Chapter Five: Change among organizations and individuals

Grass-roots industry in the town of Sakaki: an alternative perspective of the Japanese post-war "miracle"

Copyright (C) 1992, 2004 by Christopher Romig Keener

Current trends spell significant future change

This chapter will look at where Sakaki might be going, based on the attitudes and behavior of individuals and organizations. The problem with doing a single stint of research on a field site, even if it lasts for several months (as in my own research), is that it is sometimes too easy to view the site in a purely synchronic sense, in other words, to paint only a contemporary, static portrait. I have attempted to give some historical depth to explain contemporary phenomenon. I hope that this also provides a basis for conjectures about the direction and trends by which Sakaki and its people are being buffeted, and indeed, are negotiating roles in a changing town and relationships with the outside.

Previous chapters have mentioned how I chose Sakaki following the excitement about it which had captivated Japanese scholars and bureaucrats. In that the recommendations to the site came from these people, my research is very much a product of that external interest in an emic-conceived "miracle." But much of the excitement of the mid-80s has been quieted by hard economic realities which may to some extent resemble the periods surrounding the oil shocks in the 70s and other hardships which Sakaki companies have successfully sustained, and indeed strengthened from. Perhaps the current dilemmas only take on a more ominous tone because the outcome has not yet been determined, and can not be read in scholarly books or reported to the inquisitor by some one who has already experienced it. But just as Sakaki industry grew up in great part due to national and international factors around the time of World War II, so now do equally powerful external forces seem to threaten to snuff it out. Being the mecca for national and regional bureaucrats, Sakaki elites like to think that their town might be the model for others to take inspiration from. But Sakaki's development did not take place because of any direct top-down government intervention. Instead it was more like a weed growing in a crack of cement; nobody really planned it, but it has grown prolifically. The standard explanations (that Sakaki's low rainfall, proximity to Tokyo, etc., were vital factors in its development), while certainly not untrue, definitely only offer a very partial explanation. Many Japanese scholars and bureaucrats still yearn for the true answer about Sakaki's development, though they, too, are realizing that there are powerful forces conspiring against the continued growth of industry in the town.

Change and the response of organizations

Pressed by both sides: need to reduce costs coupled with shortage of labor

The situation of en-daka only exasperates other chronic trends that force organizations to forge critical strategies for the future. En-daka forces Japanese companies to compete more directly with foreign firms that enjoy lower infrastructural and labor costs. Closed industrial and consumer markets (which have received so much attention recently in the Western press) may prove to be the very instrument which sabotages the Japanese post-war "miracle." Labor is becoming an increasingly critical issue to the small firms of Sakaki and their strategies to meet levels of demand, while remaining competitive, will certainly shape the viability of industry in the future.

Most Sakaki companies have, for some time now, given up recruiting from local high schools and colleges. Most of the larger companies pay large amounts to production companies to produce annual recruiting brochures. These are full-color glossy booklets which usually include few, if any, pictures of the actual work of the company, emphasizing instead recreational opportunities, allowances for freedom, pride of own brand names or connection with large industrial groups.[1] It is difficult to judge whether the effort and money expended produces any result. Other factors tend to have more positive influence on recruitment such as including the name of a keiretsu in the name of a subsidiary.

Strategies of the independents: outgrowing Sakaki

The growing trend of relocation of physical plants out of town

A growing trend of relocation among the most visible of Sakaki companies, the small number of large independents threatens to hollow out industry in the town if it continues unchecked. I have described previously the departure of first Miyano, in the late 60s and Hioki, during my research, both to the neighboring city of Ueda. While separated by over twenty years, the conditions of their departure, are quite similar strategies of self-preservation. The ostensible reason that both firms left the town was that local bureaucratic elite refused the request of company management for assistance in locating new tracts of land in which to consolidate and rationalize disorganized, antiquated, inefficient, and unattractive physical plants. The local government has been slow to develop plans to take advantage of national laws to form large industrial parks by offering incentives to previous farming owners and low-interest loan support to buyers. Many other local governments around Japan (see McDonald 1991) have taken great advantage of such laws, bringing their constituencies much-needed jobs in the face of declining agricultural income; Sakaki's early self-industrialization and the continued profitability of cash crops like apples, grapes and flowers, has diminished the urgency for such support of industry by town bureaucratic elite and encouraged entrenched resistance to the requirements for industrial competitiveness.

Relocation and the growing rift between local government and independent firms

Both departures were a sore point for Sakaki bureaucratic elite; the wound from Miyano's departure is still not healed almost 25 years after the fact. Hioki, in a cleverly indirect reprimand of bureaucratic elite, donated one hundred million yen (about $800,000) to the town government for the purpose of having all bureaucrats travel abroad.[2] The apparent reason for the departure of Miyano and Hioki has been the unavailability of land and unwillingness to compromise by the town elite. Another critical explanation is that relocation to areas like Ueda is a strategy to attract employees. Hioki managers, in fact, offer the explanation that they were really simply fulfilling their benevolent duty to their employees by listening to their demands and improving their overall work environment in a way to assure the continued profitability of the firm.

I was not given the opportunity to visit Hioki's new offices for several months until after they had left. The opportunity presented itself when, after the staff of the chamber of commerce had, using a portion of the Hioki grant, traveled to the US for a week. The secretariat of the chamber had to make an obligatory courtesy call, bringing a small gift acquired during the trip. It was, however, painfully apparent that he made the visit with much chagrin. For one thing, he waited almost two months after the trip to finally make the visit.[3]

Emphasis on providing a better work environment for workers

After an exchange of awkward niceties, formalities, and the requisite explanation of my presence which took the attention away from these tensions, we were given a tour of the facility. It is a seven story white building, nearly twice as tall as the tallest building in Sakaki and certainly better equipped. The inside factory atmosphere was deliberately designed to look more like an office than a shop floor, possible in large part because much of the actual assembly and manufacturing of components marketed world-wide under the Hioki name are made by Hioki's subcontractors in Sakaki and the surrounding region.

In order to substantiate the argument that Hioki's departure was less a result of feuding with local elite and more a fulfillment of benevolent obligation to employees, great pains were taken to emphasize ostensible accommodations to the working environments. Nearly half of the area of the physical plant is devoted to recreational facilities: a baseball diamond, tennis courts, a golf putting green, and a club house. The design of the physical plant, called "Hioki Forest Hills" is modeled loosely after that of research parks of IBM, Xerox, and other large companies in the US. In fact, I was told, the color and size of the orange chairs in the spacious seventh-floor cafeteria are identical to those at IBM's cafeteria in a research facility in New York State. It was explained that the seventh floor was devoted to the cafeteria and large meeting halls rather than executive suites in order to emphasize the importance of employees to the firm.[4] Other employee amenities included free refreshment vending machines on each floor, a flex time schedule for employees[5], and the lack of a dress code for a large majority of the workers. Though some sections seemed to don the familiar factory uniforms reminiscent of many other Japanese and Sakaki companies, a large number of men wore neckties (still uncommon in most Japanese companies) and others seemed to be even more relaxed about dress, wearing sweaters and button-down shirts without neckties (a practice now common in some Tokyo companies with similar lenient dress codes).

At a subsequent visit by the rest of the Chamber staff later in the fall, we received a more philosophical justification by another manager who told us that Hioki's relocation was largely motivated for concerns generated by their own overseas experiences. He told a story which was a fascinating interpretation of issues about different work and enterprise practices in Japan and Western countries. The story was about visiting clients in Germany, who reportedly commented on several occasions that they were puzzled and impressed by the rather primitive, almost "barbaric" practices of Japanese companies in their country who kept employees working well into the night, while their German counterparts encouraged employees to return to their families and participate in social recreation and community involvement. Some Western writers have claimed that the long working hours required of their employees by Japanese companies is evidence of their unfair, selfish and insidious brainwashing techniques which leave their employees empty, foot soldiers of the keiretsu with little family life and real personal pleasure (Woronoff 1983). Hioki's managers claim that by making albeit superficial changes in the work environment they will be able to recruit more easily and will promote better quality work, a strategy which will be proven or disproven by the continued success of the firm.[6]

The short-term success of Hioki's move may also determine similar relocations of other Sakaki independents. Already several of them are said to be contemplating such relocations out of the town. The town government, though concerned and critical of such rumors, remains unprepared to make the kind of conciliations and policies that may be necessary to keep these companies in the town.

Strategies of subcontractors: increasing reliance on external industrial groups

Docility of subcontractors vs. independents

The rift between bureaucratic and industry elite is made very obvious by the issue of relocating companies. The relatively smooth relationships between bureaucratic elite and the entrepreneurs of smaller companies which are dependent subcontractors of keiretsu is in marked contrast. These entrepreneurs are more likely to follow the wishes of the local government elite rather than to challenge their authority. But privately they may express opinions sympathetic to their independent colleagues, who are the source of a certain amount of envy and respect.

The labor squeeze and increasing reliance on industrial groups

The formal hierarchical relationships and behavior among bureaucrats and subcontracting industrialists grows out of the old dozoku relationships . These entrepreneurs are more likely to obey the wishes of their former status superiors in family relationships, though they may have quite contrary opinions and attitudes. Many a company president, when I asked of the Hioki departure, said that he understood and sympathized with the sound business reasons. If these shacho have opinions in opposition to their bureaucratic superiors, they are less likely to act on them than the independents. Subcontractors are more likely to rely on the favor of the bureaucratic elite, to arrange conditions amenable to their enterprises (for example, the services of brokering loans and providing insurance) and thus less likely to contest the authority of the bureaucrats by radical moves like departure from the town. Independents on the other hand are more likely to negotiate loans, insurance and other important financial transactions directly with banks and other owners of capital.

Nonetheless, the subcontractors are under many of the same pressures of their independent counterparts. Namely, they are being squeezed between the jaws of en-daka on the one hand and a severe labor shortage on the other. En-daka has spelled the reduction of overhead and labor costs for each part. Because markets continued to grow into the early 90s, the need for labor only became more acute because most of the economies of robotization and automation had already been accomplished, and although challenged to make each part with less human operator intervention and thus further reduce prices, volumes also increased. In order to make up for the shortage of labor and need to cut costs, many companies added overtime and increased the number of shifts. Some of Sakaki companies were operating on triple shifts during the period that I was there.[7]

Given the requirement to produce more volume with fewer staff, Sakaki subcontractors evolved a dangerous level of reliance on orders from large industrial networks, while curtailing extraneous activities, which while perhaps not generating profit, might serve as a form of research and development to guide them to other avenues of livelihood and provide a cushion of safety should a debacle on the scale of the oil shocks (like that which occurred in the sewing machine industry) strike again. It is amazing how soon the lessons of past mistakes are forgotten (i.e. the over-reliance by a broad sector of the local population on a single form of income), but the lure of fast income is too great. These companies have also cut themselves off from access to more intelligent and well-educated youth by curtailing interesting tangents of business that might attract their curiosity, and by cozying up to large industrial groups as subservient inferiors subject to their whims.

Given lower access to young, freshly graduated recruits, the preference by far of nearly all organizations, many of these companies have had to shift to other strategies of keeping employment levels adequate. While Japanese companies are said to hire employees for life, this is largely an ideal, and a privilege of large companies. In reality, Japanese rates of turnover are comparable to those of Western nations (see Plath 1983:18-33). It must be stressed however that unlike in the United States where changes in employment are often conceived of optimistically as chances for career development of an individual, there is definitely a stigma to such changes between organizations, but they occur frequently.

In fact, smaller companies can profit greatly from acquiring the skills of individuals who have been trained in jobs of other, often larger, companies. They are usually able to offer competitive, if not slightly better wages because antiquated seniority systems in large organizations suppress salary levels of more skilled and capable workers. Smaller companies are slightly more flexible in the remuneration they can offer due to lack of internal cohort constraints, but may be limited by the real income they are able to bring in.

Figure 1. Chart showing growing mismatch between number of positions open and applicants seeking employment. Source: Shinano employment security office.

The regional Employment Security Office, run by the national government, is a clearing house for such mid-career movement. The Office posts help-wanted advertisements and provides counseling and placement services to individuals seeking employment. But even so companies complain that positions go unfilled for months. The problem is not that there is a substantial mismatch in the number of applicants and positions as much as it is in the kind of positions available and preferred. A gulf exists because the majority of positions offered are for semiskilled or unskilled line positions in factories as operators and assemblers and the larger part of the applicants indicate a preference for office and service jobs.

Many small subcontractors put together their own recruiting pamphlets themselves. The Employment Security Office is increasingly helping smaller companies to compete by assembling booklets with one-page ads of firms. These ads tend to be less flashy than the pamphlets of larger companies. Instead of having pictures of actors, recreation, technologies largely unrelated to their business as in the brochures, these short ads tend to only carry color pictures of drab industrial facilities. The only concession to fashion is a few young, attractive female models whose photographs appear on the cover of the entire volume and in general pages preceding the advertisements of companies in each town.

Large order increase on electric power supply bus bar for new model super computers

Immediate openings for male and female employees

New factory facilities

Prefer applicants with ambition and enthusiasm toward manufacturing

Our company directly collaborates with leading companies in the Hitachi group.

Major products:
   Computer power supply bus bar
   Electric delivery components
   Cable power line

Positions to be filled:
   Mechanics 8 positions male/female age 18-40
      (numeric control laser, turret punch, bending, milling, and press tools)
   Assembly 5 positions male/female age 18-50
   Welding 1 position male/female age 18-50
   Testing 2 positions male/female age 18-40
   Office 3 positions male/female age 18-40
   General 1 position male/female up to age 60
      (part time possible)

Salary: compensation based on internal rules

Holidays: 2 days off per week, summer vacation, ancestral holidays, new years

Promotions: once annually in April

Bonuses: twice annually in August and December

Transportation allowance: 80% of actual cost up to 9,000 Yen (about $70) per month

Work hours: 8:00 am to 4:50 pm (with one-hour break)

Insurance: all forms covered (including severance compensation)

Okada Manufacturing Inc. (Distributed by the Employment Security Office)

Figure 2. Translation of a help wanted advertisement, a flier stuffed in newspapers for local delivery.

Newspapers are filled with advertisements for help wanted. Most of these advertisements stress (1) high pay levels, (2) maximum days off (no work on Saturdays, most or all national holidays, company vacations during the summer and winter, etc.), and (3) short working hours and a lack of requirement for overtime. Among companies I surveyed, these were the most important issues discussed in reference to recruiting both for recent graduate and mid-career hiring.

Foreign labor

Levels of indigenous labor have not been able to keep pace with the market expansion of the 80s. Large industrial groups, eager to maintain and increase levels of market share over the long term, have considered it in their own best interests to assist their suppliers in securing adequate levels of labor in order to maintain high volumes. In practice, they have offered to cover the additional costs of labor for hard-to-fill unskilled factory line positions. Offering above-average wages to Japanese employees is largely ruled out by highly-regulated employee-employer relationships, unionism and custom of age/rank based remuneration rather than skill-based salaries. The cushion has come in the employment of foreigners, comprised in Sakaki of two main groups. The first group is that of illegal workers from South East and East Asian countries. It is impossible to ascertain numbers of these individuals, but judging from their invisibility, it seems at least that their number is still very low (under fifty). More prevalent in Sakaki are Brazilians of Japanese descent (there may be more than a hundred working in various factories in the town). These individuals are allowed by Japanese law to spend up to two years in the country, supposed to visit relatives and kin, but permitted to work during their stay.

It is impossible to discriminate between the Japanese and the Brazilian employees when they are working on the lines of Sakaki companies because they both look alike. For one thing, everybody wears factory uniforms, so their is no chance for differences in expression through clothing. The Brazilians are as diligent if not more so in their jobs because of the high levels of hourly wage they are offered. Whereas it might be quite easy to pick out the Brazilians during leisure time, breaks and meal hours, I visited several factories that employ Brazilians only to find that out later. Because of the sensitiveness of this topic, not only in terms of legal ramifications, but in terms of fellow Japanese employees who do the same work as the Brazilians for less pay, the topic is largely left undiscussed.

I was able to ascertain some rudimentary facts about the employment of Brazilians. Apparently there is a head-hunting firm in the neighboring city which advertises in Brazil and covers the transportation of the workers to and from Japan and arranges their employment and legal papers. In turn the brokers take 10 to 15% of the wages the workers earn on their jobs, but the levels of hourly pay quoted to me at one firm were two to three times the going rate for the same category of work done by a full-time Japanese employee.[8] Companies would prefer to pay such high hourly rates to Brazilians, because as non-Japanese they will expect none of the employment security or benefits normally offered to full-time Japanese employees.

Changing aspirations of young people: an outward orientation

While the issue of foreign workers is an interesting one, the numbers are still relatively small in proportion to the total labor market. Local born laborers still constitute the majority of laborers. The problem is that there is no longer a relative abundance of cheap labor for industrial work in rural towns like Sakaki. Of more ominous import to the future of local industry is the patterns of behavior and attitudes of youth. These patterns have changed over successive post-war generations.

Young people I met expressed common sentiments about the content and kind of work they most desired. None of them expressed interest in becoming an engineer, in working at "making things," or engaging in any work that would force them to get dirty or to don a factory uniform. While I was in Sakaki, one theme that was often expressed, to chide local industries to adopt a more service-oriented style, was the metaphor of the three Ks (kitanai, kiken, kibishii translated in English they become the three Ds: dirty, dangerous and difficult). Surely young people's attitudes are driving local industry to come up with some strategy to respond to these aversions.

Generational differences and motivation patterns

The present generation of youth, the so-called shinjinrui (literally, the "new human race"), is much different than that of the generation of Sakaki residents who, after experiencing the hardships of war, helped to build Japan into the great economic power it is today and are the ultimate responsibility for Sakaki's postwar success. Admittedly it is not possible to characterize a generation by a single pattern. The older generation, also called the kyujinrui, includes Sakaki's leading industrialists, independent-minded people desirous of the excitement and willing to endure hard work to elevate their status in the local community, but these are a small percentage of the total group. The offspring of elite farming landlords of the this generation, their families having lost their land after the war, have turned to functions within town government. Others have learned to adapt lucrative and specialized crops for increasingly affluent urban markets. Still others have endured hard working conditions and long hours in Sakaki's factories. Today's youth is motivated by different desires and influenced from much different experiences than their parents. Driven by their parents to excel in school, they become "successful" as defined by state values as opposed to the values of their families.

The generation which lived through the war years endured considerable hardship, perhaps the key symbol being the lack of food and the resulting emphasis throughout their lives about bringing an abundance of food to the family table. In contrast, today's youth have grown up accustomed to ample food and a certain amount of luxury. Japanese have not long enjoyed the amenities Westerners have become used to for decades, including indoor heating and air-conditioning, flush toilets, hot and cold running water, automobiles, and sheer consumerism, but today's Japanese youth have enjoyed another kind of luxury because of the sheer difference between their experience and that of their parents. This difference is compounded by their parents' desire to shield their children from the same kind of hardship.

Put simply, the older generation want to ensure a comfortable life for their offspring and are willing to endure considerable hardship themselves (even to the extent of losing their children as they opt for corporate jobs in Tokyo) in order to provide it. DeVos and Wagatsuma (1973) have described very aptly the vicarious enjoyment of Japanese mothers who admonish their children in their studies in order to achieve. Arguably this is a feature of the interesting collusion of philosophical traditions informing family through Japanese culture, though perhaps particularly exacerbated by wartime experiences of hardship.

Whereas hard work and gumption were the determining factors of social mobility and preservation of social status for the kyujinrui, their children, the shinjinrui, have been encouraged to seek mobility through education, with much different consequences and ramifications. The ambition of the kyujinrui was social mobility within the local community, so that the ideal was to work and live within the local community, even if one had to leave it for a period, for example, to go work in the city. Today's youth have used the pretense of better opportunities in post-secondary education to escape the local community; the ideal has transformed for them into one of resistance to return. Surely some youth have returned, perhaps because of family obligations as heirs, others out of loyalty to their parents; still others never went away because of poor performance in the early years of education.

Schooling: the basis for geographical and vocational mobility

Education forms the basis of younger generations' attempts at geographical and vocational mobility. The education system itself has largely remained the same over the post-war period. At least the institutional structure has not changed. What has changed radically is students' use of the system.

Matriculation levels have increased incredibly. Thirty years ago the norm might have been to just finish the compulsory education ending after junior high school. High school was a rather elite course, particularly in outlying regions like Nagano; college was only for those destined for the very top positions in the society.[9] Today, hardly anybody quits after junior high school. Nearly all students at least finish high school, college graduation being the majority preference among most students and their parents. Higher levels of matriculation have affected ambitions and expectations.

 high school
  graduates         college bound      seek employment

1950     8,791      2,183    24.8%      4,620    52.6%
1955    20,386      2,512    12.3      12,631    62
1960    24,006      2,840    11.9      18,004    75
1965    25,519      4,724    18.5      17,370    68.1
1970    30,006      5,584    18.6      18,671    62.2
1975    28,257      8,167    28.9      12,333    43.6
1980    27,276      7,583    27.8      12,023    44.1
1985    25,075      6,356    25.3      11,188    44.6
1990    30,739      8,192    26.7      11,545    37.6

Table 3. Matriculation figures for Nagano Prefecture from 1950 to 1990 showing the number of high school graduates and the numbers and percentage of graduates going on to college and going directly into employment. Source: Nagano Prefecture.

The average Sakaki youth goes to kindergarten, primary and junior high schools within the town. There are three primary schools and one junior high school within the town limits, public institutions run by the local school board and overseen by the national Ministry of Education. Pupils attend the primary school closest to their homes. All children attend the same junior high school. In addition to the formal public schooling many parents send their primary and junior high school age children to special juku, private cram schools that meet in the afternoon and evenings after the regular school day. Education through grade nine is almost entirely accomplished within the town, but the pattern is set from primary school education on: parents give up increasing amounts of control of their children's upbringing to the state through the school system.

Education takes an outward orientation from high school

It is from high school on that most students end up going out of the town. On the basis of performance in examinations and curriculum during the three years of junior high school, the students' home room teacher determines which of a range of public high schools in the region a student will attend. The high school that one attends will largely determine options after graduation. Graduates of the highest ranked high schools normally attend colleges in the city after high school. Fewer of the graduates of the second ranked high schools will go on to college and those who do tend to matriculate at regional and two-year colleges. The majority of graduates of the third rank of high school will simply seek employment after graduation. Performance in junior high school is therefore very important. Parents will do whatever they can to improve the chances of their children performing well in junior high school so that they may matriculate to a higher level high school. They will pay the expenses of better juku and hire home tutors when necessary and will not burden their children with household chores and work in the fields so that their children can devote their entire attention to their studies, but in so doing their relationship with their children becomes based solely on education.

Sakaki children can attend high schools in two school districts because the town is at the edge of both. They may attend schools in the neighboring city of Ueda as well as those in Koshoku to the north, not to mention the high school within Sakaki itself. There are two top ranking high schools in the area: Ueda High School (in the city of Ueda), and Yashiro High School (in Koshoku). There is one second-rank school in Ueda. The high school in Sakaki itself, as well as one school in Koshoku and another in Ueda, are third ranked. The local trains that run through the area are packed with commuting high school students during the mornings and afternoons.

Higher levels of matriculation form the basis for permanent departure

The pattern of commuting out of town for high school sets the stage for departure altogether. The majority of youth leave the town to attend colleges elsewhere, living in small apartments close to school. Most of them aim for urban colleges in Tokyo. The lure of the city is strong. Even if they cannot attend one of the prestigious high-ranking colleges in the city, there are plenty of other institutions that have sprung up in the cities.[10] For many of them, living on their own in Tokyo is a fulfillment of a lifetime dream.

Figure 3. Graph showing the trend of outward migration by successive cohorts born during the 1930s, 40s, 50s, and 60s. The population of the cohort born in the 1930s has been relatively constant over the entire period. Many of the members of the wartime and post-war baby boom cohort of the 1940s appear to have left town in their 20s (during the 1960s) as are increasing numbers of the cohorts born in the 1950s and 60s. Source: National census data.

Those who leave for college in the city are likely to remain there afterward. Matriculation from a prestigious urban college assures a white-collar position in an office in the city either of a national government organization or one of the large urban corporations. Labor shortages are even particularly acute within urban white collar positions, so graduates of less prestigious institutions are finding that they need not return to factory jobs in Sakaki and the surrounding region. Their parents push them to seek jobs in companies that are affiliated with large industrial groups, especially fully-owned subsidiaries, that are likely to have employment security. Few of the Sakaki youth who go to urban colleges will ever return for more than vacation and holidays.

The circumstances of young people who do return

Motives of those who choose to return: balancing family obligations and personal ambition

The norm for the local-born younger generations has been a flow out of the town into Tokyo and other metropolitan areas out of the Prefecture during post-secondary education and consequent employment. I met a number of young people who were working or studying in Tokyo. By far the dominant pattern of intention was never to return to Sakaki. All the young people I met in the city expressed negative attitudes about the small-town "ningenkankei" (social relations), poor working conditions, and demands of family when living at home. Life in the city is relatively free of the social demands of a small-town, is loaded with opportunities for socialization and recreation, and the jobs are mostly white-collar rather than blue-collar factory jobs. To most young people it is the preferable environment.

While the majority of young people I spoke to spoke highly of life in the city versus life in Sakaki, a number of them, particularly younger students, expressed different motives for returning to Nagano some day. Some of them faced the inevitability of having to take up the responsibility as heir to their families. The oldest daughter of the Yanagisawas and her husband expressed these kind of feelings. In fact I was privy to both their discussions of the topic and those of their parents.

Since I was living with their parents perhaps the younger couple was somewhat careful with the opinions they expressed to me about returning, but the feeling I got was that they were "leaving open the possibility/probability" of returning some day. Since they are both gainfully employed in Tokyo, they cannot see any immediate relocation back to the town. Michiaki, the husband, is doing quite well in his job at a company which manufacturers fiber optic technology. It would be somewhat of a waste for him to leave the company when he was advancing within the organization. There are no Sakaki companies that are engaged in similar manufacturing industries. Satsuki, his wife, works for a large academic publisher. While the section that she was in was terminated and she was given new work in another, perhaps less exciting section, she shows no desire to quit work at the time being.

There has been much discussion among the young couple and their Sakaki parents about offspring. Indirect pressure has been on Satsuki to quit her job, make a good home for Michiaki, and settle down to start having children. Satsuki resists, perhaps because she knows this is the first step toward moving back to Sakaki, perhaps also because she never acquired the domestic skills of housekeeping, cleaning, cooking, etc., and probably had little desire too. Trips home inevitably result in comments from Mrs. Yanagisawa about Satsuki's resistance to assuming feminine qualities of hospitality toward male family members and guests, as well as her habit of oversleeping and lack of initiative in helping her mother with household chores.

Their parents talk more openly about their opinions on their children. They expect them to return eventually to live with them in the family homestead. When the children are in Tokyo, they explain to guests how they long for their children to return. When the children are back for holidays and weekend excursions (5 or 6 times a year), they try to lure them with rumors about job possibilities for Michiaki and urge Satsuki to quit her job. On several occasions they have sought out opportunities that might be attractive for Michiaki. When the president of a ceramics company from out of town visited the Chamber and gave a lecture, Mr. Yanagisawa's interest was peaked at the prospect discussed afterward (during a dinner for the guest and local entrepreneurs) of cooperative projects to manufacture ceramic materials in local firms. He told the crowd that his "son" was working for a fiber optics company in Tokyo and that he hoped for the development of similar industry in the Sakaki area so that he might be able to coax him to return.

Other chonan are in similar situations of accepting an eventual return to the town. The son of the grape-growing Tomiyamas is studying to be a high school teacher. He hopes to return to the prefecture and receive a post close to home eventually (location of appointment is not always easy to choose oneself). He accepts cheerfully his fate and family responsibilities as chonan, perhaps more so than the older Yanagisawa couple. He made no mention whatsoever of any desire to remain in Tokyo after he finished college.

Another chonan of the shacho of a small Sakaki company also indicated little reluctance to return to the area around the town. While his interests were in architecture, quite different from the business of his father (which is the manufacture of specialized electric induction heating coils), he admitted to me once at a meeting in the city that he held hope that he could return to the town some day. His frustration was that there are presently few opportunities for work for someone with his background and he did not indicate any desire whatsoever to take up the business of his father.

Indeed his father and mother seemed more open to his not succeeding the father in his business than perhaps other families of entrepreneurs that I met. My first meeting with the son was at the insistence of his mother who asked me to introduce him to an architect friend I had mentioned off-hand in a round-table I participated in with the Chamber's women's group.[11]

Returning to the area but not to the town

Of those who return, the common trend is to obtain employment, not in Sakaki, but in a neighboring town. Two areas are particularly popular among young people, both for living and working. They are (1) an area called Shioda within the neighboring city of Ueda[12] to the south and east of Sakaki about 10 minutes by car and (2) the city of Koshoku on the southern outskirts of the prefectural seat, the city of Nagano, about 20 minutes northwest of Sakaki by car. The reasons that young people give for the exciting nature of these areas is access to entertainment and recreation, in addition to the quality of workplace environment of the companies in the area.

The two areas also share the general attribute of encompassing flat and wide open areas which have been used largely for agriculture until recently, but enterprising city governments are taking advantage of national programs to help them develop these lands into industrial and public housing projects. Others are privately developing former fields and paddies into small apartment buildings and stores, further attracting young couples who would rather live in close proximity to their parents rather than in the same home, hamlet, or town.

The Nagano 1998 Winter Olympics

The campaigns and strategies of regional government are also attempting to meet the aspirations of youth. Among these, the drive to attract and host the 1998 Winter Olympics has been the most visibly aggressive. The Olympics have become the battle cry of revamping what has supposedly become one of Japan's most backward prefectures. The argument goes that once Nagano enjoyed close proximity to Tokyo and one of the best educational systems in the country, but it has slipped in the post-war era. Tohoku and Kyushu now enjoy better access to Tokyo than Nagano because they lie on bullet train routes. Other areas like Okinawa and Hokkaido are well served by air transportation. The island of Shikoku has been connected to Honshu by a masterful complex of bridges near Osaka. Only Nagano has been left behind in terms of accessibility, still relying on the same roads and express train cars for the last 30 years, and both showing signs of great wear.[13]

The Olympics has also been a great metaphor for pushing development through areas where resistance to it has been incredible high. I was always amazed at the number of slogans posted around Sakaki and the surrounding towns. It seemed that any group might paste up a sign against something that offended them. Signs abounded along the roadway: "Against construction of Sakaki golf course," "Against construction of highway," "Against construction of karaoke boxes;" just about anything anybody might propose to build someone would post signs against it, often next to the proposed sites, facilities under construction, of the offices of organizations advocating the project. Similarly, town government posted its own slogans above roadways and on the sides of town buildings which bespoke happy and hopeful messages like "Toward a clean Sakaki," "Toward an accident-less roadway," and "Let's get the highway done soon."

The Olympics has figured into this landscape of slogans by disgruntled parties facing changes which threaten to break the stability under which they have flourished during the post war era (and, more recently, have started to show signs of decline). Who could oppose the Olympics? It is one thing to oppose a roadway because it is going to destroy half of your vineyards, generate pollution which might damage remaining crops and generate considerable unwanted outside traffic, but to be selfish enough to stand in the way of Japan and Nagano's chance to host the international community, that is indeed a grievous offense.[14] Thus it will be easier to accomplish infrastructural improvements for the purpose of getting the prefecture ready for the Olympics rather than for the sheer purpose of improvement for the sake of those that will profit by it, or because of the "backward Nagano" argument.

Sakaki and the surrounding towns stand to be much altered by the coming infrastructure improvements. The highway from Tokyo to be completed in the next five years is scheduled to cut right through the slopes on the Northern edge of the town. Sakaki is to have its own interchange which will make it the access for the towns Kamiyamada and Togura to the northeast. A network of ancillary roads will also be constructed to handle expected traffic. No doubt the bullet train route planned will also have similar effects. The station that services both Togura and Kamiyamada (Togura Station) is a stop on the express train route today which will be eliminated when the bullet train is put into service. Togura, like Sakaki, will become a station only served by local trains. Togura and Kamiyamada will change roles with Sakaki; they will lose their relative access to the cities via the train while Sakaki will become the major access point to the expressway for all three towns. There are certain to be many other changes in the entire area due to the psychological "shortening" of the distance to Tokyo. The new transportation infrastructure is also certain to transform the roles of each town in the region. These three towns may be forced to become more economically intertwined or to be absorbed in the neighboring cities of Ueda and Koshoku.


[1] The suggestion made here is that a company with its own name brand or with a strong connection to a large industrial group is more exciting work. Brochures often include pictures of satellites and rockets, suggesting some connection with aerospace, though the connection may well indeed be quite remote; for example, the company might produce a single part for a satellite, the design of which is entirely specified by the client company. In addition, there is also an implication that strictly independent shitauke lacks employment security.

[2] The bureaucrats have in turn taken advantage of the gift to engage in some much deserved vacations, but given the practice of Japanese tourists abroad, it is doubtful that the meaning of Hioki's gift "to expose them to the realities of the outside world" and to "wake them up" is really being accomplished.

[3] Interestingly, a meeting of Sakaki's largest companies sponsored by the Chamber at the neighboring hot spring resort of Kamiyamada offered an illustration of the town government's complicated feelings toward Hioki's departure. I was fortunate to attend this event two years in a row. The first meeting was before Hioki's departure and I met one of their top managers. The next year I was surprised to see the president of a Hioki subcontractor who, through a "sweetheart" deal with Hioki, is renting Hioki's old Sakaki facilities. That company is of a scale much smaller than the other companies included in the meeting, but represents Hioki's substitute.

[4] I did find it fascinating that the entrance of the executive suites, the only closed off area in the building (and, incidentally, not included on the tour) was also the only area carpeted in the whole building. Other supposed employee amenities seemed somewhat superficial: a robot mail-carrier which roamed the floors stopping at each section seemed to cause more hardship for the female workers in the sections than it saved time, since it made loud interruptions when it arrived at each section, demanding that these women drop their work and go fill it with mail to other sections and retrieve their own mail rather than automating this seemingly important, but menial chore.

[5] Such practice is now increasingly common among urban companies where rush hour conditions exasperate long working hours. Hioki was however the first firm I visited in Nagano with flex time.

[6] Given the expense of the move (nearly half of Hioki's annual gross revenue) and the consequent debt saddled by the company, some of Sakaki's elite openly questioned whether Hioki might not go the way of Soar, the now-bankrupt company which originally spun out of Hioki.

[7] On a subsequent trip in early 1992, I discovered that one such company had already cut back to double shifts on the weekdays only, whereas it used to operate nearly 24 hours, seven days a week. The reduction of shifts is explained as a consequence of the "bubble economy" of the 80s whereby the Japanese economy grew by leaps and bounds, but perhaps with little substance to cushion recessionary cycles when they were set off roughly the time of the Gulf War in the early months of 1991.

[8] The recently-hired full-time employees are paid at low level because their salaries are based on seniority, but they have to wait many years to attain the hourly levels of wage paid to the Brazilians. Part-time (hourly-wage) Japanese employees in the same jobs would be paid at least 50% less than the Brazilians.

[9] Many of Sakaki's industrialists graduated only from junior high school; members of the bureaucratic elite are usually graduates of local top-ranking high schools. There are very few if any college graduates among the older generations.

[10] Since competition is fierce for more prestigious colleges, many high school graduates will take college entrance exams several years in a row after graduating from high school. During this time they attend special exam preparation schools, called ; they are sometimes referred to as , or "master-less samurai." Attendance in these schools has almost become a required stage in the educational system. There is at least one such school in the neighboring city of Ueda.

[11] The experience of younger generation eldest sons is somewhat different from that of older generations (in their thirties and forties). Many companies have already passed from the hand of the founder to his son, the son having been cajoled by his father and mother to take over the family business. One company president expressed to me his lack of desire to influence at all the ambitions of his offspring since his father had forced him to abandon his dreams of movie making and take over the family company. As a sad irony to his youthful interests, one of the products of the company today is the plastic parts of lenses for video cameras; this is the closest he ever has gotten to his early ambitions.

[12] This is the area to which Hioki relocated.

[13] Similar parallels are often made about education. Nagano ranked top among all prefectures in terms of test scores and college entrance statistics, but has slipped to among the last of the prefectures in terms of performance.

[14] Professor Robert Cole in an address to a Berkeley audience described the principle of gaiatsu (pressure from outside) as an important and powerful mechanism for Japan's right wing to accomplish its agenda, supposedly with hands tied, by way of outside, international pressure.

Grass-roots industry in the town of Sakaki: an alternative perspective of the Japanese post-war "miracle"

Copyright (C) 1992, 2004 by Christopher Romig Keener.

         CHAPTER 1
         CHAPTER 2
         CHAPTER 3