I returned on Sunday after a three week visit to Japan and China. I continue to be fascinated by both of these countries. We spent over two weeks in Tokyo and five days in Shanghai. The Japan part of the trip was a Congressional Delegation and it included a three hour dinner with Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi.
I could never imagine President Bush spending three hours with a group of Japanese lawmakers. Koizumi is a remarkable statesman, and I have tremendous respect for him. He really appears committed to serious reforms in a nation which needs them, but he is often thwarted by his own Liberal Democratic Party.
I already miss Tokyo. The bad part is that it is one of the most congested, noisy and expensive cities in the world. The good part is that it is truly a fun place to visit. Similar to New York, it is a city that doesn’t sleep.
After 13 years of recession, national attitudes are finally beginning to change. The Japanese are now far more friendly toward Westerners (they call us “gaijin”.) One reason is that many people (especially teenagers and young adults) can speak at least some English.
If they have adequate English, you will be surprised by the number of people who will initiate a conversation with you. My guess is that they want to practice their English. As part of Japanese culture, people in the street tend not to look at you. Nevertheless, they are very helpful when they are approached. If they can’t help you, they will often find someone who can.
I found the Japanese to be warm-hearted and generous to a fault. They were exceedingly kind to me. On two occasions, people who were guiding and driving me, bought lunch and were embarrassed when I tried to pay. My first trip to Tokyo and Shanghai was almost 20 years ago, and I would like to make several observations on both cities.
The tremendous building boom along the Chinese coast is still in full force, and this is especially apparent in Shanghai. The city I remembered from 1985 with its low skyline has completely disappeared. Back then, the traffic in Shanghai was dominated by bicycles. Today, BMWs and Mercedes sedans are everywhere. The street scenes of donkeys, pigs and beggars are long gone. They have been replaced not only by a free market, but by completely new attitudes and values.
The PRC continues to have tremendous poverty and numerous economic challenges, but the progress they are making is incredible. For example, there are now over 400 million cell phone users. Political progress of course does not match the economic progress, but small reforms are being implemented.
People are now allowed to marry without providing information on their affiliation with the Communist Party. There is no longer a need to prove your “revolutionary commitment.” A couple also does not need the approval of their “work unit.” In the past a boss would routinely step in to find a mate for an unmarried woman when she reached the age of 28.
The concept of dating was introduced only four years ago, but its popularity has skyrocketed. Even in the 1990s the Chinese people did not refer to boyfriends or girlfriends because it was difficult for people to socialize before they were married. Young people now openly hold hands on the street, something their parents would never have done.
Arranged marriages are now rare. In the 1970s, only 2 in 10 young Chinese choose their life partner; but now 9 out of 10 are doing so. Couples are no longer routinely living with the husband’s parents. Also, for the first time young people must find their own jobs.
Housing is not subsidized and work is no longer guaranteed. This means that China has to cope with a major unemployment problem. Another downside is that divorce and extramarital affairs are also skyrocketing (divorce was not allowed in the past). The People’s Republic continues to have a strict “one child” policy, and a woman who already has a child must have an abortion.
Two decades ago it would have been considered a real disgrace for a Japanese woman to date or marry a Western man. (A Japanese man dating a Western woman was acceptable). I remember plenty of stories of women who were disowned by their families because of a romance with a Western man. This attitude has changed remarkably.
Like the United States, the Japanese are now marrying far later in life, and the birth rate has declined significantly. If the present trend continues, Japan will have 20% fewer people in 2050. There is a big difference in the attitude of Japanese women concerning traditional roles. Westerners believe men and women are equal, but a woman in Japan is expected to have a subservient role. These are highly intelligent women and a definite rebellion has begun. These women do not want to give up single life in order to become a glorified domestic servant. Many of them have a graduate school education, but Japanese men want them to stay at home and abandon their careers.
The concept of equal pay for equal work has not reached Japan’s male dominated society. The glass ceiling remains in effect. So far, the women have not changed the prevailing attitudes of Japanese men. One result is that many marriage proposals are being declined, and another is the reversed attitude toward Westerners.
As far as travel tips are concerned, a business card is essential in Japan. You will be expected to have your contact information printed in Japanese on the reverse side of the card. As my associates in Berlin are now discovering, the rise of the Euro in recent weeks has increased the cost of living in Germany by at least 35 percent. This type of sticker shock has been apparent for over two decades in Japan. You can expect to pay $10 for a cup of coffee, a $70 cover charge at the major nightclubs, and $200 for a taxi ride from the airport. (Don’t try to open a taxi door, they are operated automatically by the driver.)
My favorite place is the Ginza district in central Tokyo where the five star hotels are located. This is a chic shopping area by day, but it transforms itself after 9 pm into a sophisticated nightlife district. I can not compare it to anything in the United States, and certainly not to Washington, D.C. In D.C., I would feel very old in the nightclubs, which are primarily oriented to people in their early 20s.
Japan of course has similar clubs, but they also have many upscale places for people over 30 (or in my case, over 40!). The most popular place now is the Lexington Queen. When a foreign celebrity of any kind comes to Tokyo, they often visit “The Lex”. It is considered a hangout for the beautiful people, and it caters to a well dressed crowd. Many were in formal attire.
Our group included Congressional staffers who were not on an expense account, and the Roppongi area was more affordable for them. Roppongi Crossing is like New York‘s Times Square. There’s no mandatory last call or closing time. It is common for bars and clubs to be open until 5 a.m. I do not drink, but I could not help but notice that drinking in the streets is common everywhere. Cans of beer are even sold from vending machines.
The bottom line is that I would strongly encourage anyone to visit Shanghai and Tokyo. The political atmosphere in both nations is fascinating, but even if you are visiting as a tourist, it is difficult not to have a rewarding experience.