted in regional variations in culture and economic development historically, but these differences decreased in importance (or were relegated to tourist attractions) in the twentieth century. With 77 percent of the population living in urban areas and a large majority of farm families earning most of their income from nonfarm labor, regional and rural-urban differences in life-style are minimal. The large and stable national population, with low fertility and mortality rates, is aging rapidly.
Japanese society underwent great social changes after 1945. Families became smaller, women increasingly participated in paid labor, and urban life replaced the rural community as the common environment in which children were raised and human interaction took place. The changes brought new problems, such as industrial pollution, the entrance examination "hell," and social anomie. The government responded with new policies, and ordinary citizens utilized traditional customs to give meaning to the present. Japanese cities in the late twentieth century are convenient and safe. Surface prosperity masks an unequal distribution of wealth and discrimination against those perceived to be "different." Films, television, nightlife, and comic books (manga), sometimes garish and violent, offer an escape from the pressures of contemporary life. Categorization of social problems as medical syndromes tends to focus attention on personal-problem solving and away from societal-level causes, such as poverty, gender roles, or the lack of assistance in caring for ill elderly relatives.
The pace and rhythm of life in Japan should seem familiar to Westerners. Yet the Japanese approach them with a worldview eclectically derived from a variety of religious and secular traditions, emphasizing human relations. Many Japanese are willing to delay rewards, to put forth their best efforts for their teams, and to avoid open conflict. The outside world is an arena of intense competition. Family, neighborhood, and workplace represent ever-widening circles of social relations to which individuals adjust and through which they grow as human beings.
Japan, with the world's second largest gross national product (GNP) and seventh largest population, played an increasingly important part in world affairs. As the government embarked on a policy of internationalization, individual Japanese creatively combined elements from their own history with foreign influences and new inventions as they adapted to the postindustrial world.
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