Sazae-san_Eight and a Half Million People

Another great comic strip from Machiko Hasegawa, in the book “The Best of Sazae-san: The Olympic Years“.

Sazae-san’s husband, Masuo, is coming home from work and bumps into a friend. It’s an excuse for Hasegawa to comment on the massive population of the world’s most populous city at the time – Tokyo – which in turn is an excuse for Masuo and his friend to have a drink.

Drinking alcohol in Japan has always been a significant part of Japanese society, the lubricant that eases interactions between people who ordinarily behave formally with each other, the softener that allows the hair to come down, and the relaxant that turns those frowns upside down.

This is especially true in the office life of Tokyo, where most of the populace commute via train and bus and thus have little concern about having a drink or two or three after work. And for the retired generation, those who remember the industrious days of the 1960s and 1970s, drinking together at parties and at company trips to the countryside was the best way to build camaraderie across teams and functions. Drinking with clients after a routine meeting or at the year-end parties were ideal ways to relax the tensions built up between salesmen and customers. It is called “nomunication“, a cross between the word “nomu” which is Japanese for the verb “to drink”, and communication. Here is how Japan Today describes it:

Japanese salespeople frequently woo their clients over drinks, knowing that although explicit deal making is never done during this type of socializing, a deal is rarely won with- out it. Of course, drinking to build trust is not just a Japanese custom. Across East Asia, whether you are working in China, Thailand, or Korea, doing a substantial amount of drinking with customers and collaborators is a common step in the trust-building process.

Many people from task-based cultures don’t get it. “Why would I risk making a fool of myself in front of the very people I need to impress?” they wonder. But that is exactly the point. When you share a round of drinks with a business partner, you show that person you have nothing to hide. And when they “drink until they fall down” with you, they show you that they are willing to let their guard down completely. “Don’t worry about looking stupid,” Hiroki reassured our German manager, who had begun wringing his hands nervously. “The more you are willing to remove social barriers in the evening, the more they will see you as trustworthy.”

drinking in japan_JT

Times are changing. Alcohol consumption among men is dropping, while alcohol consumption among Japanese women is rising. Additionally, Japanese in their 20s and 30s are less likely to go drinking with company colleagues or clients at a drop of the hat as a desire for independence has grown in recent decades. I am an internal consultant in leadership development, and I remember a conversation about a Japanese leader who had strong leadership potential in sales, but was given negative feedback because he didn’t drink alcohol. “How could he shmooze the clients if he didn’t drink with them”, went the argument. Thankfully, executives in that company ignored that particular criteria, enabling that leader to climb the ranks.

Kanpai! I’ll drink to that!

Sazae-san_I'm Against Price of Bath Going Up

Japan’s economy is not terrible. Nor is it robust. Generally speaking, the Japanese economy has been pushing hard against the weight of deflation with little result. GDP has dropped, and so have average wages. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, through his mixture of fiscal stimulus, monetary easing and structural reforms, so-called Abenomics, is striving to get momentum rolling the other way, driving inflation and wages up, and getting people consuming and the economy pumping.

In the early 1960s, the economy was booming. And while inflation didn’t appear to be getting out of hand, at least according to the numbers, people like Machiko Hasegawa felt it. She wrote about it in her comic strip, Sazae-san. In the strip above, from the book, The Best of Sazae-san – The Olympic Years“, Hasegawa-san is able to reflect the average citizen’s perception that the price of everything is going up.

And in the strip below about people commuting on a bus, Hasegawa-san is showing that everybody was feeling the pinch.

And yet, it wasn’t by no means a desperate time for Japan. It was indeed a time of optimism and hope. After all, the Olympics were in Japan.

Sazae-san_Not Much Inside

Sazae-san_Looking Out for the Sad Student

I really didn’t expect to see such a dark scene in a Sazae-san comic strip. But there it was.

Sazae-san notices a sad student walking out of the school grounds where exam results were posted. Sazae-san is so concerned that she follows the student, and is relieved to see her return safely home. What was Sazae-san worrying about? Maybe this young woman would be so distraught she would try to do harm to herself.

In Japan, these exam results determine whether you get into the school you want: Tokyo University, Kyoto University, Keio University or Waseda University, for example. Graduating from those prestigious schools will likely determine your short-term career, as well as your long-term life prospects. Parents, grandparents and the children themselves realize that a lot is riding on their chances to pass these university exams.

Japan has always had relatively high suicide rates, as you can see in the chart below. These days, Japan’s rate is about 60% higher than the global average. Back when Machiko Hasegawa was penning these Sazae-san cartoons, the suicide rate was significantly higher.

Suicide deaths per 100000 trend

So suicides were a concern of the day. And while it is unclear whether there was a strong correlation between suicides and young people under tremendous academic pressure, it certainly was in the cultural conversation. Here are two more cartoon strips from the book The Best of Sazae-san – The Olympic Years“, illustrating the fear that one student has just trying to learn whether he passed a university exam or not, and another showing the level of deception that Sazae-san’s brother Katsuo is willing to go to in order to explain how he is doing in school to his father.

Sazae-san_I passed telescope

Sazae-san_I Passed

Sazae-san_You Didn't Do Your Homework Thief

Japan is an incredibly safe city. With over 13 million strangers jampacked together, you might think that the crime and violence that plague other cities in the West might be evidenced in Tokyo. But that isn’t the case.

I won’t go into factors here. But I was surprised to see that in the world of Sazae-san in the early 1960s, crime was not an unknown quantity. In the cartoon at the top of the page from the book The Best of Sazae-san – The Olympic Years“, Sazae-san jokes about the incompetence of a con-man. In the cartoons below, the illustrator Machiko Hasegawa is able to make light of kidnapping and theft.

Sazae-san_Don't Worry I Won't Kidnap You


Sazae-san_It Was a Cheapie

The reality is, crime may very well have been on the minds of many Japanese in Tokyo at the time. As this line graph of violent crime rates from 1950 to 1996, Japan actually had higher rates of violent crime than Sweden, the United States and the UK in the late 1950s early 1960s. That was likely a product of the post-war years as Japan was crawling its way out of a decimated landscape, both economically and physically.

Total Violent Crime Rates 1950 to 1996
From the book, The Great Disruption, by Francis Fukuyama

Another popular signal of this anxiety was the powerful 1963¬†film, “High and Low”, by director Akira Kurosawa, starring actor Toshiro Mifune as a rich industrialist who must come to grips with the kidnapping of a child. Here is a wonderful summary and analysis of the film by New York Times film critic, A. O. Scott.

The Best of Sazae-san

Sazae-san is one of the most well-known comic characters in Japan. Created, written and illustrated by Machiko Hasegawa from the 1940s to the 1970s, Hasegawa’s characters are as much a part of the average Japanese psyche as the Yomiuri Giants, a platter of soba, or Natsume Soseki.

Hasegawa wrote about the everyday lives of an average Japanese family, the Isonos. Her genius was to illustrate normal activities as vignettes, and controversial topics in sweet and innocent frames. I found many examples of this in a recently published book of her cartoons translated into English, called “The Best of Sazae-san – The Olympic Years“. It was a delight to read about the issues the average citizen in Tokyo were dealing with in the 1960s.

Here is one comic strip that deals with an issue linked to the Olympics.

Sazae-san_I'm Against the Olympic Road


Cities all over the world were building highways and expanding roads into avenues to accommodate the explosion of automobiles on the road. Tokyo was no exception. And when Tokyo was selected as the host of the 1964 Summer Olympics in 1959, urban planners saw this as an opportunity to transform Tokyo.

One of the roads that passed through a somewhat wealthy, somewhat sleepy part of Tokyo, was called Aoyama Doori (Aoyama Road). Aoyama Doori connected Shibuya and Ginza, and was one of the noisiest and busiest thoroughfares in the city. In addition to the expectation that traffic would get worse was the general expectation that infrastructure changes related to the Olympic Games would accelerate the pace of change and pain. City planners insisted that Aoyama Doori be widened dramatically, from 22 meters to 40 meters.

Watch this video from the 2:15 minute mark to 7 minute 45 second mark to see what Aoyama Doori was like in the early 1960s.

Dealing with the tremendous change was a challenge to the citizens of Tokyo, the most populous city in the world. The change created tremendous stress for its citizens. Hasegawa recognized this stress. But in her sweet particular way, she laced her negativity with sentimentality. Why is Sazae-san’s younger brother, Katsuo against the widening or building of a road in the cartoon? Not because of the impact to people and commerce, but because of the impact on a bird’s nest.

Against the Road Expansion!
“Against the widening of the road!” Screenshot from the EdX video for the course “Visualizing Postwar Tokyo, Part 1”