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Tech & Innovation
NOV 28, 2016

Why AI means more time for matsuri

By Karl O’Callaghan

Being a 40-something non-Japanese leaving a job in Tokyo to move to the countryside seems to make me a little bit different from your average person in this part of the world. I’ve been receiving a number of invitations to interesting and exciting activities and events. 

On Sunday, November 6th, I was invited to a talk event at the opening of a facility for the study of Japanese traditional culture in Himeji.

Along with the Hyogo Prefectural Governor, Toshizo Ido; a professor of music and shakuhachi expert, Satoshi Shimura; and an arts and culture producer, Masako Hamada, we discussed questions surrounding the importance of the provinces in disseminating culture, and how to share Japanese traditional culture overseas.

External view of Japanese culture

I was asked to give the view from gaikoku on Japanese traditional culture. Gaikoku literally translates as “outside country” and refers to the rest of the world outside Japan.

The word gaikoku betrays a view of the world with Japan at the inside (uchi) and everything else on the outside (soto). The uchi-soto dichotomy is both Japan’s strength and weakness. It’s a strength because it has allowed Japan to develop a strong cultural identity and keep it, even in the face of globalization. It is a weakness because without true external influence, Japan is very set in its ways with usually only one right way to do anything.

This reluctance to see things differently can and does hamper creativity and innovation. A case in point: my elder daughter goes to a class to practice kanji (Chinese characters). Her teacher often tells her she is writing the kanji in the wrong stroke order. For a Westerner, it is hard to understand that if the final product looks the same, why the process matters so much. Japanese are taught to accept, not to ask why. My daughter is Japanese, but she’s also British. And she’s also only seven. There’s plenty of time sadly for the question of why to be educated out of her. But with the pace of change, will she even be writing kanji by hand on paper when she leaves school in ten to fifteen years’ time?

A new identity?

The world including Japan is changing at a very fast pace. Maybe we all wish the last six months were all just a dream, but in the cases of Brexit and Trump, large communities of people voted for change because they felt they have no job security. The scapegoat in both of these cases was globalization. Politicians pinning the blame on other communities of immigrants or foreigners managed to convince millions to vote for them or their cause. But what is missing from the narrative is the forward march of technology. 

Culture helps during drastic change

With the Fourth Industrial Revolution already under way, even young people find the pace very fast. We all need something to cling onto: that thing is culture. Recently, the same daughter and I got up early on a weekend to take part in the local matsuri. She asked “Why do we have to get up to carry a portable shrine down the road?” I say “Community is why”. We need to do things with the people around us, be part of the world.

While Japan has done better than most countries at keeping hold of its identity through traditional culture, younger people are choosing baseball instead of bunraku, soccer instead of sado, movies instead of matsuri, and Pokémon Go instead of rakugo. But old or new, community is community and culture is culture.

Technology means more time

Automation and AI have also been advancing over the last few decades and are now moving forward at an inexorable pace replacing human jobs. As Martin Ford points out in his 2009 book, The Lights in the Tunnel, while globalization has accounted for many jobs in developed countries going overseas, automation has also meant the average factory is producing more with fewer people than it ever did before. Big Data and Robotics are promising more of the same. Many are either losing jobs or accepting lower level jobs. Jobs for life are the exception now, not the rule. 

There’s also the recent case in Japan of Matsuri Takahashi, who it was revealed died of suicide due to overwork at Dentsu. Downsizing was said to have caused the need to overwork. I speculate, but maybe it was partly that, maybe partly the Japanese 9-to-last-train working culture that says if you’re junior, you have to leave last.

Automation is here to make us more efficient. That should put an end to overwork. Or at least reduce it so that a 60- or 40-hour workweek becomes a thing of the past. But it will also put many people out of work completely.

If more people have more time, they can spend that time on family and leisure rather than work, whether that means playing or coaching baseball, watching or performing bunraku, or attending the local matsuri. Now all we need to do is solve the bigger problem of income, and how all these automated companies will sell to people with lots of time but no money…