June 2, 2023
SEOUL – A few weeks ago, I visited Japan for the first time in four years. I expected to find many changes but was surprised to find things almost the same as they were in 2019. Compared to South Korea and the US, where some pandemic era innovations have become the norm, Japan feels the most like 2019. As I traveled, I began to wonder why and came up with several possible answers.
Compared to South Korea and the US, Japanese society changes more slowly. Japanese organizations are wary of sudden change and take their time to adapt to new conditions. Japanese lifestyles also change slowly, though the country has plenty of fads and fashion. This does not mean that Japanese resist change, as some in the English-language media assert, but rather that change comes slowly, at a pace that people can absorb.
Against this background, the sudden imposition of pandemic measures and restrictions was never viewed as a change, but a temporary response to a crisis. To Japanese people, the pandemic era was never a “new normal,” as some in the US media asserted, but an emergency that would resolve itself in time. This explains why strict measures were quickly lifted when health authorities declared the emergency over.
The inherent conservativeness of Japan also explains why the Liberal Democratic Party has been able to rule since 1955, except for two brief periods from 1993 to 1994 and again from 2009 to 2012. The party is the stable norm, whereas other parties are viewed as too risky to govern.
Another reason is the slower adoption of tech in daily life. On the world stage, Japan has long been a leader in technology and remains so today, but penetration of information technology into daily life is less than in South Korea or the US. Instead of forcing people to adapt to IT, Japan offers an “analog option” with human interaction for those who prefer that mode or need assistance. Ticket windows are well staffed, and cash is still king.
Many Japanese websites that I used for travel planning look as if they have not been updated since the 1990s. At first this struck me as odd, but I later realized that instead of using algorithms or AI to make decisions for me, as has become common in the US, the websites show all the choices and let me decide. Prices are often given in the static part of the site, which suggests that dynamic pricing is not used. Extra costs are clearly noted and do not appear suddenly during checkout.
Social behavior also appears to have changed less than in South Korea or the US. In the case of the US, political polarization and instability explains much of the tension that affects social behavior. During the pandemic, resistance to mask requirements led to confrontations on planes and throughout society. South Korea avoided quarrels over masking, but political and social tensions make their way to the surface. Heavy use of social media and social pressure, particularly on women, regarding appearance weighs heavily on young Koreans. Meanwhile, 30 percent of teenage women in the US report experiencing depression during the past year.
Recent changes in suicide rates suggest degrees of social tension. Rates in Japan peaked around 2000 and have fallen steadily since. In South Korea, they peaked in the early 2010s and have fallen slightly, but remain the highest in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. Meanwhile, in the US suicide rates have continued to climb and remain at historical highs.
As my visit to Japan moved along, I came to appreciate the analog option as a break from IT. Instead of looking at a screen, I could look around and see the world. Several times, I felt as if I had gone back to the 20th century of my early adulthood; it was charming and nostalgic.
I also began to wonder how long the country will be able to maintain the analog option. Changes in Japan are slow, but as time moves along, people who avail themselves of the analog option will continue to decrease. The slow pace of change, however, may help Japan avoid the worst of the social tensions that South Korea and the US have experienced.
For South Korea and the US, Japan stands as a reminder that rapid change is hard for people to absorb and that agency is important in the process of adjustment. People need to feel that they, not some digital force, are in charge of their lives.
Robert J. Fouser, a former associate professor of Korean language education at Seoul National University, writes on Korea from Providence, Rhode Island. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. — Ed.