US and Japan: A Generation Gap

HOW can we deal with such striplings!" That, said a senior Japanese politician, is a frequently heard complaint among Tokyo bureaucrats and politicians as they await the coming to power of the Clinton administration.

Japan's leaders, in politics, in business, and in the bureaucracy, belong to George Bush's generation - and some, even to that of Ronald Reagan. Prime Minister Kiichi Miyazawa is 73, and Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Michio Watanabe is not much younger. Senior business leaders are of similar vintage, while senior bureaucrats in the Foreign, Finance, and Trade (MITI) ministries are in their 50s.

Across the Pacific they see a vigorous, mid-40ish president-to-be preparing to install a cabinet that reflects the generation gap between himself and his predecessor. Of course some Clinton officials could be called venerable. But in general, there is a conspicuous age gap between the newcomers and their counterparts in Tokyo.

Yes, age is venerated in the Orient, and nowhere more than in Japan. And yet, when policies are framed and implemented, the input of working-level officials in Japan is often far greater than in Washington. In powerful ministries like MITI or Finance, it's the heads and assistant heads of divisions - men (and very rarely, women) in their early 40s and late 30s, who initiate policies and pass them up to their superiors.

These august creatures would bridle at the suggestion that they merely rubber-stamp policies sent up from below, and indeed, bureau chiefs have been known to fling back papers presented them, ordering that they be drafted anew. Yet in any ministry, it's the initial draft prepared at working level that becomes the key element of policy, and the execution of this policy once it has been approved and sent back down is in the hands of these same working-level officials.

Clinton administration officials at the cabinet and sub-cabinet level are likely to be in the same age group as Japanese officials much further down the bureaucratic chain of command.

The life-experience of these younger officials is different from that of their superiors. They grew up in an affluent postwar Japan. Many MITI officials have spent time studying abroad; many have since been stationed in New York or London. They have become accustomed to representing a Japan that is seen as rich and important, a necessary presence at any major international gathering on trade, the economy, the environment, and now, increasingly, politico-economic questions.

These confident younger officials deal with their European or American colleagues as equals, and often argue with them. Older Western officials, inured to the silent, respectful Japanese of a generation back, sometimes call them arrogant.

Within Japanese society and within their own ministerial hierarchy, these younger officials know their place. Public honors go to their superiors. But behind the scenes, without the beaverlike activities of division heads and their assistants, nothing in Japan would get done.

For these officials, the Clinton administration's coming to power is both a source of envy and an encouragement. Envy, because they know that change will take time to come to Japan - that the facade of orderly hierarchy will not easily be stripped away. But encouragement, because the example of a rejuvenated US administration will help to hasten the pace of change in Japan.

In the first half of the Meiji era (1868-1912), when Japan emerged from feudal isolation into the modern world, cabinet ministers and ambassadors to major countries were in their 30s and 40s. Having absorbed, however imperfectly, the science-based systems of the West, they literally knew more than their elders.

The consensus-seeking, indecisive gerontocrats who sit at the summit of Japanese politics and business today will not credit their subordinates with superior knowledge. But the world outside Japan has changed, Japan's position within that world has changed, and younger officials are more aware of these differences. As the new US administration seeks to mesh gears with Tokyo, it will be instructive to see what effect the changing of the guard in one country will have on the other.

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