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Japanese are worn out by roles in life

Published Oct. 9, 2005

Japan will fool you because it looks like America. It's not.

Our traveling band of journalists had been in Japan for several days before we realized that it was the most foreign place we had visited during five weeks in East Asia.

It's hard to explain why; entire books have been written about the differences between Japanese and Americans. Part of it is Americans' emphasis on individualism _ a dirty word in Japan _ and the Japanese ability to think and act as a group.

We have different values, play by different rules. It's amazing we get along as well as we do.

But in a visit of just 10 days, there is not time for deep analysis. There are only quick observations, which I pass on herewith:

The Japanese are exhausted. They have worked, as a group, non-stop since the end of World War II to build up their country. It shows in their success, and it shows in their bleary eyes.

Tokyo is an uptight, button-down city where men really do work 12 hours in the office, then go out drinking at night. Those hours are not always intense, we learned, and the day might include a very long lunch break. But it wrecks any semblance of home life. By midnight, the men are staggering into the subways, throwing up on their designer suits.

The Japanese fall asleep at every opportunity. During one lunch hour, we saw dozens of men snoozing in the lobby chairs of their office building. The bullet trains carried carloads of sleeping Japanese from town to town.

When awake, they are caffeine junkies. On every block, outdoor vending machines _ never broken, never vandalized _ sell an array of hot and cold coffee and tea drinks in cans. At every business meeting, coffee or tea in china cups is brought immediately, usually without asking.