In This Review

Straitjacket Society: An Insider's Irreverent View of Bureaucratic Japan
Straitjacket Society: An Insider's Irreverent View of Bureaucratic Japan
By Masao Miyamoto

This short book is both funny and saddening. It documents one man's struggle with Japanese bureaucracy as a member of it. The author is a psychiatrist with ten years' residence in the United States who returned to accept a mid-level management position in Japan's Ministry of Health and Welfare. The book draws on his frustrating experience there, supplemented by a stint at the Defense Agency. He describes the difficulty of taking a paid holiday, to which he was entitled; the pressure to stay at the office, even when there was nothing to do, for the sake of social cohesion; to go to after-office drinking sessions with the same objective; the routine verbal bullying. Efficiency, measured in hours spent per unit of useful output, was exceedingly low. Loyalty to the office and job are all important, totally subordinating personal life, which is stinted as a result. "Family" has high cultural value, but it means taking a spouse and having children, not otherwise interacting with them. Precedent is all-important in framing policy. Innovation is frowned upon unless it originates from overwhelming pressure from "outside," for example, irresistible domestic political or foreign pressure.

No doubt some of these characteristics can be found in all bureaucracies, private as well as public. Recall the pressures for conformity in dress and thought in American firms three decades ago. But Japan seems to carry pressures for group conformity and groupthink to an extreme. The author characterizes his country as totalitarian without a Big Brother.

The publication of this material in Japan contradicts so severe a judgment. It first appeared as a series of articles in a Japanese monthly, then as a book that became a best seller. The author's reward within the ministry, after repeated warnings about breaking a taboo on telling stories out of school, was to be transferred out of Tokyo headquarters to the port of Tokyo as quarantine officer, then to Yokohama, thence, after the book, even further away to Kobe. Destination Okinawa?