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East Meets West : “On Harmony”

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by Midori Yamamoto

Aiki News #33 (March 1979)

I recently received a letter from a Japanese friend of mine who is teaching at an American, university. He writes, “I’m caught in a “publish or perish rat-race.” He is a promising young economist selected for a teaching position in one of the most prestigious private universities immediately after finishing his graduate study in America. According to him, even his present post obtained through an incredibly severe screening process is not at all a stable one. He will be unable to receive tenure unless he produces a particularly outstanding work within five years of the time of his employment. This internal “rat-race” for tenure is extremely intense. For example, at Harvard the tenure-rate is a mere one percent, he reports. That is, only one teacher out of a hundred will qualify to remain at the university through retirement age. The losers of this race for academic survival will be compelled to seek employment in a less highly regarded institute. The situation seems to be largely the same in other universities. This is only one example, however, it was enough to convince me of the highly competitive nature of American society.

By way of comparison, in Japan where a traditional “lifetime-employment” system continues to prevail, once one is hired whether by an academic institution or commercial enterprise, “tenure” is automatic until retirement age. If an individual’s productive output falls within the normal range, then he will be promoted almost as a matter of course in accordance with a “seniority system.” Consequently, employees need not frantically engage in heated competition in a survival for existence. The prevalent atmosphere in the working environment is one of “family-like” harmony. For this reason, if a young person tries to hasten his advancement, he is apt to invite such criticism as “You’re overstepping your position” or “You’re breaking the ‘harmony’.” This writer was formerly employed in a large company where the kindly advice of one of the senior staff to enthusiastic new recruits was, “A nail which sticks out is sure to be hammered back into place (A Japanese proverb) , so if you want to advance yourselves, be sure to move forward only half a step at a time.” If American society requires individuals to exert themselves to their utmost in competition with others, Japanese society, on the other hand, values the concept of harmony (“wa”) above competition. I wonder if it is not a social necessity to give special consideration to human relationships because of the long period of interaction up through retirement age. I remember that in primary school a teacher signing our class album at graduation time wrote simply “harmony.”

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