It is well known that Japan has in the past decade developed into an economic superpower—the world’s greatest asset country, with the biggest per-capita gnp, the biggest aid budgets, home to all ten of the world’s biggest banks and many of its biggest corporations, the base for 15 per cent of the world’s economic activity, the centre of the most dynamic sector of the world trading system, whose land value is estimated at four times that of the United States, whose resource flows help keep the us dollar afloat, whose factories supply quality goods to the world, and whose construction companies are engaged in huge infrastructural projects across the globe.footnote1

From this it is common to assume that Japan is resoundingly successful, the very model of success, and that its people are correspondingly wealthy and enjoying the fruits of that success. It is true that consumer income has risen to the point that sixty million cars clog the highways; one third of the world’s tuna catch and two fifths of its shrimps pass through Japanese stomachs; one quarter of the world’s tropical timber is imported.footnote2 But gourmet foods, overseas travel, cars and electronic gadgetry do not make up for housing inadequacy, lack of basic amenities such as sewerage, too few public parks and spaces, lack of time to do one’s own thing. High general levels of dissatisfaction with living conditions raise serious questions. On comparative tables Japan matches or surpasses the advanced capitalist countries of Europe and North America only in per-capita income, television sets and electronic equipment.footnote3 Nomura Research Institute reckons that even by 1995 Japan will still be well behind countries like the us and (West) Germany in terms of living standards.footnote4 In December 1990 it was reported that the average price of a 57-square-metre apartment in Tokyo was 80 million yen, or twelve times the average Tokyo resident’s annual income, and that metropolitan housing was forty times oversubscribed.footnote5 Corporate prosperity has reached unparalleled heights while social poverty is real and widespread. Capitalism has always developed unevenly, but at a time when its productive capacity excites unalloyed admiration worldwide these contradictions deserve close attention.

Japan has steered its economic course with remarkable agility through the oil shocks and consequent economic restructuring of the past two decades. It has apparently led the way in the transition from a base in the ‘modern’ industries characterized by the ‘heavy, thick, long and big’ (ju-ko-cho-dai) industries of steel, ships, petrochemicals, and so forth, to the ‘postmodern’ or information-society industries characterized by the ‘light, thin, short and small’ (kei-haku-tan-sho) of the hightechnology and service sector. It is the particular recent shift into leisure industries, and its broader implications for economic and social policy, that are addressed in this paper. In short, is the massive effort to increase the range and qualities of recreational facilities available in Japan a sign that the good life is beginning to dawn for its citizens? Or is it merely an expression of that characteristically postmodern game, the casino, which is non-productive of social wealth, addictive, has many losers, and offers little solace even for its winners?

This article is based partly on an extensive study of regional development, planning, the impact of economic restructuring on remote local communities, and on the environment, undertaken between December 1989 and January 1990, which took me from sub-tropical Ishigaki island in the south to the farthest reaches of Hokkaido. I have also made use of the growing Japanese literature on these subjects, and some excellent documentary film material, virtually all in Japanese.footnote6

The first paradox is that the massive increase in physical amenities is not accompanied by any increase in the time available for people to enjoy them. The leisure market was about 52 million million yen in 1985 and set to double by the turn of the century, but at the same time the average Japanese work year remains at 2,168 hours, virtually unchanged from the mid 1970s—between 200 and 500 hours more than elsewhere in the industrialized world and roughly on a par with Europe during the period of economic recovery in the early 1950s.footnote7 Fewer than 20 per cent of Japanese workers enjoy a two-day weekend; overtime, at an average of 190 hours per year, has increased since 1986 and annual paid leave in Japan amounts on average to 9 days, as against 19 in the us, 24 in the uk, 26 in France and 29 in (West) Germany.footnote8

Although availability of leisure time seems scarcely to match that of facilities, the need for recreation seems clear, not only on the basis of reward for contribution to achievement but evidently also on the basis of physical need, since the Welfare Ministry figures show an eightfold increase in the general rate of ill health in the community between 1955 and 1985, with high blood pressure and nervous disorders marked by much greater increases.footnote9 Sudden death from overwork (karoshi) has become a widely noted social phenomenon.footnote10 It is perhaps not surprising that 58.5 per cent of people polled by the Economic Planning Agency in 1988 should say that their level of leisure, or time and space to do their own thing (yutori), was inadequate.footnote11

Corporate Japan has recognized the existence of the problem and devised a battery of high-tech and ingenious solutions to stress, other, that is, than what might be thought the obvious—reduction in working hours, decentralization of population, and provision of facilities for cheap relaxation in natural surroundings. They include special kinds of chewing gum, meditation chambers (with one hundred ‘psy Brain Mind Gym Relaxation Salons’ to open across the country in 1990), womb-like ‘Refresh Capsules’, equipped with tape facilities which allow one to be completely immersed in the environment of ‘murmuring brooks, singing birds, and gently breaking waves’—the environment, in other words, that is rarely experienced in reality.footnote12