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From Junior Scholastic Magazine
March 21, 1997 issue  


Once like a speeding bullet train, Japan seems to be slowing down.
© Randa Bishop

It is late Saturday afternoon in the Harajuku district of Tokyo, and the streets are crowded with young people. Some are shopping; others are just hanging out with friends.

Chika Tokoro, 12, and Tsugumi Onagi, 13, have stopped for hot chocolate and Coke at McDonald's. "I come to Harajuku once or twice a month," says Chika. "Today, I bought a poster of Takuya Kimura, he's a very popular singer here, like Elvis." Chika giggled and covered her mouth shyly with one hand. Not far away, some teens, dressed in '50s style clothes, were dancing to an Elvis Presley song. Nearby, other teens wearing neon-colored wigs and heavy black makeup waited for a concert by the X Japan rock group.

Chika is wearing blue jeans and sneakers, much like any teenager in the U.S. In many ways, Japanese teenagers look like their counterparts in the U.S. "When I was very young, between three and seven years old, I wore a kimono [kuh-MOH-no], the traditional Japanese robe, on very special occasions," says Chika. Today, however, blue jeans have become so common in Japan that young Japanese think of them as part of the Japanese lifestyle.

"America is cool, the fashion, the clothing, the food, like hamburgers and pizza," says Tsugumi, "and there's more freedom in America, more jobs and more opportunity for women. In Japan, it is tradition that the man works and the woman stays at home. Today in Japan, the man still can't come into the kitchen."

Two Different Countries

Blue jeans, pizza, McDonald's, and rock music, we could be talking about the U.S. But even though Japanese teens seem to like almost everything American, the two countries are very different.

The U.S. is the world's third-largest country in area, and has a population of 265.2 million people. Japan's population is nearly half as large. But its people are squeezed into a country that is not quite the size of California.

The U.S. spans an entire continent. Japan consists of four main islands and hundreds of smaller ones. Most of its people live along the coastlines because the interior of Japan is mountainous. As a result, Japan is one of the world's most densely populated countries.

Japan also is the world's second strongest economic power. People often talk about the "Japanese miracle." When World War II ended in 1945, Japan was a defeated nation. Its cities had been bombed, two with atomic weapons. U.S. forces occupied Japan after the war. The U.S. wanted to turn its former enemy into an ally. So it gave Japan financial, technical, and political support. With this help, and a lot of hard work, Japan rebuilt its economy into one of the world's strongest.

It was no easy job. Japan has almost no natural resources: It lacks iron ore, copper, and most other minerals needed by an industrial country. So Japan imports the raw materials it needs, and exports manufactured goods to countries around the world. The U.S., its largest trading partner, buys 22 percent of Japan's exports.

Made in Japan

If you take a look around your home, you probably will see many of these exports. Chances are you will find "Made in Japan" on everything from your Nintendo game to the TV set to your portable CD player. There also is a good chance that your family car is Japanese-made.

Japan's people enjoy one of the world's highest standards of living. For many years, the Japanese economy was growing so fast that some people predicted that Japan would become the richest country in the world, surpassing the U.S. "At the rate things are going, we are all going to end up working for the Japanese," said one U.S. economist a few years ago.

Today, the future does not look quite so rosy for Japan. Large international companies such as Honda, Toyota, and Sony are still setting records. But smaller companies, which make products sold mainly in Japan are hurting. Workers have lost their jobs.

What happened to the economy? For a long time, Japan's government protected its industries by making it difficult for foreign companies to sell products in Japan. As a result, many Japanese companies become out-of-date. Their products could no longer compete with those made by other countries.

This sent Japan's economy into a recession (business slowdown). Japan's stock market has lost half of its value from its 1989 peak. Japanese who own stock are scared that they have lost much of their savings. "As a shareholder, IÍm just terrified," said one 70-year-old.

what can be done? The Japanese government plans to reduce its regulation of the economy. It hopes that more competition will spur economic growth.

What Kind of Future?

What does this mean for teenagers like Chika and Tsugumi? They know that they face an uncertain future. Like most students, they study hard.

Chika and Tsugumi say that their hardest subject is Japanese. "It looks easy, but it's confusing," says Chika. Japanese students must learn three alphabets totaling more than 2000 characters, plus the 26 letters used in English.

The English language, like many other features of Western culture, has found its place in Japan. But the Japanese have a strong attachment to their own unique traditions. For example, baseball is one of Japan's favorite sports. But Sumo, an ancient Japanese style of wrestling, is equally popular.

This mix of traditional and Western cultures also is found in most homes. When Japanese people enter their homes, they remove their shoes and put on slippers. A typical Japanese room has a straw-mat floor covering called a tatami. Hisahi Aiba, 16, lives in a four-room apartment with tatami floor coverings. But his family also has an American-style sofa, bed, and bureau. "My home is 90-percent Western," he told JS.

Western food, such as hamburgers and french fries, is popular in Japan. But the traditional Japanese diet is very different. Rice is the basic crop, and one can see rice being grown in the backyards of homes.

Some Japanese foods may sound strange to Americans. Hisahi says, "I like jellyfish and eel, but I hate mushrooms."

His friend, Yasahiko Itho, says that he loves fish prepared in almost any way. "I especially love sushi [SOO-shee], which is raw fish wrapped in seaweed, but I donÍt like tomatoes."

Friendly Rivalry

Although Japan is in a recession, its manufacturers continue to compete with U.S.-made products around the world. Japanese TV manufacturers have just introduced four-inch-thick TV sets that can hang on the wall. The price, so far, is a steep $10,000.

Experts say that Japan's economy will bounce back, but that the Japanese face tough times ahead. "Japan cannot develop further," says one Japanese businessman, "if it does not become the world's economic front-runner."

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