It’s Long Overdue … Let’s Lose This “Winner vs Loser” Mentality
I recently heard again that all-too-familiar expression, this time from a bright, well-mannered Japanese college youth, one of our recent “home-stay” students on short-term English language courses. Describing his future employment prospects, he said: “If I’m hired by a big corporation as a regular employee, I can be one of the kachi gumi (literally “the winners’ set“) all the way to retirement.” There it was again: kachi gumi vs make gumi (hereafter KG vs MG), i.e. Winners vs Losers. That was the advice of his dad, himself a corporate executive, and his son whole-heartedly goes along with it.
“Any chance you might come to Canada to work after graduation?”
“Well… no, because I would lose out in the race up the corporate ladder.” A sensible reply, to be sure, from a young man who knows full well that finding employment as a “regular corporate employee” is just about the only way to get ahead in today’s Japan. A big social/political issue now is the steadily-growing number of ‘temporary employees” from so-called recruit agencies, who receive no benefits and who can be terminated any time without compensation.
Of course it’s only human nature, regardless of race, culture, or religion, to be envious from time to time of someone who seems to possess qualities or material assets we don’t have, as I can personally attest. But I couldn’t agree with the young man’s ready acceptance of dividing people into two distinct groups, “winners vs. losers.” In the “West,” the integrity of any individual is, in principle, deemed worthy of respect regardless of his or her social status, how rich or poor, or even age, because under the eyes of God everyone is equal. While there is social discrimination between rich and poor folks, absent is some constant collective consciousness of belonging to the KG or the MG group. An old couple feeding on vegetables grown in their back yard could be perfectly content with no loss of self-respect.
What about in the “East?” More specifically I mean Tokyo where I was born and raised till age 10, Singapore where I lived and worked, starting a family with two kids, as well as Malaysia, Myanmar, Thailand, Indonesia, the Philippines and elsewhere that I visited both on Singapore media assignments and as a tourist. It seemed individuals with most influence and biggest voices mostly belonged to the, let’s say, “winners” such as top politicians and business executives, inheritors of the “old money,” popular personalities and other public figures.
Working for an English language daily and later for Singapore Airlines’ and Myanmar Airways’ inflight magazines (both Japanese and English editions), I noticed that graduate employees in Singapore, Malaysia and elsewhere in Southeast Asia didn’t have as much say as their counterparts in Japan, because even if they were protégés/protégées of individual superiors, there were no powerful cliques within the corporate structures as there are in Japan. Personally, as I was a little older and working within the familiar realm of English-language journalism, I tried to mix it up as much as possible with the editors, resorting to self-deprecating humour and even sarcasm that I’d picked up during my years with Reuters news agency in London.
One of my friends in that newspaper was an Indian-Malaysian business news reporter from Penang, who used to criticize Singaporeans (3/4 of them Chinese) for their “money is everything” values. “In India,” he used to say, “people respect the Brahmins (the highest of the Hindus’ four castes) regardless of how rich or how poor they may be.”
The KG vs MG mentality figures prominently in Ms Sayaka Murata’s novel Konbini ningen (literally “Convenience Store Person”), the 2016 winner of the prestigious Akutagawa Award in literature. The story is about a 30-something woman who, like the growing number of reluctant bachelors and spinsters well into “marriageable” age in today’s Japan, prefers to remain single because she finds fulfilment as a convenience store clerk, a job she began as a part-timer as a student 18 years ago.
As you know, konbini stores are nowadays visited practically every day by neighbourhood people in Japan’s myriad cities and towns, from young and old housewives, full-time office workers and part-time workers to students of all ages, grandpas and grandmas and little kids. As such, Ms Murata’s novel is also a stinging satire on contemporary Japanese urban life.
The KG vs MG mentality that is so important in the power dynamics between and among the store manager and the clerks. One fellow well into his 30s, who can only find employment as a convenience store clerk, gripes about the store manager who had chewed him out. “He is acting like a big man but let’s face it, the hired manager of a small store like this is with the Make Gumi. Don’t act big if you’re at the bottom of the heap yourself…the guy is full of crap!” Perceiving human relations only in terms of KG vs MG – a majority of Japanese today seem to fall into this category. I hope I’m wrong.
But how about those people at the very bottom of the social ladder, who are just getting by, who hardly have the time to worry about KG vs MG? What do they live for from day to day? I happened to read in the Christian journal Kokoro-no-tomo (1/8/2016) about a “Mr Naito” who for over half a century has been running cheap sake and yakitori dives in various parts of Tokyo’s infamous Sanya district populated mostly by day labourers staying in doss houses.
Mr Naito says, “Many of these seniors think they’ve lived a life of Make Gumi. So I tell them not to think like that. I stress that they’re the unsung heroes who are behind Japan’s post-war recovery.” I think of the sports stadiums designed by Japan’s famous architects for the 1964 Tokyo Olympic Games that ushered in Japan’s high-growth era. These magnificent facilities would not have been built if not for the efforts of the on-site workmen who laid the concrete.
Does the KG vs MG mentality exist in Canada? Having lived in Vancouver for some 19 years, I’m still not quite sure. But I do note that Canadians generally don’t like to brag or tell tall stories. Maybe a Canadian who has just bought an expensive sports car, who might be feeling a little like Kachi Gumi on the inside would try not to show it on his or her face. What about the Japanese Canadian community? Is there still some KG vs MG mentality out there? I may try to tackle this super sensitive issue one day, but please remember, I said “may try.”
Is there a way to transcend this KG vs MG mentality? One of my favorite essayists Junko Sakai, who does book reviews for the weekly Shukan Bunshun recently (2016/9/15 ) reviewed a book by a writer who had travelled to the top 13 countries in a “happiness index” ranking. She writes: “It may me realize yet again that It is possible to create your own form of happiness by yourself. There are various forms of happiness, and the greatest enemy of the happiness of consumption is comparison with others.”
Precisely. My experiences at age 70-something have been that the true measure of a person is not directly determined by his or her social status, wealth or poverty, nationality, culture or religion. How true, albeit hackneyed, is the old adage: “Money can’t buy happiness.” So let’s stop comparing ourselves with others at each turn.